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Divorce Recovery and Loss – Are You Grieving “Losses” You Never Lost?

By Jerald Young, Ph.D.

This article answers the question, “Did I really lose everything I think I lost?”

Are you sometimes overwhelmed by everything you have lost in your divorce? Have you ever wondered if you will ever get past the grief and get on with your life? It doesn’t have to be this way! Read why the picture is almost always rosier than it feels.

Divorce recovery is tough enough without our making it unnecessarily difficult, isn’t it? Aren’t the losses we endure quite enough to deal with without adding more imagined losses to the pile? The obvious answer to these questions is, of course, “Yes.” However, we routinely ignore the obvious when dealing with the fallout from our divorce and increase the difficulty of our recovery by assuming imaginary losses to be real.

Our Emotion-Bases Reactions to Divorce Exaggerate Our Perceived Losses

Divorce brings distress over what we have lost. It also brings a fear of an unknown future. These heightened emotion-based reactions cause us to exaggerate what our actual losses are. Minor issues become huge problems. The real issues get lost in the fog of perception and imagination. Our vision of the situation gets distorted and it becomes virtually impossible to see and solve the divorce recovery problems we are facing. Thus, we routinely think we have lost much more than we have. This makes an already difficult situation even more difficult. It doesn’t need to be this way.

Intangible Losses Are Harder to Grieve than Tangible Losses

Loss comes in two types – tangible and intangible. Tangible losses hurt. Losing the house, car, financial security, or the comfort of the daily family routine is not fun. But at least the nature of the problem is clear and how to solve the problems is known. It is the intangible losses in the form of lost hopes, dreams, and cherished beliefs that cause the most havoc. They are not as clear cut, or obvious and, therefore, are most vulnerable to exaggeration and distortion.

For example, some of the most common laments I hear from recently divorced folks are, “I will NEVER find true love again. I will ALWAYS be alone.” “My best years are BEHIND me.” These people have assumed that their original dream of living a fulfilling life with someone they love and want to grow old with is now utterly IMPOSSIBLE. The loss feels overwhelming. A typical reaction is to jump to the conclusion that we will NEVER realize our hopes and dreams without our ex as our partner.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

A Personal Experience with Unnecessarily Grieving an Imagined Loss

I carry around a picture album in my head with all of my hopes and dreams for the future. We all do. Several years ago, I was married to Anne. I had a picture in my head of what my retirement was going to look like. There was a cabin on the side of a mountain in North Carolina with a huge porch overlooking a big valley with a clear-water stream running through it. Anne and I are sitting in rocking chairs watching three of our grand kids jump on and off the porch, on and off our laps. A pretty picture.

Then reality struck. One afternoon Anne came home and announced, “I want a divorce.” I was devastated, partly because a divorce meant I would never realize my dream of a picture-perfect retirement cabin in North Carolina.

A few days later while grieving the loss my North Carolina retirement dream, I realized, “Wait a minute! I CAN have the cabin in North Carolina if I want it! North Carolina is not going anywhere. The cabin will still be there. Rocking chairs are plentiful.” I did not lose the entire picture. I DID NOT lose my dream. I only lost the person in the picture sitting next to me. I could still have my dream environment, and if I choose to, I could share it with someone new.

The realization that my personal hopes and dreams for the future were not lost was powerful. It gave me some much-needed control over my grieving and divorce recovery process.

So, What’s the Point? Don’t Grieve It If You Didn’t Lose It!

We do not have to grieve anything we did not lose! We can focus on our actual losses, and not waste our time and energy on the imaginary ones.

What I suggest you do when dealing with the loss that comes with divorce, is figure out what you are truly going to lose and grieve ONLY what you actually lost. Ask yourself, “Am I really going to lose all of it? Or, just a part of it? Could it be that I am not going to lose it at all?” You probably should ask a friend to provide a “reality check” to help determine if your assessment of the losses is accurate.

If you do this, your transition from divorce hell to a satisfying, successful life after divorce will be easier, faster and less traumatic. You will also feel some much needed control over your recovery from divorce.

If you are still in a marriage that doesn’t seem to be working out even after putting in all the efforts, then, perhaps it’s time to talk to a family divorce attorney to start the process of divorce.

Divorce and the holidays: what a head trip!

Smooth Divorce Recovery, the Halloween edition.

Q: What do they teach in witching school?
A:  Ask my ex, she graduated with honors.

Q: Why does a witch ride a broom?
A: Because her ex got the car in the divorce.

Q: Why did the devil marry the mummy?
A: I don’t care, he can see whoever he wants.

It’s almost Halloween, and you know what that means for everyone divorced or currently divorcing: The official opening of The Holiday Haunting Season.

This is the time of the year that our dashed (or perceived dashed) hopes and dreams materialize like ghosts of Christmas Past to terrify and intimidate us. The old pictures of how things were, and especially of how things were “supposed to be,” emerge out of the mist and suck the life out of our hope and conviction that life is good and there is still something vibrant and alive to live for.

In fact, just today a TV ad reminded me, through song, that this is “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Thank you for sharing, but no thank you.

Ending a relationship is tough, but then add some seasonal messages about family, love, and picture-perfect moments. Ever-present holiday music that brings back memories. Questions like, “Who gets the kids on Christmas eve?”, “What’s wrong with having Thanksgiving dinner alone at my favorite bar?” and “What if I have to spend New Year’s Eve alone?”.

Now you’ll have a picture of the train wreck that can happen when divorce meets Auld Lang Syne.

The onslaught of holiday messaging will soon be upon us, and depending on where you are in your divorce recovery, I want you to remember a few basic truths:

If you’ve been divorced a while, but the holidays bring back feelings of regret and loss over that past marriage…
I want you to know that it’s normal to feel surprisingly sad, confused, and even seemingly longing for how things used to be. Often, we get confused when positive thoughts or memories about our past marriage creep back into our minds, even if it was in our best interest to end it. This is normal. It’s okay to feel ambivalent.

It’s also okay to feel sad about the end of the relationship. Some of your heart-felt hopes and dreams died there. But if feelings of regret and loss aren’t limited to the holidays, it’s possible that you’re NOT quite completely over your divorce yet. Time to take inventory.  Take a look at the current level of stress you are experiencing over the divorce.  Then, be open to completing any unfinished business left undone.

If you’re going through a divorce now…
I want you to know that you’re not alone. Many people have been exactly where you are. Almost forty percent of the adult population has been through a divorce. They will understand, if you just reach out to them. You may also talk to your divorce attorney and ask for some advice. And while your greatest pain may be the loss of things to come, it doesn’t mean your future is completely void of holiday memories to be cherished. In fact, most of the holiday hopes and dreams you “used to have” still exist. Those dreams were yours, not your ex’s. They are waiting there to be scooped up and have life breathed into them again.

The holidays conjure up our idealized dreams about how we hoped life would be. Just because those fantasies are not our current reality does not mean that your reality cannot be beautiful, hopeful, satisfying, and rewarding in its own right. Our task is to acknowledge the dreams and enjoy the bountiful harvest of good that our reality has to offer. Dreams are good. Life is good, also.

Remember, holidays are a head trip. Will we focus on the good that we’ve lost, or will we focus on the good we now have to look forward to? This is our challenge.

Over the next few months, we’ll talk about the aspects of divorce recovery, as well as specific tactics for getting through the holiday season. If you have specific questions, just email me and I’ll address them in this blog. By the way, the real answers to the riddles are:

-Spelling.

-Vacuum cleaners get stuck at the end of the cord.

– and okay, we totally made this last one up.

The holidays happen every year. We’ll get through them again…. I promise you.

Celebrating divorce? Doesn’t mean you’re over it.

There’s a popular term in our culture today: “closure”.

Well-meaning friends may decide that a clever cake, some beers with the boys, or an indulgent vacation will help a friend achieve “closure” after a divorce. And all too often, we tend to think that a new relationship or another marriage signifies that someone is “definitely over it!”

But here’s the real truth: A judge’s signature on a piece of paper doesn’t erase our hopes and dreams for what we wanted in marriage. We mistakenly assume that we’ll shed the past, much like a snake sheds its skin, and get on with life without looking back.

However, it just doesn’t work that way.

That’s why the first stage in the Smooth Divorce Recovery Program is called Stabilize the Present.  At the very beginning, I work with clients to sort out their real losses from the perceived losses and get a clear picture of their situation, identify their personal resources for this transition in their life, and assess just how much they’re accepting the transition of divorce. Whether someone is recently divorced or still carrying the wounds from a relationship that ended ten years ago, the Divorce Recovery Stress Indicator helps identify their barriers to enjoying life after divorce.

I won’t deny there’s real value in having a strong support system, and a rich slice of cake can make anyone feel better about a failed relationship — in the moment. But in the long run, a successful recovery from divorce takes highly focused action. Which ultimately makes the beer, the indulgent vacation or the clever cake all that much sweeter.