How to Know if You’re Stuck in Your Grief Post-Divorce

Are you stuck? Or are you right where you should be?

Posted May 21, 2015

When was the last time you thought about life with your ex? Last week? Yesterday? Two minutes ago?

A month ago, a man named Joseph called me to tell me that he was four years post-divorce, but he felt like he was stuck in his recovery. Not a day went by when he didn’t think about his wife—how much he missed her, how sad he was that she left him, and how lost he was in the world. He realized that the feelings he has now are only mildly less intense than those he had when her leaving was fresh.

It’s normal and healthy to relive both good and bad moments in time when you were married. It’s an unavoidable part of the grief process. But there will come a day when, if you aren’t moving forward, the very same thoughts and feelings will be deemed unhealthy.

Time is supposed to heal us and all our wounds. We are expected to be resilient after a major loss or major life event such as divorce. If we don’t bounce back, that means the healing is stalled and it’s important to get a handle on why you might be stuck.

How long your emotional recovery takes depends on a number of factors such as whether you saw the split coming, whether it was your choice, whether you were left for another, whether you have kids, whether you are self-supporting, whether you’re getting adequate help and whether you have the right resources and information around you, to name a few.

There is a way out, but most people need some kind of help to get there. I can say this with confidence after 15 years of doing this work. I’ve seen who gets beyond the divorce and I see who gets stuck (and why).

Seven Tools for Getting on the Other Side of Your Divorce Grief

Those who get on the other side take advantage of a combination of at least three of the following seven tools:

  1. They read books to help them sort out their experience and their feelings/reaction to the experience.
  2. They have a strong support network that will go the distance with them (often friends and family are available for a couple of months but then you may feel like you’re a downer all the time, that you’re burdening them, or they stop taking your calls).
  3. They journal.
  4. They seek professional help.
  5. They join a support group.
  6. They allow themselves to be where they are and they don’t try to rush through the grief process or pretend to be further along than they are.
  7. They want to feel better (this one may seem obvious but it's crucial to getting better).

This week, one of my group members, Sally (not her real name), announced that, after 2 1/2 years, she feels she’s finally getting past the divorce being her entire story. It was when she realized she had a “normal” weekend that she became aware that she was in the new chapter of her life—not waiting and wishing for it any longer.

Because she’s been dealing with a narcissistic ex (one of the most difficult kinds of exes), she has had to work hard on finding ways to minimize the impact of his cruel and often unpredictable treatment. She knows she will never get it right 100 percent of the time, but what’s so good is that she knows that it’s not about her (and the best part of her healing is that she now knows it never was about her). She’s free to move on. And wow, does it feel great.

Along with participating in one of my groups, Sally was in individual therapy. She read lots of books on the subject and she was a big journal writer (there’s actually exciting new neuroscience showing the benefits of journaling* so, while it may seem passive, it’s actually moving the pain out of your brain!) She definitely wanted to feel better right from the start but she couldn't imagine how she'd ever get there.

Joseph, on the other hand, assumed that time would heal his wounds and he was too proud to reach out for any kind of help. He didn't speak to anyone, didn't read anything (except maybe online tidbits once in a while), and he felt like such a loser that he didn't think he even deserved to feel better. As a result, he became stuck in his grief.

But it’s never too late to reach out and I’m confident that Joseph will find his way through the process.

Here are some books I suggest you read on healing:

  • Stronger Day by Day, Susan Pease Gadoua
  • Beyond Divorce, Jeannine Lee
  • Splitting, Bill Eddy and Randy Kreger
  • Joint Custody with a Jerk, Julie Ross and Judy Corcoran
  • Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser
  • When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron
  • *Write to Heal, James Pennebaker

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