(This is the 19th article in a series of articles describing how contentment and satisfaction with life after divorce depends on being able to dissolve the very human resistance to the changes that divorce imposes on our lives.)
What Exactly Is the Prize?
The overall Divorce Transition Process goes through three distinct stages: (1) Getting divorced, (2) Recovering from the divorce, and (3) Establishing a new life as a single person. Each stage has distinctly different goals, or “prizes.”
The goal for the Divorce Stage is: Get UNCOUPLED. The goal for the Divorce Recovery Stage is: Dissolve ATTACHMENTS. The goal for Establishing a New Life is: Craft the NEW YOU.
This article focuses on the goal for Stage 2, Divorce Recovery: Dissolve All ATTACHMENTS to your ex and the life you shared.
What Is an “Attachment” and Why Is It a Problem?
The death knell for any successful recovery from divorce is persistently holding on to attachments to your ex and to your past life together.
So, what exactly is an “attachment?”
By attachment, I mean any positive or negative emotional reaction we connect to a person, object, or event in our life. If we still have emotional reactions to our ex and the life we shared together in the past, we cannot fully participate in the present, let alone plan for the future.
You can’t eliminate what occurred in your past. However, you can, and must, dissolve the strong positive and negative emotional reactions to your memories of those events.
Attachments come in two types: tangible attachments and relationship-based attachments.
Tangible Attachments .
All attachments, including tangible attachments, come with emotional connections to the past.
For example, a short list of typical tangible attachments that need to be eliminated include such things as legal documents and other legal entanglements, memorabilia, sentimental objects, joint checking accounts, shared credit cards, pictures, gifts, shared social media accounts and email, common passwords and security codes, keys to your house or apartment, past email documents, beneficiary designation in your will, and joint ownership of real estate, cars, and gym memberships.
The first step in handling many tangible attachments is to physically eliminate them.
Relationship-based attachments, both positive and negative, are especially difficult to dissolve because the strong emotions you associate with them are intensely personal. Plus, your brain incorrectly interprets these emotions as evidence of a current, ongoing long-term relationship with each other.
After a divorce, lingering negative relationship-based attachments can be expressed by continued fighting, seeking revenge, demanding that your ex apologize, expecting the ex to explain why he or she wanted out of the marriage, expecting the ex to be respectful and nice and admit that he or she “did you wrong.”
Positive relationship-based attachments also cause problems and can be expressed by wanting to “remain friends,” continuing to chat over the phone or email, meeting for coffee, etc.
A client of mine wanted to maintain a friendship with his ex. He realized his mistake when, after a pleasant beginning to a conversation at Starbucks, his ex started screaming at him for ruining her life. Post-divorce friendships are best avoided, at least until both parties are secure in their new life situations.
Strong Positive and Negative Reactions Mean You Are Still in Relationship with Your Ex
As long as your memories of your ex trigger strong positive and/or negative reactions, you will remain locked in the past because your emotions make it feel like you are currently living as if the past were actually the present.
The important thing to realize is that having positive and negative feelings toward your memory of your ex implies you are still in a relationship with him/her. That is what people in long-term, committed intimate relationships do. They love each other and they have conflicts with each together.
However, after a divorce, the two partners are no longer in a relationship. Hence, continuing to behave as if they are still partners, or even close friends, is extremely confusing. It not only inhibits your recovery but also lengthens the time required to “get over your divorce and move on.”
So, you may ask, “If I have to change my emotional reactions to my memories of the past with my ex, what do I change them to?”
Enter the Friendly Indifferent Relationship.
How “Friendly Indifference” Saves the Day
After a divorce, the goal of divorce recovery is to change your relationship with your ex to one with no emotional investment. This literally means you are totally and completely emotionally indifferent to your ex and what he/she does, when he/she does it, how he/she does it, where he/she does it, and with whom he/she does it.
For example, when you are walking down the street and a completely normal stranger walks your way minding his own business, are you overcome with affection, anger, resentment, hope, revulsion? Of course not. You do not know him, you have no relationship with him, and you have no emotional attachment to him. You could care less what he does, how he does it, when he does it, where he does it, or with whom he does it. He simply does not occupy any position in your life. He is for all intents and purposes, a complete “nonentity” to you. You can live your life as if this person does not even exist. In other words, you are completely indifferent to this person and what he thinks, feels, and does. This is the goal of how your thinking must change toward your ex.
Fact of life: Your relationship with you ex is over. And when you allow yourself to become friendly, but indifferent to your ex, then you are free to move into the next chapter of your life without the baggage of your marriage holding you back.
What If You Do Have to Interact?
Sometimes you do have to interact with your ex, especially if you have children. It is extremely important to realize and accept that, even though your ex looks like the same person you were married to, you are no longer a couple. You no longer have a personal or intimate relationship with him/her.
If you do have to interact, you treat the relationship as an “administrative” or “business” relationship with no personal emotional connection involved. You goal is to act much like you would when interacting with a bank teller when cashing a check or interacting with a customer service representative when returning a defective product at Best Buy. You are friendly, factual, and complete your business. Then you leave and go on about your day.
So, What’s the Point?
I know, this may sound extreme. You say, “I lived with this person for years, and now I am supposed to believe he/she doesn’t exist?” No, that is not what I am saying. I agree, you lived with this person for years and you have a shared history.
However, you are now making the transition from being coupled with that person to starting a new chapter in your life without that person in it. To do that successfully, you need to sever your emotional attachments to your life with your ex that you had built up over all those years. You get to keep the memories. But you must release the emotions those memories used to trigger.
The choice becomes: Will you indulge in the emotions triggered by your memories to the detriment of a successful recovery from divorce? Or, will you keep your eye on the prize and allow the good and the bad memories to morph into a feeling of friendly indifference that will enable you to recover rapidly and successfully from divorce?
How are you supposed to do this?
Dissolving Resistance to Change is the Key
Letting go of your emotional reactions to the life you lived with your ex and replacing them with a detached, but friendly, indifference represents a huge change in how you think about your ex and your life. Making this change will be met by significant resistance.
The key to having a successful recovery is in dissolving that resistance. The result will be having formerly strong emotional reactions to your ex replaced by a new, profound sense of indifference. Only then will you be truly freed up from the baggage of the past and be ready to forge into your new future.