Every breakup is challenging, but the grief and pain are often amplified when that breakup constitutes the end of a marriage. After all, you intended your marriage to last forever. Your spouse started out a stranger and became a member of your family. You thought that love would be enough to bind you, and finding out you were wrong hurts.
There is no avoiding stress entirely when you’re dealing with divorce, but we think that taking the time to consciously reflect on your situation with an eye toward greater health and well-being is an important first step. Though it is possible to complete your divorce paperwork in less than a day, the courts in many places don’t move as quickly as we would like. The emotional toll of a divorce can linger, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start processing your negative emotions immediately.
In an effort to help, we’ve broken down your guide to coping with divorce into two major phases: the grieving process and the healing process. We encourage you to take a page out of our playbook, fully experience the depth of emotions associated with the loss of your marriage, and eventually move toward a brighter, more meaningful life after divorce.
The Grieving Process
When we talk about grief in relation to the end of a long-term relationship, we mean coping with the immediate emotional aftermath, when you’re trying to settle and soothe your feelings about the past, so that later you can begin looking toward the future.
This takes longer for some people than for others, but it’s generally not an option just to skip it entirely. Experts in the field recognize that when we try to keep busy or “put on a happy face” immediately following a major loss, we’re not avoiding grief, we’re simply postponing it.
So whether you’re ready now, or you want to save it for after your divorce is finalized, or your child has adjusted a little, eventually you’ll need to know how to grieve properly, for the sake of your long-term emotional well-being.
Take some time. Give yourself a break.
We all know the romantic comedy trope. Our heroine has suffered an untenable heartbreak, so she takes to her bed with a pint (or a gallon) of Rocky Road. While we don’t necessarily advocate that exact response, there’s definitely a kernel of wisdom in the stereotype.
Lost love comes with a whole host of emotions -- pain, loneliness, sadness, anger, and even guilt -- and none of them are pretty. So, if you need to wallow in privacy for a little while, you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself.
Just don’t let it go on indefinitely. Take a week or two, and then start thinking about some incremental steps toward getting back to your old self. Maybe you’ll replace your nightly Postmates binge with a trip to the grocery store. Maybe you’ll change out of your pajamas and into a pair of jeans. Whatever it is, you’ll feel proud of yourself for even slightly improving your situation, which is bound to lead to more incremental steps down the line.
Reach out to people you can trust.
Part of making those aforementioned incremental changes is reaching out for support. Family members and close friends are excellent choices for informal breakup & divorce gurus, especially if they’ve been divorced themselves and therefore know your pain. Sometimes all you need is a sympathetic ear from the people you love.
Other times, however, you (or your family members) might recognize that some professional help might be beneficial. There is absolutely no shame in soliciting the guidance of a marriage and family therapist. Many of them even lead divorce recovery support groups, which is a great option if you’re anxious about the one-on-one intimacy of a traditional therapeutic relationship. There are also self-help videos and books available on the subject.
One of the most important roles of a therapist in the context of a separation or divorce is that they are able to recognize when normal grief and coping mechanisms cross the line over to more serious mental health concerns. Post-divorce depression is common, and while a divorce does not technically constitute a trauma in the context of supporting a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, you might experience symptoms similar to PTSD when you split up with your spouse.
Of course, even a great therapist can’t instantly cure depression, but they can give you the tools that you need to work through it, achieve greater mastery of your emotions, and accept your situation with grace and pragmatism. After all, the point of grieving isn’t erasing the experience of loss; it’s learning from it.
Another terrific (and underutilized) professional is what’s known as a divorce coach. According to the American Bar Association, divorce coaches maintain a “flexible, goal-oriented” role in guiding clients through divorce, dependent on the clients’ needs and the coach’s professional background. Usually, divorce coaches are either mental health professionals or lawyers.
Divorce coaches differ from therapists in that they aren’t there specifically to assess and improve your mental health. Rather, they are trained to assist in your practical, step-by-step navigation of this confusing process, which includes helping to manage the stress associated with it.
Be a supportive parent to your children.
Unfortunately, your children are also likely to experience grief, anger, guilt, and depression as you separate from your spouse. Now that you have hopefully put on your own oxygen mask, you are in a unique position to make them feel safe, secure, and loved.
One of the most important things you can do is support their relationship with your ex, even if the two of you are having trouble getting along. You should never put your child in the position of choosing between divorced parents. They’re already grieving what their family used to look like, and they do not need it to feel any more fractured than it is.
It’s also important to remember that children cope with divorce in all different ways, but if you see them showing some of the classic signs of juvenile depression or anxiety you should seek professional help for them before things get worse.
It is helpful to remind them that they are still loved, they still have a family, and this is not their fault.
It’s normal to experience anger at the situation, but you should do your best, in an age-appropriate manner, to guide your children away from taking that anger out on themselves. Here are some great strategies for kids of all ages to help them gain greater control over this difficult emotion. You might even be able to learn from some of them yourself.
Make the decision to move forward
Now that you’ve made it through the hardest part of the grieving process, you need to make the conscious decision to begin the healing process. It might help just to speak the words aloud to yourself, that you are done looking backwards and want to begin building your future. Tell a friend or two; it will help keep you accountable and encourage you to make progress.
Keep in mind, your divorce does not have to be final for you to make this powerful decision. You don’t even have to be rid of all associated grief. This is simply a paradigm shift, a relocation of where you will consciously choose to direct your energy and effort. That doesn’t mean your mind can’t or won’t ever wander back to what you have lost.
The Healing Process
When we talk about the healing process, we mean strategies to take care of yourself after you get divorced. We mean embarking on this new phase of your life with vigor. You may always feel an element of regret that your marriage ended in divorce, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get excited about the new possibilities that life has to offer!
Stick to a routine
One thing that’s great about the nuclear family is that it can provide a lot of structure. The other side of that coin, however, is that the breakdown of a marriage can disrupt the routine upon which you have come to rely. This is especially true if you or someone in your family did develop depression as a result of your divorce.
However, just because you felt your motivation slip during this tough time doesn’t mean that you can’t get it back, maybe in an improved form. Post-breakup is a great time to try meditation, for example. Or perhaps you just want to have a cup of chamomile and read a book for half an hour before bed. Whatever it is, start exploring consistent things you can do that make you feel good.
Once you’ve added in comforting, rewarding daily practices, you’ll start to feel accomplished based solely on the fact that you had the discipline to change your habits in a positive way. This sense of achievement will gradually make it easier for you to tackle the more tedious or unpleasant tasks that you may have been neglecting while you were more occupied with grief.
Focus on your physical and mental health
Speaking of routine, now that you’re in a place where you can begin to be more proactive, it’s a great time to begin or resume healthier practices. This might mean swapping the aforementioned Rocky Road for an easy, home-cooked meal or getting back to the gym. If you reawaken your body, your senses will feel sharpened, and you’ll feel more ready to face the days ahead.
Additionally, if you began seeing a therapist, we encourage you to continue. When you’re through with the crisis management phase, you can really get your money’s worth with a great therapist. Mental health professionals can be excellent resources for self-improvement or planning for your future. They’ll be excited to work with you to discover your next chapter.
One thing that is worth mentioning -- now that you’re out of the initial storm, you might consider paring back your alcohol or drug use. We all know that a nice glass of wine can feel good on a rough night, but you are strong enough to spend most evenings at full capacity again. This is a matter of mental and physical health, and you just might thank yourself for it tomorrow morning.
Form new friendships
A lot of married couples start to meet most of each other’s social needs after a while, and as a new divorcée, you might be wondering what happened to the active social life you used to enjoy. Definitely reach out to people you used to hang out with, but this is also a fabulous time to expose yourself to new people from new places.
Making friends as an adult can seem challenging, but it’s honestly not as hard as it looks. The key is to surround yourself with people who share your interests. Join an exercise or art class. Attend a comedy show and chat with whoever is next to you in line at the bar. Call up your favorite member of the PTA for purely social reasons. You’ll have to get used to making the first move, but that doesn’t mean you have to stray too far outside of your comfort zone.
Explore new or dormant hobbies
Your ex-spouse (and your divorce for that matter!) probably took up a lot of your free time. Think back on how you used to be alone with yourself. Is there anything you’ve been missing lately? You might find that parts of yourself you thought were gone were really just on pause.
This is also a great time to take stock of what kind of person you want to be. If you admire creativity in others but never really explored it yourself, think of ways you can infuse your life with a little bit of art.
This doesn’t have to cost a lot of money -- there are loads of free tutorials on YouTube, for everything from knitting, to painting, to yoga, and beyond. Furthermore, almost everyone has one of the best artistic tools in all of history in their pocket already -- a smartphone camera! This thing is much more powerful than the little digital point-and-shoot you had in 2005, and Instagram can give you instant feedback, encouragement, and photographic inspiration.
Reflect on what you learned from your divorce
As cheesy as it might sound, life’s challenges really do have a way of helping us figure out what’s actually important. If your divorce was a bit of an emotional dumpster fire, you definitely don’t want it to have all been for nothing. While you were in it, you were in no position to try a positive spin, but now that you have a little distance, we’re willing to bet you’ll be able to find something useful that you’ve gleaned from the experience.
Some ideas might correspond with some of the advice above. If you figured out how to incorporate healthier habits, learned how to be bold in the name of new friendships, or picked up a hobby you’ve always wanted to try, then these are all obvious silver linings.
The best lessons might be a little subtler, though. Maybe you know yourself or your kids a tiny bit better now that you’ve seen what happens when you’re faced with real trials. Almost certainly, you’re more aware of what you want out of future relationships, because you know what kinds of things caused this one to fail.
So, when you’re ready, take the time to sit down and make a list. If you want, you can do this in collaboration with that great therapist you’ve been working with, but you’re also perfectly capable of doing this all by yourself. When you see it all on paper, you’ll know that, while you may have lost your marriage, you gained knowledge that is absolutely invaluable.
One day, you might even have an opportunity to pay it forward when somebody you care about is going through the same thing.