“You must grieve…” You have likely read this phrase or heard it from a friend a number of times by now. After a while, it starts to sound like a mystical rite of passage required by unnamed gods of love. In the back of your mind, you know it’s probably true. And yet you already feel so lousy that you can’t imagine feeling any worse.
These are 5 myths about how to grieve the loss of your marriage or long-term relationship in a healthy way:
1. You can’t even think about dating right now.
Fact: You probably can’t imagine the thought of dating at this moment but if you can, you are not abnormal. People grieve in many different ways. Sometimes the feeling of being lonely and imagining a future alone can be lessened by allowing yourself to at least entertain the idea of dating. It doesn’t mean you will. If you decide to date, remind yourself that now is not the time to commit to anything—you are vulnerable and need time to recover your equilibrium. But entertaining romantic company from time to time may buffer the loneliness you experience and will remind you that there’s still a romantic future out there for you.
2. You're going to beat yourself up.
Fact: Perhaps you feel that your divorce or breakup means you failed. You think you messed up in a big way. Now the only way to make it right is to beat yourself up over everything you perceive you did wrong and over everything your ex accuses you of doing wrong. This relentless self-attack will get you nowhere and is not part of healthy grieving. Instead, consider doing a relationship autopsy in which you take a calculated, rational look at the facts of the relationship, both your role and your exes. (I describe how to conduct a thorough relationship autopsy in Breaking Up and Divorce: 5 Steps). It’s OK to make a goal of specific things you would like to improve about yourself when it comes to your next relationship, but do not engage in global character assassinations such as, “I am a loser, doomed to a life alone.”
3. You'll cry all the time.
Fact: Healthy grieving doesn’t mean crying alone in a dark room. But it does mean that you accept that with separation comes a healing process. Recognize where you are in this process from time to time. The stages include: Denial—“This can’t be happening"; Anger—“I don’t deserve this!”; Bargaining—“Maybe if I change something about myself I can get my ex back”; Depression—“What’s the point of life anymore?"; and eventually, Acceptance—“I can still be happy despite this loss.” People go in and out of these stages; there is no set order. Develop awareness for where you are at any given moment. Accept that it does take time, but if you allow it, in time you will reach acceptance and regain your balance.
4. You need to be the perfect parent.
Fact: Perhaps the most frequently experienced aspect of divorce for parents is a gut-wrenching fear about the emotional welfare of their children. This particular fear, more than any other, is what keeps so many stuck in unhappy marriages. The fact is that if a relationship is consistently unhappy, filled with chronic anger or anxiety, kids are often better off when divorce provides greater stability. As parents emotionally adjust to their divorce, they typically criticize themselves for not being perfect. As you come to terms with all that is changing in your life, remember that it’s impossible to be a perfect parent. The single best thing you can do for your kids is to emotionally tune in and be empathetic. If your children express upset over something unrelated to your divorce, validate their concerns: “I understand, I can see why that makes you angry.” Make room for their feelings about the separation, directly ask what they are feeling, and listen with empathy, even when you can’t immediately cure their pain. And don’t persistently talk about or put down your ex; that will not help your children.
5. This is no time for fun.
Fact: If you are facing divorce or a difficult breakup, your life has taken on a serious hue. Your financial future, the well-being of your children, and perhaps even your home may be on the line. Sometimes it’s difficult to stay in balance and not fall from the tightrope you are walking. If you find yourself momentarily forgetting about what’s at stake, cracking a smile, or enjoying yourself even for one brief moment, you may shame yourself. Your internal dialogue begins to say that if you enjoy yourself at all, it means you are somehow OK with all that has changed—and of course, you are far from OK. Not so. If you do have a decent, funny, energizing or good moment, fan the flames and let it spread. Encouraging moments of levity within yourself and others will lighten your load so that you can endure the ups and downs for the long haul. Enjoying a laugh or a good time doesn’t mean you have forgotten about what’s at stake—it just means you're giving yourself a well-deserved break.
Jill Weber, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Washington, DC and the author of Breaking Up and Divorce 5 Steps: How to Heal and Be Comfortable Alone. For more, follow me on Twitter @DrJillWeber, follow me on Facebook, or check out drjillweber.com.