It’s almost impossible to avoid the often-cited statistics: 40% to 50% of first marriages end in divorce and almost 75% of second marriages end in divorce. Upon hearing these statistics, most people have a reaction to the seemingly impossible odds for a “successful” marriage.
As a couples and family therapist, I see relationships at many stages, from happy and fine-tuning things to the last efforts before an imminent divorce, as well as in the midst of divorcing and learning to co-parent post-divorce. I have seen every range of emotion from sadness and loneliness, to debilitating grief and intense rage.
I have witnessed many ‘types’ of divorces such as couples uncoupling lovingly and with a tone of respect and gratitude, and I have witnessed couples who experience intense trauma due to the divorce, both because of the reason and the whole process. Most importantly, my work with so many people have illuminated very clear actions and attitudes that can support everyone in moving forward after this common, and sometimes radical change to daily life.
How to move forward after divorce
It is life altering to go through and/or witness a divorce. We’ve all experienced divorce in some form at this point in our lives either firsthand or through friends and family. Even with the most amicable divorces there is a process of untangling from the old life shared together, and a rebuilding of the new one that is hard for everyone involved. What I know profoundly is this: you will get through it and there are things you can do proactively to support yourself as you move through, and move on, from divorce into your next chapter of life.
Divorce ends certain things that may be familiar and comfortable for you, also things that were hard and heavy, and it also opens doors for other opportunities that await you.
Rebuild on your terms
There is no one way to divorce and there is no one way to move forward after divorce – that’s a commonality amongst all the divorces I’ve seen. Balance is key when it comes to reading tips and tricks, listening to advice from well-meaning loved ones, and even from trusted professionals about what they think is best. Listening to and trusting your intuition about what you need will serve you more than anything you can achieve from the outside.
Allow variance in your options to rebuild. Prioritize finding out what you need and want, and then find support in what you need and want from those around you. See yourself as forming an advisory board rather than a decision making committee and choose the perspectives consciously and wisely – surround yourself with the people who reflect back to you.
The inner work during this time is about learning what you want and what you need moving forward – things big and small like what YOU want for dinner, when YOU want to go out and stay in, and what YOU need to feel seen, valued, heard, and wanted. Things are different now, you are different now, and both changes will influence what you need and want. Take the time to learn both and to listen to your intuition. Pay attention to cues from your body and what it physically feels like when you feel a “yes” versus when you feel a “no” – get familiar with those sensations! Be curious and find the balance between what nudges you out of your comfort zone versus what shoves you out of it.
Redefine what success vs. failure looks like
One’s definition of both “success” and “failure” is often the first thing I address when working with someone post-divorce. The social narrative is dominated by the belief that a long-term marriage, as in accumulating as many years as possible, defines success, rather than a fulfilling, supportive, and healthy marriage. When a marriage is no longer thriving, I see it as completed, successful, and a season of one’s life, not a failure. Glennon Doyle brought to light this concept as her marriage came to a close, and I find it powerful and accurate no matter the circumstances of divorce.
The difference here isn’t merely semantics, it is important to shift this perspective of “good” and “bad”, “failure” and “success” into something more reflective of the complexity of humans and our relationships. I wish we didn’t see failure as a negative, and many “successful” people have found ways to embrace failure and the concept of failure into their lives, businesses, and relationships. Like Sarah Blakely, founder of SPANX, when she speaks about the power of inviting failure into your life and work, I invite the mindset into relationships as well (this is all relationships too, not just marriages). For example, sometimes a relationship doesn’t continue because you’ve learned more about who you are and you’ve decided it’s no longer supportive of your next chapter, now that is a positive thing, that’s a success! It is unfortunate and sad that this new understanding may not match with your partner, but it isn’t a failure for either person.
When we can adopt a more positive relationship with “failing” at things, marriage and beyond, and the sooner we can do so, we can find healthier relationships that build self-esteem, we can reduce blame and shame complexes, and we can focus on healing moving forward, rather than becoming stagnant or stuck in the past. When we enter and exit out of relationships with a broad definition of “success” and “failure” we take comfort in the fact that relationships may end in order to serve on or both person’s needs, wants, values, or truths, and this is a success, a success for personal growth and self-development. Please note, it’s hard not to mistake the pain, hardships, and trauma as “failure” – the fallout and ramifications of divorce can be some of the hardest challenges in one’s life depending on the circumstances, but “failure” and “hardship” are two very different aspects of divorce that we must work hard to unravel.
Seek support through divorce
Choose your support wisely, but please choose it. For many people the divorce process is a time when they are required to ask for help at a level they haven’t needed nor been comfortable to ask for in the past. Again, let’s not mistake needing support as “failure” – it’s a basic human need. It is a skill to ask for help, and a skill to allow yourself to receive it – build tolerance and acceptance for both.
Support can be professional in the form of a mental health practitioner, therapist, divorce coach or support group. Support can also be from people you love, who love you in return, and have your best interest at heart. Seek out people who have experienced divorce, who may have insights and an outlook you admire and would like to learn from. I advise clients to seek a couple layers of support:
1) A small inner circle who holds space for vulnerability, your cheerleaders and nurturers who can laugh and sob with you
2) A wider circle that includes (but not limited to) people who: will say it how it is, can give solid and actionable suggestions, have stories of hope and resilience, can connect you with the right professionals, can motivate you, have done post-divorce rebuilding work, can distract you, ask you to do things with them, can normalize things, can help find the humor in things, and the people who can say all the things you want them to say, when you need to hear them.
Mourn losses with intention after divorce
Even with amicable divorces, without any doubts, there are losses. You can lose hopes, dreams, holidays, kids, friends, respect, family, homes, pets, your routines, your identity. With loss comes grief, and with grief comes a myriad of emotions. You absolutely need to feel the feelings as they arise, even when it’s hard to do so – feel sad, feel angry, feel lonely, feel scared (and when you do, seek support if needed).
Divorce is a roller coaster, a complicated brew of emotional upheaval. Feeling your feelings is a critical part of grieving and therefore, healing. Be intentional about how you interact with your feelings and make space for them. This will most likely happen in waves, but the energy and space your feelings and grief take up will lessen overtime.
There are also different phases of grief related to different aspects of the divorce process. The grief experienced in the rebuilding time needs to be purposeful and impactful. Make efforts to anchor and infuse constructive energy into your grief – this can look like anger that helps you clean out that closet that drives you crazy or motivates you to complete the paperwork you’ve avoided. It can feel like sadness that points out those pieces of your past chapters that you still want to hold on to, despite how painful. It’s about letting yourself have joy and pleasure despite the pain and amidst your worry. Oversee your emotional regulation in grief by seeing your emotions as sacred and as catalysts for self-knowledge and self-serving actions.
Prioritize your physical needs
As a therapist, I value mental health wellness, and do so within the context of our greater human experience – think holistically, clearly tying together the body, mind, and spirit. This is crucial to grasp as you rebuild. Prioritize eating healthfully – however that looks and feels within your body, as well as make time to move your body in a meaningful way. If budget allows, hire a trainer, nutritionist, and / or coach to help keep you accountable to you, or get a move-your-body buddy for extra support.
Set up beneficial sleep patterns and habits. If you find deep sleep evades you, there are many tools out there to improve your sleep hygiene routine, or seek a natural supplement like Mia Vita Sleep Supplement. Be consistent but not militant with your physical care routine – it can become your sole focus and that can contribute to additional stress and anxiety so try to keep it balanced!
Many people forget medical appointments or drop self-care routines during this time, and it has negative effects on your rebuilding ability, too. Do not forget the needs of your sexual self as well. Self-pleasure is a beautiful gift to give yourself – try investing in new toys and make sure you are pairing them with a high-quality lubricant like Mia Vita Personal Lubricant & Moisturizer. Bodies can change during the rebuilding process so pay attention to your physical needs and prioritize them as a necessity rather than a luxury.
Build your tolerance for ambiguity post-divorce
There are a lot of unknowns that arise post-divorce, especially if this life change was unplanned for you, and this fact can be the single most stressful aspect of divorce. What will my financial situation be like? How will the kids be affected by the divorce? Will I ever date again? What will sex be like at this age and stage with someone new? What will it feel like to have an empty house?… The number of unanswered questions and uncertainties can be overwhelming.
The key to managing this aspect of divorce is building a tolerance for the unknown, the ambiguous. And particularly, learning to ground yourself with the knowledge that THINGS may not be okay right now, but YOU are okay despite them. Practice grounding yourself in the belief that you may not know HOW things are going to turn out, but you believe in your competency to figure out what is best for you and those you are responsible for.
Set aside time for self-reflection
Self-reflection is a pivotal part of rebuilding and moving on after a divorce. This requires taking responsibility for your emotional well-being, being very honest with yourself, holding yourself to a fierce level of accountability, radically forgiving yourself, and committing to moving on from a state of blame or shame.
A powerful exercise to aid in this endeavor involves three questions to answer when a relationship ends:
- What did I learn about myself because of this relationship?
- What did I learn about relationships in general because of this relationship?
- What did I learn about what I want and need more, and less of, because of this relationship?
Ask yourself these questions a couple of times and at different times during this phase of divorce. When you can take responsibility for what is yours, can identify areas where you can grow and see aspects of yourself to release, you open up to a beautiful, powerful space where meaningful inner changes can occur. Believe it’s possible to support new behaviors and relationships that promote the qualities you want in your next chapter. This step isn’t often easy and can require seeking objective eyes and minds to help you see your patterns and thought processes, but it is worth every minute of your time – you’re worth it!
Document your progress
Divorce can have a profound effect on you and your life, but it doesn’t have to be long lasting nor disastrous. There is hope and joy, insight, and growth in the rebuilding process if you approach it consciously and holistically. Protect your heart and inner peace as best as you can, and hold on for the victories, big and small, as you learn what serves your best self in this new chapter.
Make sure to take note of these victories, collect your wins in photos, mementos, flowers, etc. – whatever is meaningful to you! And when you feel that you’re taking two steps back, remember that progress isn’t linear, that “success” is tied to growth, and that you can make the best decisions for you and your life, no one else can do it better!
Things to remember to help you move forward after divorce
- See your little victories. (buying car for first time, opening that jelly jar).
- Accept what is. Stay away from ‘what if’s and ‘what should have beens’.
- Set boundaries with communication. With your ex, with people who give unsolicited advice and opinions, for people who don’t serve your greater good in your next chapter.
- Be careful to not numb and avoid feelings and change.
- There are positives in divorce. Find them. Surround yourself with people who can help with this perspective also. Find the silver linings.
- Don’t drag kids into the drama, but include them in the rebuilding.
- Do the things you couldn’t do in that relationship. Rediscover what makes you happy.
Meet the Expert!
Dr. Juliana Hauser is a licensed couples and family therapist and licensed professional counselor. She is an expert when it comes to relationships, sex, and sexuality, and how they all holistically intertwine to make up the core of who we are. Dr. Juliana supports clients through her online private practice and exclusive courses, is a favorite of national media outlets, and is proud to consult with forward-thinking companies in the sex / sexuality sphere. Dr. Juliana serves as Content Counsel for FemmePharma, working to spread knowledge, information, and access to resources for those in the menopausal stages of their lives. If you’re seeking additional support through this stage in your life, or in any stage of life where sex, sexuality, and relationships intersect (hint: all of them), don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Juliana for a consultation.