“It's like death, I guess. The death of the family, the death of some stage of life. Even if you understand that everything is not how you wanted, it is still a piece of life – I was married to him for 15 years. There really were a lot of good things... But everything that led to this decision, of course, outweighed all the good, the young years of being in love. We got married young and at some stage we began to grow and develop in very different ways. I began to invest much in myself,
built a business, developed new skills, studied, gave birth and outgrew the previous “me." And he stopped doing all this. I did not have time for him and did not want to waste time, so I began to live a separate life, all the, while he accused me of becoming a peasant...
We’d been living in a small apartment, had children, and I said: "Let’s think about how we can expand our living space." Instead of this, he bought a damn sports car... My son suffered; he loved him much. And our daughter ... must’ve been around eleven when she said: “Mom, you’re doing everything right. You deserve a strong, brave and handsome man. Brought me to tears.”
“I remember this day very clearly, and all the emotions in it. I felt grateful, and I shed tears – lots of them, in fact. But it was painful, too. I remember moments where the only thing I could do was shout and pound my fist against the counter. I couldn’t calm down.
He got a moving van for me, and I remember standing outside with all these boxes like a fool, and this man came up to me and asked if I needed help. I said no but we got to chatting. He said ‘everything will be okay; don’t worry about that’. Perhaps it was this moment where I understood why I was hurting: everything was changing so fast, everything was different and unusual. We fear the unknown.”
Recent research shows that around 40-50% of first marriages, and 60% of second marriages, end in divorce. Several factors have been found to correlate with a higher chance of divorce, and these include: marriage at early age, low educational attainment, financial troubles, living together before marriage, early pregnancy, lack of religious affiliation, history of divorce in the family, and personal insecurity.
Other factors include lack of commitment, too much arguing, infidelity, unrealistic expectations, inequality within the relationship, lack of preparation for the marriage, and abuse. If, on the other hand, both partners care and put even a small amount of effort into improving the marriage, then some of these “risk factors” can be fixed, and the likelihood of divorce should go down as a result.
From the outset, durability in a marriage can be bolstered by joint commitment from the spouses to a long-term vision. If the spouses have a strategy for a “life in tandem”, and know why they want to live together, they are less likely to get overwhelmed by everyday problems and minor disputes. Commitment allows both partners to feel safe, and they are less likely to throw in the towel after a spot of initial difficulty. Joint commitment is a crucial reason for why certain partnerships stay intact through troubles, and others do not.
Many divorcees put the responsibility for the fact that they got divorced on their ex-spouse’s shoulders – 74% of surveyed men said that they wished their ex-wife had tried harder to save the marriage, and 65% of surveyed women felt the same about their ex-husbands. These results bring us to a discussion of another crucial factor in divorces – communication, or lack thereof. One the most common mistakes is “I thought you’d guess what I wanted; I thought you understood”. People have to learn to verbalize their feelings and desires, as this skill provides the basis for a sturdy relationship.
The same researchers estimate that about one in three divorced couples try to reconcile at some point in the future. However, this reconciliation typically happens months or more after the divorce, and thus does not protect from the “sting” of the post-divorce period itself. However, there are things we can do to look after our future well-being during this time, and that will be the focus of this article.
Divorce Means That You Are a Survivor. And Survivors Can Do Anything.
Many people view divorce as a worst-case scenario, especially if they have been with their partner for many years and viewed their future as somehow defined and certain. When people end up going through the divorce process, they often experience states such as stress, panic, inability to sleep, inability to concentrate at work, and the nagging feeling that life is a sort of bad dream.
It’s often said that on a list of the most stressful events in one’s life, divorce ranks at the top, right up there with the death of a loved one. No one would wish these events on anyone, of course, but of the main things about life is that we have to accept various situations, not dwell on them too much, and keep moving forward. By overcoming life’s most stressful events, we become survivors.
Unfortunately, many of us live life in a frenzy. We thus don’t give ourselves the time we need to fully live through stressful events like divorce.
Every stressful event in your life, whether you acknowledge it or not, requires a degree of crisis management skills. When a couple has problems at home, they still manage to live, raise children, work, and maintain external relationships. When divorce arrives, you should stop yourself and remember that divorce is a stressful process, and it can bring a normally strong and well-adjusted person into an emotional wreck. What helps is a deep understanding of what is going on in the mind and body during stressful periods – this knowledge promotes compassion for oneself, and also highlights the optimal coping strategy that will produce the shortest recovery period.
How Does Divorce Impact Brain Functioning?
So, a divorce, miscarriage, bereavement, serious road accident or injury can destroy an individual’s sense of who they are and what it means to live in the world. Physical damage may or may not heal over time, but psychological damage tends to change people – they are never quite the same.
Most, though not all, people experience a degree of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after difficult life situations. Many of us heal from it, and move on somehow. Some of us go through a quick period of struggle, after which we return to the previous “tempo” of life.
However, it’s important to point out that many people just can’t accept that they are going through trauma. For many people, they haven’t experienced a life-threatening situation in their lives yet, and thus haven’t had to face PTSD; they don’t consider it as a possibility.
Although there are clear differences between, say, divorce and the death of a loved one, they can impart a similar psychological effect. And the strength of this effect depends heavily on how the situation is processed and accepted.
“Fight or Flight”
To overcome a stressful situation, we have to understand not just the visible problem – the proverbial tip of the iceberg – but look deeper into the root causes.
When we feel a threat to our physical body, this triggers the same processes in the brain that get triggered when our life itself is in danger. In a state of danger, our brain generates massive amounts of hormones like cortisol and neurotransmitters like adrenaline – these engage the body to defend itself in life-threatening situations. Instinctively, the body will either attack the source of danger (fight) or run away (flight).
When the level of cortisol in the body is raised, it works with neurons in the hippocampus, a region in the brain heavily involved with memory. Scientists believe that is why we often have “flashbulb memories” of emotionally-charged events. We can then use these vivid memories to avoid that same situation in the future. However, chronic high levels of cortisol have been connected to damage in hippocampal functioning.
When a stressful situation appears in our life, we often find ourselves overrun with emotional stories from the past, and with increased cortisol levels we find it difficult to objectively contextualize what actually happened in that situation. It’s much harder to make rational decisions as well. Emotion, and the increased salience of emotionally-charged memories, clouds our judgment.
Thus, a central aim in overcoming a stressful situation should be to decrease the level of cortisol in our blood. Once our hormone levels return to normal, the hippocampus can return to providing reliably, untinged information about past events.
Under stress, emotions and hurtful episodes from the past have a habit of returning to us through the unconscious mind, appearing in dreams and flashbacks. This will continue until the conscious mind is sure that there is a “light at the end of the tunnel”.
Another factor that should be mentioned is behavior patterns – we develop these early in life, and they can mediate our ability to overcome stressful situations as adults.
What we should avoid is getting stuck in a “fight or flight” loop, where it feels like we are running in a circle, reliving debilitating emotional states that don’t correspond to our actual conscious memories of what happened, let alone what actually did happen. It’s probably for this reason that so many people get stuck in divorce trauma.
The attempt to overestimate your life in the light of an eye-opening event is a positive direction, but it often feels very difficult to take on board and understand what was happened and to allow yourself to look again on the difficult experience. At some point, people often desperately want to put their experience into the “black box” and get on further with their life, but we aren’t able to think straight over the situations.
As a result, many people try, consciously or subconsciously, to avoid having to process the traumatic memories associated with divorce. Psychologists have termed this “Short Term Emotion Avoidance Tactics”. The person might distract themselves by engaging in activities such as shopping, working late nights, paying more attention to children, partying every night, drinking, etc.
An effective coping method, however, requires effort to be put in towards shifting from the “fight or flight” response to more of a “pause and plan” mode. The former has a strong emotional basis, rooted mostly in the right brain, while the latter is based more in the left brain. This allows critical “research” to be done on the situation, resulting in a plan of action at the end that takes future consequences into account. This shift implies movement from unconscious states to conscious ones, which has the profound effect of enabling you to manage emotional states – states that previously just “appeared”, like mail to your doorstep.
The biggest difference between the human brain and the brains of other animals is probably executive functioning – the ability to manage our own thinking processes, and take control over emotional states. Sometimes these states help us, but sometimes they hurt us, and we as humans have the unique power to “override” this process in our favor. More often than we’d think (though not always), maladaptive emotional states are the biggest driver of our unhappiness – not the situation itself.
How Can You Access “Pause and Plan” Mode When Your Brain Is Locked in “Fight or Flight” Mode?
Here are some options for strengthening the “big brain” and raising resilience:
- Provide enough energy for your brain to function productively.The deeper we are in stress, the more often we forget to eat, sleep, breath deeply, etc. You have to remember that overcoming the most difficult situations life has to offer is simply impossible without eating properly, getting sufficient physical exercise and sleeping. Doing these things gives your conscious brain what it needs to function properly.
- Monitor and take responsibility for your intake of, among other things, sugar and alcohol.It can be tempting to replace dinner with chocolate or wine, and too much of this can have adverse effects on the conscious mind. They provide short bursts of dopamine, but do not help activate “pause and plan” mode. However, consuming these things in moderation is okay, helpful even – it just has to be done reasonably, and without sacrificing your diet.
- Push the “pause” button.Emotional reactions based in the right brain appear quickly. And when they do, you can take a pause – understand that nothing life-threatening is taking place. Breathe slowly and deeply – when your body has sufficient oxygen, it takes this as a signal that you are not in mortal danger. Once you are in a more peaceful state, try meditation or mindfulness exercises, as these have been shown to boost resilience. They also provide the time and space to think deeply, activating the conscious part of your mind.
- Be self-aware.Observing yourself, and your situation, is a key function of the conscious part of your brain. Take a break, look around, see what is happening and look at the things you do. You can use tools like diaries, which allow us to analyze how we felt in the past – unlike memories, diary entries don’t change over time.
- Remember that you’re not alone.Everyone experiences increased hormone levels in stressful situations – its a part of who we are as a species. Another hormone that pops up is oxytocin, and oxytocin spurs us to form social bonds. Try to seek supportive relationships through communication with those around you, and don’t forget about the simple things. Hugs, holding hands, smiling – these are more than just trivial signs of affection.
- Learn how to change your mindset.Look for different ways to interpret stress in your life, especially divorce-related stress. If you look at stress as a challenge rather than an invincible burden, you’re more likely to feel the courage to overcome it.
- Practice self-compassion.The next time you catch yourself feeling stressed out, or down in the dumps, take care of yourself, and take it easy on the self-criticism.
- Seek out new information and experiences.Divorce is not the end of your life, so you have to think about new directions. How about skydiving? A course in graphic design? Non-conventional travel destination?
- Seek challenges.A constant flow of new information and experiences helps our brain grow, and stops it from stacking up stress. When you face a challenging situation, any result brings lessons with it about what you can do better, adds motivation, builds self-control and fosters compassion towards other people who face these same challenges. These parts are keys to your well-being and resilience, and also provide a roadmap for a new you, a new life, new feelings and new directions.
If divorce is fresh in your life, try to use knowledge of the brain and body to build a strategy on what you can do to be resilient and overcome this stress.
From Grief to Growth
We have a funny tendency to think: “I have X, Y and Z; I don’t deserve to be sad”. The fact is, what a person has outside their partner, be it money, friends, talents, etc., does not make them immune to divorce-induced sadness. It’s erroneous to think that, for example, “crying is only for kids and wimpy people”. It’s also erroneous to think that you are so strong that you can overcome all the challenges without moments of despair or at the very least tribulation.
Sometimes we are afraid to fully grieve, even when it seems like the necessary thing to do. We’re afraid to open our “inner world” and get captured by despair. We think that we’ll never get out of this state and feel the “taste of life” again.
From Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler’s book “On Grief and Grieving”: “The pain of loss is so intense, so heartbreaking, because in loving we deeply connect with another human being, and grief is the reflection of the connection that has been lost.”
People often think they want to avoid grief, so perhaps it is better to speak of “pain of loss” after a divorce. Grief is a healing process, and it can bring comfort to the one who feels it down the road. The feelings of pain and love are connected, and to avoid feeling pain might mean that you avoid feeling love.
In his book “A Grief Observed”, C.S. Lewis wrote: ‘The pain now is a part of the happiness then. That’s the deal… to deny that loss is to deny the love.’
More from “On Grief and Grieving”:
“Grief is the intense emotional response to the pain of a loss. It is the reflection of a connection that has been broken. Most important, grief is an emotional, spiritual, and psychological journey to healing. There is wonder in the power of grief. We don’t appreciate its healing powers, yet they are extraordinary and wondrous. It is just as amazing as the physical healing that occurs after a car accident or major surgery. Grief transforms the broken, wounded soul, a soul that no longer wants to get up in the morning, a soul that can find no reason for living, a soul that has suffered an unbelievable loss. Grief alone has the power to heal.”
The authors unequivocally state that grief ‘always works” and ‘always heals’.
Various studies in psychology have found that divorce is one of the most stressful events in life. And when a person is going through a divorce, their level of stress is a function not only of external factors and obstacles. It’s also a function of how the person accepts and internalizes the situation.
We have the power to change how we interpret events in life, and it takes hard mental work. The first thing to remember is probably the following: situations, by themselves, don’t have emotional content. This point can be seen clearly when two people have different reactions to the same event; the mind is at play. With internal events, the logic still applies – we have a degree of responsibility for how we handle a period of stress.
How you decide to go through a divorce is an expression of who you are, and the way you deal with your problems will be reflected in your life when the divorce is long over. Take as much responsibility as you can over your life and understand that you are creating your future with every thought, word and act.
Psychologically, the effect of divorce can range from mild to violent. Some people report feeling physically torn – like they’ve had surgery without anesthetic, or been hit in the head, or simply gone crazy. These forms of psychological damage can last days, weeks, or even months and years. The sad truth is, you can’t rush things; in life, quick fixes seldom fix the problem. what you can do is learn how to avoid psychological traps that could prolong your pain.
We’re all different, and we all have different mindsets; no two divorce cases are identical. The recovery process, however, tends to follow a pattern across people and cultures.
Stages of Recovery During Divorce
- Stage 1: Shock and disbelief
- Stage 2: Initial adjustment
- Stage 3: Active reorganization
- Stage 4: Life reformation
Stage 1: Shock and Disbelief
This stage begins right when the idea to get divorced is first communicated. During this stage, some people refuse to believe that the marriage is over. However, emotions don’t start working until the person accepts the situation for what it is. It’s tempting to live in the hope that everything will go back to how it was before, and that this moment is merely a bit of “light tension” between the partners. And certainly, periods of light tension do exist. They don’t often lead to a divorce wish, however, and wishful thinking freezes the work of emotions. Regardless of whether you believe that the marriage is over, the stress process begins immediately from the first announcement of divorce, and it contains four major tasks and issues that have to be worked through.
- Facing reality. You have to allow yourself to face the situation. If one spouse initiated the divorce, the other spouse must accept that the divorcing spouse feels uncomfortable in the marriage, and seeks to end it.
- Self-esteem and inadequacy. One of the first questions to ask yourself after the divorce announcement is “How do I see myself in this situation?”. Feelings of shame and guilt will be present, and the person must reckon with whether they made errors in judgment during the marriage.
- Telling the world. Self-esteem is probably low, and shame is probably high, but other people in your life will have to be informed about the divorce decision.
- Support and help. Your marriage is full of emotions, and it can’t simply be crossed out from your life story. You can, however, find someone to share your feelings with. You can ask for acceptance, emotional support and practical help from friends, family, and others in your life. Clinical psychologists can also become a reliable base of support for you to overcome and understand stress.
This stage is all about “breaking illusions”, and accepting a new reality. You have to allow yourself to feel pain, and not simply pretend that everything is fine. Don’t forget, though, that overcoming a difficult situation is much harder alone than it is with someone else. So don’t hesitate to seek support from others.
Stage 2: Initial Adjustment
At this stage, you grow the ability to adapt to a new phase in life. The initial shock of the divorce has passed. Now, you focus on the process of self-adaptation and mustering personal resources to overcome the various emotional and practical challenges of life after divorce. Here are four tasks and issues to work through at this stage:
- Return to functioning and responsibility. Life goes on, whether you want it to or not. Different problems will emerge, different situations will pop up, and we have no choice but to get back in the swing of things.
- Practical reality. You can’t ignore other areas of your life – housing, finances, childcare, and so on. At this stage, your material safety is paramount.
- Legal matters. Even if you imagine that the divorce is amicable and straightforward, you still need to think about legal ties and the marriage itself. Attorneys can be a great help in this time to make sure your interests are protected.
- Managing emotions. Throughout this stages, you will likely be overflowing with different emotional states. A big task is building your own resilience for stressful situations like divorce.
This is a difficult stage – you have to learn how to build your life. The best way to frame it, though, is as an opportunity to start a new life. Keep in mind that no person can give you a magic piece of advice that will change everything – you have to put in the effort to overcome your emotions and reframe your view of the situation.
Stage 3: Active Reorganization
This stage centers around how you live your life and how you adjust to single life. It might involve redefining parts of your identity. Here are the issues and tasks that bubble us in this stage:
- Lifestyle and practical affairs. Begin with small bits of research on how you organize your life and go about daily tasks. Perhaps you will conclude that you need to move, renovate your place, hire a babysitter, etc.
- Redefining relationships. Perhaps you’ve consciously or subconsciously split the people in your life into two categories: with me or against me. You should undertake a complete and thorough inventory of who is in your life, and what role you would like them to play going forward.
- Reconstructing personal values and beliefs. When you start a new life, your old values and principles might have to go. Try to look at what you used to believe in a new light, and form a new strategy if need be. Reset your goals, and say goodbye to potential irrational beliefs.
- Concluding legal procedures. Don’t let emotions affect this procedure.
Active reorganization is mainly about consolidating resources. You accept your new status at this stage, and though your emotional, practical, legal and lifestyle issues are far from resolved, you might feel that your life has finally taken on a clear direction.
Stage 4: Life Reformation
This is the final step of your divorce process – the worst moments are now in the rear view, and you can devote your full energy to building a new life. Here are the things you need to do:
- Construct relationships. As you move forward, you should make an effort to expand your social circle. New relationships, new connections, new ideas, new feelings, new resources.
- New interests. You can find new interests or revisit old ones that were perhaps pushed to the side during your marriage.
- Personal responsibility. It’s always important to accept responsibility for what you can control – for how you address your emotional and health-based needs. Take care of your finances, social relationships, and choices in general. The decision of where to go next in your life starts in your own mind.
- Accepting your new life. Once the fierce emotions simmer down, you can fully acknowledge and accept that the marriage is truly over.
Whether you like it or not, you now have a new life. It’s time to transform it!
Life reformation is all about willpower, and taking responsibility for the future of your life, to the extent that you can. You have to recognize your ability to set the direction for your new life, wherever that takes you.
One of the most complicated processes after a divorce is rebuilding your self-esteem. Possessing a positive sense of self-esteem is important for our life: it frees us from inhibition and self-doubt so that we can act confidently, life fully and consciously, and grow away from the pain of divorce.
Allow yourself move forward. Here are some suggestions to help you to move towards a newer, more confident you.
- “It helps when someone’s going through a divorce if they remind themselves that this is a normal part of the process – that this too will pass.” clinical psychologist Dr. M. Chet Mirman (Ph.D)
- “And try to ‘live well’: That’s a wonderful way to boost your self-esteem.” psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Rossman (Ph.D)
- In their book “Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice”, Robert Firestone, Ph.D., Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., and Joyce Catlett, M.A., note: “The critical inner voice is the language of the defended, negative side of your personality; the side that is opposed to your ongoing personal development.”
- Replace your inner critic with a healthy voice. “Self Esteem” by Matthew McKay, Ph.D., and Patrick Fanning can definitely help you with that.
- Stop blaming, either your ex or yourself. Instead, suggests Dr. Rossman. “Ask yourself: ‘What can I learn from this?’“
- Take responsibility for your happiness. In his book, “A Woman’s Self-Esteem: Struggles and Triumphs in the Search for Identity” , Nathaniel Branden (who also authored “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem”) explores the origins of personal happiness and suggests that intrinsically happy individuals consciously commit themselves to their eternal bliss.
- Learning to accept and appreciate how you look is important. In his book, “The Body Image Workbook: An 8-Step Program for Learning to like Your Looks”, author Thomas F. Cash, Ph.D., discusses body-image distortions and offers guidance through sensitively written text and useful “Helpsheets for Change”.
- If you’re ready, start dating again. “Look at it as an opportunity to learn more about yourself. Each date is a chance to cultivate your skills; it’s also an opportunity to get to know another person,” says Dr. Rossman. And moreover, “If you’re on a date, and you decide that this is not the person of your dreams, you can feel like you’ve wasted your time. Even if that person is not going to be your life partner, there can still be something very worthwhile in getting to know him/her”.
- Learn to enjoy being alone. Dr. Rossman states “Instead of saying, ‘Oh, I’m divorced and I’m home alone, what a loser I am, why not say, ‘What a nice opportunity to do whatever I want!’?”
- Allow yourself to feel the pain. “I think when people want advice about self-esteem, sometimes what they’re really saying is, ‘What can I do to feel better?’. My advice is almost the opposite, concludes Dr. Mirman. “It’s a really difficult and painful process, and if you allow yourself to feel bad, you’re going to get through it better. There’s going to be more happiness at the other side – but you need to actually give yourself permission to feel badly for a while in order to feel good later on”.
Recovering from divorce is like climbing a mountain – one challenging step after another. For most of us, it’s a difficult journey, but the rewards at the end of the climb are well worth it!
The first steps are always difficult, but the person in the mirror can send away these fears one by one, step by step…