In 2001, I had just begun dating the man who would later become my husband. I remember him saying then, “Just wait, the love will only get better with time.” Fast-forward 15 years to a conversation we had recently, and we both agreed he was correct. The love has improved, and we are in many ways much closer than we’ve ever been. The surprise twist? It didn’t happen until we got divorced.
Our marriage seemed like the worst bet ever for a loving post-divorce friendship. We were two strong-willed attorneys whose personalities meshed like kerosene and fire. Our fights were explosive and frequent. Despite much counseling, we had anger, resentment and often a mutual desire to strangle one another. Not too long ago, my ex even revealed he almost hid our cutlery after watching one too many episodes of “Wives with Knives” while we were teetering on the brink of divorce. Clearly we were not model spouses.
Nevertheless, I’m living proof that divorce doesn’t have to be devastating and leave scorched earth in its wake. Although the journey wasn’t always filled with sunshine and roses, the strategies below worked well for us. Use them as you navigate the rocky waters before, during and after divorce, and the dissolution of your marriage may become the opportunity for grace, healing and transformation it was for me.
(Before Calling It Quits)
So how do you know when it’s time to call it quits? There is no easy answer.
Trust Your Gut
Begin by connecting to your inner wisdom. We all have it (even if you think you don’t). It usually speaks softly, however, so you may need to practice a little stillness to hear it.
Getting still doesn’t mean you must become a mindfulness guru or an expert meditator. I certainly wasn’t. Try starting with this exercise: Sit comfortably in a quiet place. Place one hand over your heart to guide your awareness from your head to the heart space. Now pose a question, such as “What do I need to know about my relationship?” See what comes back.
You may or may not hear something immediately. Either way is fine. By simply showing up to listen, however, you will begin to strengthen your relationship with your intuition and values. You will then be better equipped to follow what is best for you while drowning out the external noise and unsolicited advice you will no doubt receive from well-meaning friends, family and strangers alike.
Gauge Pain vs. Fear
If you aren’t getting a clear reading from the ol’ gut, ask yourself the following question: Has the pain of staying put exceeded the fear of leaving and the unknown? If so, this could be an indication it is time to go. It was for me.
Although it’s different for everyone, I can’t tie my decision to any one incident or fight. Mine was a cumulative pain born from years of conflict, despite valiant efforts by both parties to find peace in our home. We’d sought counseling, both separately and together. We’d pledged to “become ducks” repeatedly. It was our code for letting the little stuff roll off our backs. Time and time again, however, we were unsuccessful. So we resorted to living largely separate lives.
In the end, although there were many deposits and withdrawals from our love account over the course of our twelve years together, we sadly hit a point where we’d been overdrawn for too long. My pain had exceeded my fear for a prolonged period, nothing seemed to be working, and I knew it was time for a major change.
Try a Structured Separation
One of the best pieces of advice I received came from my therapist who recommended a “structured separation.” If you’re still on the fence as to whether you’re ready to end things, you might consider trying one.
Although I had always viewed separation as a no-turning-back exit ramp with divorce as the inevitable destination, this was quite different. The parties go in with the intent that they may reconcile. They fashion specific rules, such as how long it will last, whether they will wear wedding rings and how often they will see each other.
A dear friend who was ready to end her marriage did the equivalent of a structured separation for close to a year. Initially, she didn’t have much hope of the marriage surviving. After 9 months of profound personal work, however, she woke up one morning with a renewed faith in the relationship. They reconciled, and the marriage is going strong to this day.
This practice works especially well in high-conflict marriages. Why? Because when we experience large amounts of unrelenting conflict and trauma, our judgment can become impaired as our logical brain is hijacked by the limbic system. The result? Irrational, emotional decisions. When conflict is given a chance to dissipate, our logical thinking comes back online, allowing us to use our head instead of losing it.
A structured separation provides a release in the pressure cooker created by warring spouses. You can then approach resolution or dissolution from a much more rational place.
If you’re on the fast track to divorce or already deep in the throes of it, here are a couple key points to remember.
Divorce proceedings can leave even the strongest among us an angry shell of a person with nothing left to give. Still, try to be an active participant who isn’t just carried along by the legal process. If your attorney proposes a well-intentioned or proven strategy that feels wrong to you, have the guts to say so. If you need more time to make a decision, request it. Remember, your attorney is working for you.
Also, spend time envisioning how you want the proceedings to unfold and how you want your relationship with your soon-to-be ex to look. I found that by setting intentions, staying grounded and doing visualizations of negotiations and my ideal future relationship with my ex, my energy affected my spouse’s reactions and his willingness to engage constructively.
Avoid Nuclear War
Sometimes folks stay married out of fear of the court proceedings alone. But your divorce doesn’t have to end in nuclear warfare in the courtroom. Did you know there are more peaceful alternatives, such as the collaborative law model? There, all parties commit to resolving everything without going to court or even threatening to do so. This is the model we used. Where it’s appropriate, it’s a much gentler approach.
It’s not an option in all cases, though. Your spouse may be a rageful sociopath hell-bent on using nukes, making collaboration nearly impossible. While you can’t control your spouse’s actions, you can control your own energy and reactions. Instead of focusing on external circumstances, try bringing that focus inward. Take more time for self-care, much-needed rest and connection to your inner wisdom through whatever means work best for you.
Author Janet Conner found herself in dangerous divorce where she feared for her life. In response, she grabbed a pen and begged for wisdom. As she channeled her pain and rage onto the page, she tapped into her inner guidance. Her writing helped carry her safely through her divorce, and ultimately led to her book “Writing Down Your Soul.”
If you feel there is little hope for grace after a protracted court battle and painful division of assets, it’s time to pull out the big peacemakers. Here are the two most powerful tools I used post-divorce.
Rewrite the Victim Narrative
For years, I saw myself as the victim of a hot-tempered husband who was hell-bent on controlling me. And because he was a fearless attorney, he was an easy scapegoat for my “poor, poor pitiful me” stories. Then I found “The Work” of Byron Katie, and I couldn’t play the victim anymore.
The Work is a system of inquiry that allows you to explore whether the opposite of your beliefs might be true. For example, my story that “I was the victim of a hot-tempered husband who was hell-bent on controlling me” might become “My husband was the victim of a hot-tempered wife who was hell-bent on controlling him.” Could I find where that might have been true? Um, yes. Repeatedly.
This exploration just snowballed, and suddenly all those resentful angry thoughts like, “He should have cared more” became their opposite: “I should have cared more.” I was no longer a victim but a co-creator in the misery, and I was deeply sorry for my actions. This led to the final, most transformative step below.
From Byron Katie’s book “Loving What Is,” I was inspired to make amends with my ex by reporting on my role in our conflict. I’ll admit it, I really, really wanted to blame the hell out of him and protest that he started it all…but that’s not what amends are about.
The idea of making amends may be as hard a pill to swallow as your spouse’s affair with the hot nanny. Make no mistake, amends are not about condoning your ex’s behavior; they are about freeing yourself through radical honesty. Although I desperately wanted validation that my husband was the bad guy, I had a choice: Did I want to be right, or did I want to be free?
So I wrote him a long letter owning my part, as well as expressing everything I appreciated about him. It was as healing for me to write as it was for him to read. Ultimately, it paved the way for constructive conversation followed by mutual apologies and even some laughter.
Whether you’ve just realized it’s time to end things, or you’re many years post-divorce, it’s never too late to implement some of the strategies listed here. I am still envisioning a day when my current partner and I will hang with my ex and whoever he ends up dating or marrying. Till then, I’m going to keep making amends and holding the vision of a future filled with laughter, love and a shared appreciation for the things we did well. I’ll keep you posted.