The other day I received an email from a client that I didn’t expect to receive. After months of divorce proceedings, which at times had been incredibly chaotic and contentious, the process had finally drawn to a close and her divorce was finalized. Instead of telling each other goodbye and good riddance, however, she wrote that she and her now-ex-husband held hands while leaving the courthouse. Then, over a meal at an old favorite restaurant, they shared memories of the good times, as well as their hopes and intentions for a beautiful co-parenting relationship in their future.
I had not anticipated that the dissolution of this client’s marriage would end quite so gracefully. But then again, I had not expected my own high-conflict marriage to end very gracefully either. And yet, it did. We actually went on to have a post-divorce relationship for the ages, full of love, kindness, and compassion. It was not romantic, but it was surprisingly better than our marital relationship had ever been.
So many of my clients go into divorce assuming there is little to no chance that they will come out of the proceedings on a polite, speaking basis with their ex. In many cases, their fears about what the post-divorce landscape will look like will even keep them frozen and trapped in the relationship, unhappy where they are, but too scared to make a move of any sort.
True, it is almost a given that despite the best of intentions and even between the most amicable of couples, tensions will inevitably flare at some point during a divorce. But what I have learned through my own divorce journey and witnessing the process for so many of my clients is that there is hope for a wonderful relationship after divorce, no matter how great the conflict is during the process.
Author and founder of Hay House, Louise Hay, used to say (as an analogy for the healing process), when you clean the turkey-roasting pan after Thanksgiving, it’s going to get a lot dirtier before it gets cleaner. In the same way, a divorce may get pretty messy before it gets cleaner.
A peaceful post-divorce friendship may seem hopeless while you’re in the thick of the mess. However, that doesn’t mean there is no hope. While you may not be able to avoid all drama entirely, below are a few key tips to remember that will help you make it through your divorce journey healthy, whole, and with a good possibility for a bright future.
Ask for Support
Getting divorced is a lot like going on an expedition into uncharted territory. You are destined for parts unknown. You don’t know how long it will take. You’re not sure what you’ll be able to bring with you. It can be scary as hell. And sometimes you suspect you may not make it out in one piece.
In times like these, it is imperative that you enlist support or a guide of some sort. It can be a trusted friend who’s been through it before, a compassionate therapist who listens deeply, a coach who knows the process and provides tools to help you process it all, or just about anyone with whom you feel safe and seen.
A member of the divorce support group I facilitate even said she began telling her story to complete strangers, such as checkout staff and sales representatives who happened to ask how she was doing as she bought groceries or did some shopping. She found sharing in this way incredibly cathartic. And it definitely provided some laughs for her later as she recounted the stories of flummoxed strangers who weren’t quite sure what to make of her unexpected honesty!
Bottom line, don’t set out to cross the Sahara of divorce alone. We are human. We are wired for connection. It may feel uncomfortably vulnerable. You may even feel some shame. That’s okay. The benefits of assistance in the process far outweigh the risks of getting some support.
The Urge to Turn Back
At times on your divorce journey, things may get really difficult. So difficult that you question whether perhaps having stayed, as bad or unhealthy or unfulfilling as the marriage was, would have been easier than this. An uncomfortable yet tolerable known may seem preferable to the unpredictable, scary unknown, and you may have the urge to turn back just to get out of the discomfort.
Remember that divorce is a liminal space. A place between no longer and not yet (h/t Nancy Levin). These kinds of spaces are not comfortable for humans. And that’s okay.
Our brains are not wired to embrace change without resistance (it’s a survival thing). They will kick up all kinds of fears and objections to the big shifts you are stepping into. You will likely feel some intense, uncomfortable emotions. Just like the archetypal hero’s journey described in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, there will be tests and trials, as well as a death and rebirth of sorts, before you are on the road back.
Know that your discomfort and aversion to change don’t mean you are making a mistake or should turn back (unless, of course, you and your spouse make a conscious and well-thought-out decision to reconcile). It just means you are human. Expect this and be prepared so any potential urges to turn back do not take you off course.
Prepare for the Best
During my divorce, there were times when I found myself vacillating between simply taking it one moment at a time, to steeling myself for the very worst-case scenario. It didn’t help that many of the people surrounding me told me to “be prepared for the worst” or to “be ready for the other shoe to drop.”
Then, I discovered a tool in one of the self-help books I was reading that changed my perspective dramatically. The exercise asked me to envision a time in my future. I listed where I would live, what I would be doing, and who would be around me. It had me tap into the feeling states I would be experiencing regularly at that time (e.g., empowered, peaceful, joyful, content).
Up until that point, I hadn’t given much thought to what my life could or would look like after the divorce. However, I realized that, just like a professional athlete visualizes a successful maneuver or performance, visualizing my own future could help my chances for a good outcome.
During the identity death and rebirth that happens in divorce, it can be really hard to see the big picture and a light at the end of what feels like a really dark tunnel. I didn’t always have evidence for the light while I was in the tunnel myself.
With visualization, however, I trusted the light was there waiting for me, and I envisioned what it might look like, including a loving, peaceful relationship with my soon-to-be ex-husband. Sure enough, fast forward about three years, and we were living that very situation. And if it could happen for us, it could happen for just about anyone!
You may fear the worst as you embark on your divorce journey. Those around you may reinforce this fear with horror stories of divorces gone bad and ex-spouses warring for decades. However, the power of your own visualizations and intentions for the future you want are more powerful than you may realize.
Your expedition into divorce may be quite the adventure. Surround yourself with positive support and keep moving forward courageously. Don’t just prepare for the worst. Instead, hold space for the possibility of a spectacular vista you didn’t expect at the end point of your expedition, and you may just land where my client and I did: with the incredible gift of a loving post-divorce relationship with our ex-spouses.