If you had asked me what the hardest thing was when I got divorced, I would have said it was my worry about my children. But there were so many other really hard things. Every divorce is unique, of course. Divorcing is difficult, painful, and scary, even when you are the one that decided to divorce. Some alternative dispute resolution processes, such as mediation and Collaborative Divorce, are more respectful. But even if you can divorce amicably, it’s hard and it hurts.
If you ask people what the hardest thing was about their divorce, you’ll get a lot of answers. If you are divorcing, considering divorce, or divorced long ago, you may think that some (or all) of these are the hardest thing.
Making the decision
Simply making the decision can torment you. Divorce may violate all your values, and when you are so hopeless that you cannot stay with your spouse, it can be crushing. As one client, Josie (not her real name), said, “I had one rule when I was married: I would never divorce. I never wanted to do that to my children. Yet I made the excruciating decision when I realized I had no choice.” There is a myth that the person who makes the decision doesn’t suffer, but in fact he or she does, in many ways: fear, shame, guilt, anger, and so on.
Worrying about your children
Many people feel that telling the kids is the hardest part—usually this is early on when your emotions are raw, you may be about to separate or newly separated, and your future is unknown. As one client told me, “I was so afraid that my daughter would break down, or that I would. I was afraid of what my ex would tell them, or that he’d tell them before I had a chance to plan it with him.” A father said, “I was so nervous when we told the kids. And then, when they wouldn’t talk about it, I felt even worse because I wanted to know how they felt.”
You worry about the damage the divorce will cause your children. You grieve that you won’t see your kids every day and put them to bed every night. You miss them when they are with your ex and worry about whether they are ok. Josie said, “I was never able to get used to not being with them every day. Every time my kids went back to my ex, I cried. Even after years, I never stopped feeling the gut-wrenching pain of their leaving. I kept wondering what toll this was taking on my relationship with them. I had nightmares about long-term damage and it was all my fault.”
Many people say that the loneliness is the hardest part. It takes a very long time to get used to being single. Not only have you lost your partner, and perhaps your best friend, but you have possibly also lost your in-laws and the extended family that you married into. Your home and your bed feel empty. Laura remembered, “I just stopped eating because I didn’t have the energy to cook for just myself. They call it the divorce diet.”
Not only do you have less time with your kids, if you have them, but you are parenting alone, and you may miss the support of a parenting partnership.
You may find that friends choose sides, or try to blame one of you.
Carol told me, “You feel the stigma, especially if some friends distance themselves, and you feel like a failure as a person.” Maybe you are filled with shame about the breakdown of the marriage, and perhaps guilt for the ways you contributed to the problems. “It was hard to interact with people at all because I felt like I was a mess,” Carol continued.
Perhaps you can’t imagine starting to date again. You imagine that you’ll be alone for the rest of your life. You think, “Who would want me anyway?”
Not knowing you will recover and things will get better
It often seems that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. People frequently think they are ruined financially, and emotionally. Your anxiety may get the best of you as you imagine the worst. You wonder if you’ll live in a dank basement apartment or become a bag lady. As Mike said, “I drove past a homeless encampment and thought I might end up there.” Alex told me, “Moving out of the home we had built together was one of the worst days of the divorce.”
You may have to earn more or (if you haven’t been working) find a new job. Money is a huge stressor and causes a lot of conflict when you are trying to settle your divorce. Nick remembered, “We fought about money more than anything when we divorced. I thought she’d never be satisfied with the settlement, and she kept bargaining for more. It felt like a trap I couldn’t escape.” Nancy recalls, “I loved being a full-time mom and now I don’t know who I am. I haven’t worked in years and don’t even know how to go about getting a job. My skills are stale and outdated. I don’t even want to be doing this.”
You may also worry you may never recover emotionally. Your world has turned upside down and you wonder if you’ll ever come out of the depression or fog. You feel lost without a compass. You’ve lost your sense of purpose as a spouse and parent. You struggle to figure out who you are. Josie said, “I was barely making it from one day to the next. I cried every day for such a long time.” You doubt that you’ll get over the rejection. You are overwhelmed with grief, and feel betrayed. You think, maybe now I’m damaged and will never recover. Morgan told me, “I stayed furious for years. I couldn’t forgive him, and couldn’t move on. I was totally stuck in my misery.”
Your relationship with your ex
You can’t figure out how someone you once loved, and who loved you, has become so hurtful and distant. You think, “He was my best friend, and now he’s my adversary?” You can’t understand how or why this happened. You may blame yourself, wrestle with self-doubt, or wonder, “Did I do the right thing? Could I have saved the marriage?” Maybe you are dealing with months or years of your ex’s rage and rejection, and the awful rumors that your ex is spreading in your community. Maybe you can’t get over your own rage, and even years later you are caught up in a blaming story about what happened, what he or she did to you.
Dealing with the miserable legal process
It is often said that divorce is 95% emotional and only 5% legal. But for some, the legal process is the hardest. “I couldn’t focus on the paperwork and just wanted it to be over. I made decisions I regretted later. We should have waited to do the legal part until we were out of the crisis and survival mode.”
Life does get better
But over time, life does get better. Once the conflict stops, and the divorce is over, you may find that in a year, perhaps two, you feel like yourself again. You adjust and your kids adapt. You create new traditions and explore new activities or interests. You reconnect with your friends. And your kids still love you.
Perhaps you begin to date or start a new relationship. Fran said, “I had never done this online dating before, but it was fun to meet people and feel attractive again.” So as difficult as the divorce was (or is), remember that you will be okay. Just give yourself some time, and pay attention to taking care of yourself. If you need support, find a counselor or therapist who specializes in divorce-related work.
© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2020
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