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Recovering Your Life After a Divorce

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Like any life process, divorce has a beginning and an end. The end of the divorce process generally involves learning from the past, taking a forward-looking, present-centered stance, adapting to one's changed circumstances, and doing what one can to reinvent and reconstitute one's life.

Learn from experience (so as to not repeat mistakes)

sad womanSetback that it is, divorce offers people a valuable opportunity to reflect on and learn from the mistakes they have made so as to minimize the chances that they will make those same mistakes again. The divorce rate for second marriages is higher than that for first marriages. Many experts believe this is because a majority of divorcees leap into hasty ill-conceived second marriages out of loneliness rather than carefully planning them for success. It is wise to do one's homework before getting involved again to maximize one's chances of success.

People tend to be predictable, and are prone to repeating the same life mistakes again and again. Becoming conscious about the types of mistaken decisions one is likely to make (based on having made them in the past) is the best defense against making similar mistakes in the future. If, for instance, a first spouse was attractive because of his passionate and volatile attitude, but he later turned out to be abusive, it would likely be a mistake to get involved with a similarly passionate and volatile man in the future. If a first wife, chosen in part because of her careful attention to appearance, turned out to be an out of control shopper in part to support her attention to appearance, it would seem to be a mistake to get involved with similarly 'high maintenance' women in the future.

Become conscious of past mistakes by laying them out and reviewing them. Either alone (via journaling), or with the assistance of a trusted friend, family member or therapist, talk or write out the history of the marriage, from beginning to end. It may help this task along to construct a detailed time line laying out key events, disagreements and fights that occurred. Work to identify and concisely describe the big points of conflict where compromise proved elusive or impossible. Try to figure out where your personality and values clashed with those of your spouse and where they were in harmony. Knowing this information will help you to figure out what qualities you will want in a future relationship and what qualities you will want to avoid.

With history in hand, make a list of the partner attributes your experience leads you to believe will make for a quality and lasting relationship, and then prioritize that list so as to focus in on those that are most important. If maintaining a balanced household budget is important to you, but wasn't to your ex-spouse, and this clash was a contributing factor to your divorce, you will probably want to make sure early on that any future partner shares your enthusiasm for budgeting. Use this list as a guide as you re-enter the dating world.

Let Go, Forgive, Embrace Change

Having learned from past experience, the next challenge divorced people face is that of placing their divorce in the past and deciding to move forward with life. Like it or not, life has chapters. Divorce is the end of one important chapter, and potentially the beginning of another. However, the new chapter can only start when divorcees reach a point where they are ready to 'turn the page' and explore what their new life can become. Divorce can thus trigger profound personal growth, new experiences and new attachments, or, alternatively, stagnation. It is also possible for both of these outcomes to be present at the same time.

Whether someone flowers or stagnates emotionally post-divorce will depend on many factors, including the resiliency of their personality and mindset, the health of their support systems, and on whether they are successfully able to resolve ties that bind them in unhealthy ways to the now-defunct marriage. Unresolved feelings of guilt and anger can become traps, as can feelings of victimization and resentment towards the ex-spouse. People sometimes feel that they can't let go of the past until 'justice' has been done. The thing is, however, that the world is a messy, often unfair place, and obtaining justice is sometimes more trouble than it is worth. It is sometimes more practical to let go rather than to remain embroiled. Working (via therapy, friends, journaling, etc.) to put the past relationship in perspective, forgiving mistakes and wrongs, accepting the finality of divorce, and just plain deciding to move on can help people to let go. Also, forcing one's self to participate in events, outings and clubs can help break the grip of the past by forcing attention into the present moment. In the final analysis, "living well" may be good revenge, but an even better outcome is to reach a place where revenge is not desired because one has moved on.

Reinvent your life

Moving on generally begins in fits and starts early in the divorce, in between episodes of grief or other crisis-related emotion and tends to reach full flower only as the divorce process winds down. Its occurrence is a sign that healing and resolution are occurring, and its absence is a sign that grief and related emotions continue. Moving on involves becoming open to new experiences, new relationships, and new ways of thinking about one's self. The process is inherently proactive, rather than reactive; it involves becoming willing to actively explore options rather than to passively react. While it isn't necessarily a good idea to attempt to force one's self to move on (at least in the first year), there are ways to cultivate its occurrence.

  • Think positively. Being able to move on with life is easiest to accomplish when one is hopeful, positive, forward-looking and present-centered, rather than stuck ruminating about the past. Negative, depressive or pessimistic attitudes get in the way of moving on because they are closed and do not motivate new approaches to life. Positive thinking comes easier for some people than for others, but anyone can learn to be more positive in outlook if they want to and are willing to practice. Getting treatment for underlying depressive or anxious problems sets the stage for positive thinking. Hanging around positive-thinking people, watching how they do it, and modeling one's own behavior after theirs is the best way to pick up the habit. Psychotherapy, support groups and supportive friends can help the process along by providing support and encouragement, and opportunities for practice. It's not necessary to become a perfect positive thinker in order to benefit. What are required are only a sincere desire, and a willingness to practice.
  • Put remembrances away. Some people, places and things will cause one to remember the past marriage and keep things focused on the past. To the extent it is possible, it is a good idea to put such things away so that they don't automatically trigger old memories. When people places and things cannot be avoided, it sometimes is helpful to force one's self to create new memories around those people places and things so that new more positive memories comes to mind when those people places and things are encountered.
  • Try out new things. Moving on with life is also facilitated by getting out and trying new things. Exploring interests, old and new, pulls one's attention into the here and now, creates opportunities for creativity, meaningful social interaction and new relationships, and can even promote personal growth. The more one does, the more their identity as a single divorced person coalesces, and the more the previous marriage can recede into the past. There are as many possibilities for things to try out, but a short list of things to consider doing might include:
    • looking for a new job
    • redecorating one's living space
    • returning to school for classes, or even a degree program
    • exploring new hobbies and social or service clubs
    • changing wardrobes, or getting a makeover
    • beginning to date
    • finding ways to help others through similar life crises.