It is always hard when a relationship ends, and especially so when it was as serious as a marriage. You will feel hurt, hopeless and a sense of loss for a long time after the break up, possibly further complicated by anger and betrayal. You may want to try to “win” the divorce or even just prolong it in order to get revenge on your former partner, but, as any divorce lawyer will tell you, this only makes the situation worse.
From a psychological perspective, divorce (or the break-up of any long term, committed relationship) is one of the most stressful life events a person can go through, as it involves not only the loss of the person you love but also the end of all of your shared hopes and dreams.
We all build schemas (mental representations) of how we think our lives will go in the future, and when you are married all of your schemas involve your partner. When your relationship dies, no matter how toxic it was or why it ended, all of your hopes and dreams for the future die with it. A divorce is a definitive end to a commitment you thought would last forever.
There is a strong temptation to blame your former partner after a break-up, and giving in to it leads to a desire to “get even”. However, even when your partner was solely to blame for the divorce (and this is very rare), holding on to resentment is just about the least helpful thing you can do for yourself, especially if you have children together.
You need to move through divorce proceedings as quickly and painlessly as possible, not drag things out for the sake of revenge. After the split, try to work through your emotions and recognise that it will take time to feel normal again. Eventually you will be able to move on with your life and build up new plans, hopes and dreams for yourself. There are a number of things you can do, practically and emotionally, to help with the process:
- Remain calm when you see your ex – and you will have to see them, especially if you have kids. A divorce involves the break-up of a household and leaves a lot of stuff, from assets and finances to custody arrangements, to be negotiated between you and your partner.
- Get a good lawyer – even when relations between you and your ex are civil, a local divorce lawyer will help you through negotiations and make sure you get a good deal. Although lawyering up is often seen as only necessary for an acrimonious split, your lawyer will do everything they can to speed the process along and keep your divorce out of the courtroom, while ensuring that if things do get ugly you are prepared. You might think you can handle everything yourself, but a lawyer will bring a detached perspective to proceedings and will work hard to ensure you get what you deserve (regarding assets, custody and potentially alimony).
- Lean on friends and family – while you leave the legal stuff to your lawyer, talk to your family and friends about what you are going through and ask for help when you need it. Whether you need practical help like babysitting, a sympathetic ear to talk through your feelings with, or just a distraction to take your mind off things, ask the people close to you. You will be going through an emotional rollercoaster, and trying to do it alone will make it even harder. Don’t feel guilty or worry about being a burden – after all, you would do the same for them.
- Give yourself some time – you won’t be yourself again for a long time after the decision to get a divorce, so don’t expect yourself to be good as new a few days after the break-up. You need to realise that you can’t expect yourself to be at your best for a while, either at work or in your daily life. Take a bit of time every day to do something that makes you happy, or take up new hobbies so you don’t end up doing nothing but sit around thinking about your relationship. The time for introspection will come, but first you need to get yourself into a good place mentally.
- Reflect – once some time has passed you should have a think about what went wrong in your relationship, and why. This is important to providing closure on the episode, and will help you avoid making the same mistakes again.
- Move on – to finally feel normal again, you need to move forward with your new single life. Make new friends, take a cooking class, go to the gym, go on dates. You can’t live in the past forever, and you should take the chance to have some fun.
- See a therapist – if you aren’t coping, or you find yourself going through extended periods where your base mood is low, get professional help and tips to make your life more relaxed. Feeling sad and upset after a divorce is natural, and not in itself a symptom of mental illness, but stressful events like divorce can trigger the onset of depression or other mental disorders such as mania or bi-polar. If after some time has passed you still aren’t coping, or you aren’t moving forward, make an appointment to see a therapist. If you feel suicidal at any point through the divorce, or you worry about your mental state, see a psychologist or psychiatrist. Your local doctor should be able to refer you to a good local health care professional.
There are of course also things you shouldn’t do after your divorce – in practical terms you should try to avoid being unreasonable in negotiations with your ex (again, a divorce lawyer will help with this) and you absolutely should not let the divorce or your own feelings alienate your kids from either you or your former partner.
Emotionally, don’t wallow in the past – some reflection is healthy, but you shouldn’t obsess over every detail throughout the whole relationship. You should also avoid using alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism – although they might make you feel better in the short term, or help give you a distraction, you won’t be moving forward with your life. You could also put yourself at risk of a substance abuse problem.
So, as we’ve seen, divorce is very hard to cope with, but you will eventually recover. Your break-up is probably the most stressful event you’ve ever experienced, and letting go means not only losing your partner and your past together, but also your future together. The emotional load from having to process the loss of the person closest to you in the world at the same time as you have to figure out who you are (and want to be) as a single person can be crushing if you try to do it all alone.
A divorce lawyer can help the legal process move quickly and smoothly, and you should ask your family and friends for any help they can give you. Remember too that if you ever feel like your mental health is being affected, you should see a trained and licenced professional. If you get help, and don’t wallow in the past, you can move through the divorce and even come out the other side as a stronger, more independent person.