Written by Virginia Gilbert, L.M.F.T
Divorce is a personal growth journey. Disentangling yourself legally and financially from your spouse may be a bumpy ride, but a stamped final judgment at the end of this saga signals you’ve reached your ultimate destination.
Emotionally disengaging is a far more ambiguous and difficult process since there are no guideposts along the way. But if you want to be truly, completely, and totally divorced both legally and emotionally, it’s critical that you prioritize this portion of your divorce, and view it as an important opportunity for personal growth. We all know someone who continues to blame their ex for their unhappiness years after their divorce is finalized. Don’t be that person! I’ll show you how to avoid the pitfalls of bitterness and resentment by taking ownership of your situation.
Wondering how you can empower yourself before, during, and after divorce? The first step is understanding the grief process.
The 5 Stages of Grief Related to Divorce (Relationship Breakup)
Divorce can be like a death. It’s the demise of the vision you had for your life. While some marriages end amicably with no property disputes or children to co-parent, typically, financial and child-rearing matters that permanently alter the landscape of your life are at play. This is when grief is inevitable.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed the Five Stages of Grief. This model breaks down the emotions we typically experience when someone dies. However, this model has broader applications and is relevant to divorce as well. Do any of the stages below feel familiar to you?
1. Denial: “Divorce sucks, so I won’t accept it.”
2. Anger: “Divorce sucks and it’s your fault.”
3. Bargaining: “Divorce sucks, so I’m going to keep the marriage alive by obsessing about what you or I could have done to save it.”
4. Depression: “Divorce sucks, life sucks, why bother with anything?”
5. Acceptance: “Divorce sucks, but now that I’m at peace with reality, I can move on.”
If you’re starting to contemplate divorce, you’re probably somewhere in the first four stages listed above. While it’s important to move toward the fifth stage of acceptance, this doesn’t magically happen once the divorce is final. Getting there will require a concerted effort.
Simply understanding the Five Stages of Grief won’t move you through them. Your progression requires you to master what I refer to as the developmental task of divorce: shifting from blame to empowerment.
Start Taking Accountability for Your Divorce
Are you blaming your spouse for the end of your marriage and the difficulties of your divorce? It’s time to start shifting your focus from the things you can’t control (your spouse) and take accountability for your own choices. If you continue to focus on whom to blame, you will give your power away. Instead, reclaim your personal power by owning your mistakes and taking full responsibility for your actions. You should even acknowledge your soon-to-be ex’s valid points, as hard as that might seem.
Making it through a divorce is not about your spouse. It’s about changing your mindset. At the risk of sounding annoyingly New Age-y, divorce really is an opportunity for growth. It’s a crucible in which your less than stellar qualities can be burned away, and new, positive traits can emerge.
Practice Radical Acceptance During Your Divorce
In Buddhist philosophy, the process of surrendering to your circumstances is known as radical acceptance. Practicing radical acceptance means that you accept the current circumstances of your life, even when they’re not ideal.
I’m not going to tell you that divorce and single parenthood don’t suck sometimes, because they often do. I’m not going to tell you that if you just “think positively” everything will turn out fine. What I can tell you though is that there’s an effective way to feel better even when things are not the way you want them to be. And it’s called radical acceptance.
Radical acceptance requires focusing on the present. Don’t dwell on the past or worry about what your life will look like post-divorce. Rather, acknowledge your feelings about your circumstances--anger, fear, self-pity--because you’re currently experiencing those emotions. And those emotions are valid! Instead of raging against reality, say to yourself, “life is like this right now.” Suffering comes from wishing your life was different than it is and refusing to accept reality. In the end, this will actually make you far more miserable than the reality itself.
Be Mindful and Present to Maintain a Healthy Perspective
When you surrender to the present, you can begin to separate yourself from your feelings. You don’t deny them or resist them, but you don’t have to identify with them either. They’re not permanent, they’re temporary. Once you distance yourself from your feelings, you are able to make more healthy and mindful choices.
People tend to have impulsive reactions when they allow their emotions to hold them hostage. For instance, responding to your spouse’s hostile email with one of your own is the sort of unbridled behavior that will only fuel animosity, making the present even worse.
In order to manage difficult feelings, first acknowledge them without judgment. Your feelings aren’t good or bad, they just are. As you observe and name your emotions--”that’s fear, that’s anger, that’s sadness”--you will start to detach from them. This will create a space for you to choose how you want to act, instead of getting sucked into an emotional vortex.
Ask yourself, “Is firing off an angry text going to help anything? Will ingesting an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream make me feel better? What else can I do that will actually benefit me? Journal? Take a walk? Hug my kids? Meditate?”
The more you practice radical acceptance, the more you will understand that your suffering comes less from your circumstances, and more from your relationship to them.
Focus On What You Can Control During Your Divorce
Radical acceptance isn’t about being passive. It’s about focusing on what you can control, and letting go of the rest. To practice radical acceptance, here is a list of a few things you need to focus on in order to have the best divorce possible:
- Do your homework before deciding to pull the plug.
- Stay organized during divorce by putting all documents in a notebook or filing system where your kids won’t find it.
- Prepare a monthly budget so you’ll know how much money you need to run your household.
- Work with your spouse on how you’ll explain divorce to your children, and develop a co-parenting protocol.
Here are some factors you can’t control that you shouldn’t focus on:
- Your ex’s dating life
- How your ex runs their house
- Your ex’s parenting style
- Friends who take your ex’s side
When you come to terms with the absurdity of trying to control anything your soon-to-be ex does, you can then fully concentrate on making productive choices. Here are some things you can do that will help you achieve personal growth:
- Line up a support team (legal counsel, friends, family, therapist).
- Practice self-care (exercise, eat, and sleep right).
- Manage emotional reactivity so you can make clear decisions in your divorce. Practicing mindfulness skills can aid in this process.
- Practice gratitude.
Take Charge of Your Journey Toward Empowerment
Think of divorce as your teacher. It will show you areas where you need to grow. Perhaps you need to develop patience, learn how to manage your anger, or stop being a pushover. Be honest with yourself and start making more wise decisions. Mourn what’s lost and then direct your energy toward changing problematic behaviors. Taking charge of your personal growth journey will help you feel more clear-headed and empowered during divorce, so you can live your best life going forward.
Virginia Gilbert, LMFT, is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles who specializes in divorce. She is also the author of the book, Transcending High-Conflict Divorce: How To Disengage From Your Ex And Find Your Power.