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5 Steps to Reclaim Your Life After a Bad Divorce

Getting back your sense of agency.

Joana Lopes/Shutterstock
Source: Joana Lopes/Shutterstock

It’s been more than a year since my divorce was final and I still experience lingering effects. These aren’t emotional effects—I wanted out and the hardest thing to deal with was that I couldn’t get out without a great deal of unnecessary stress, drama, and money. Instead they're more subtle changes in how I see the world and my place in it.

In hindsight, one of the most damaging and discouraging byproducts of a litigious divorce is the loss of your sense of agency. Many of us who are caught in the quicksand of bad divorces—roughly 5 percent of the total, according to most estimates—have no practical experience with the legal profession, except for benign encounters such as making a will or closing on a house. We’re not prepared for how a strategy of driving your legal bills sky-high—an incentive for you to fold your tent and agree to anything—can end up with a seemingly endless series of motions, counter-motions, delays, subterfuges, and lies, which make you feel as though you’re the paying bystander to a game of ping-pong played by two attorneys.

The truth is that your feeling that you lack agency reflects the reality. It’s not just that you’re not in control of the divorce but that your intrinsic values and sense of self got lost in the elaborate game of cat-and-mouse. Should you listen to your attorney when he or she suggests a strategy you would never come up with if you were acting alone? Sometimes it’s hard to figure out who the designated driver should be.

But as I’ve discovered, you can get your sense of agency back after it’s all said and done by becoming proactive. Here are five steps suggested by research:

1. Set new goals for yourself.

What better way to reclaim your ability to act than by acting? Setting new goals, especially intrinsic ones that reflect your core values and aspirations will put you back in the driver’s seat. Science shows that writing down your goals is actually more motivating than simply thinking about them. And, yes, using pen and paper is better than typing.

Once you have decided on your goals, you need to get yourself into a mindset in which your intention to implement those goals is clear. The work of Peter Gollwitzer shows that implementational thinking—“If X happens, then I will do Y”—pushes goals out of the abstract and reframes them in terms of action. Thinking this way combats procrastination and permits you to take advantage of situational cues. If one of your goals is to get out into the world and interact with new people, and you’ve thought about it concretely, seeing a note about volunteers being needed will instantly ring a bell and get you going. Ditto that invite from an old friend you haven’t seen in ages.

2. Manage your regrets.

To put your divorce behind you, and your loss of agency, work to stop replaying the choices you made (like getting married in the first place) and the blow-by-blow mechanics of the divorce. Studies show that ruminative thinking keeps you mired in the past. Consciously make a decision not to talk about the divorce as if it’s still ongoing. “If only” thinking—if only I hadn’t married him/her, if only I’d acted sooner—only keeps you stuck and feeling powerless.

If you beat yourself up for making the mistakes you made, please seek help: What you’re doing is counterproductive.

3. Embrace your shifting identity.

Transitions are difficult for most of us, and divorce isn’t just a transition from being married to being single again, but a host of changes, some easier to manage than others to manage. In his book, Transitions, William Bridges calls a key one “the disindentification process,” which he sees as the “inner side of the disengagement process.” In his case, he went from being a professor of literature to someone who was writing, lecturing, and consulting. The shift from being able to describe himself with the shorthand of a few prestigious nouns to a bunch of words ending in -ing proved much more difficult and painful than he anticipated. Much as you might not have wanted to be Jim’s wife or Lily’s husband anymore, you may also feel that you’ve also lost status or an important part of your self-definition.

Research by Patricia Linville shows that the more complex our mental representations of self are, the more resilient we are in times of stress or setback, and the more we're buffered from negative emotions and emotional fallout. In fact, one of her studies focuses on two divorced women, one who recovers from a divorce with relative ease while the other flounders. The woman with the more complex representations of self—tennis player, advocate, colleague, sister, mother, cousin, skier, gardener, lawyer—retains more of her identity when “wife” is taken off the table than her peer who had defined herself more narrowly as primarily a wife and a lawyer.

Redefining the self—which includes setting new goals—is another way of reclaiming your life.

4. Use symbolic action.

Changing your life in literal ways can also push you out of the past and into the present. People recovering from divorce often find it helpful to transform their looks or style, redecorate their home (especially if they’re living in what used to be their marital residence), or make other visible changes to signal that they’ve transitioned. For women, reclaiming your maiden name can be symbolically powerful. Both men and women report feeling better after declaring their independence by doing something they couldn’t have done in the context of their marriage, like traveling alone, going on a fishing trip, or doing something totally self-indulgent. My symbolic gesture was to reclaim my engagement ring which had sat in a drawer for three years, a glittering circlet abandoned. I came to realize that, while he’d paid for it, I bought it myself without him so it lacked real emotional content. Moreover, I love how it looks and I'd paid for it many times over given the size of my legal bills. So now I wear it—on my right hand.

5. Focus on what you can control.

If you’re hearing an echo of the Serenity Prayer, you’re on the right track. Recognize that you need to let go of your lousy experience and move forward. If you’re having trouble—you’re still ruminating over mistakes made or opportunities missed, still flooded with negative emotion, or drowning in regret—please get support and speak to a counselor or therapist. Work on implementing the goals you’ve set for yourself and put one foot in front of the other. There’s a whole future ahead.

Source: Chris Lawton. Copyright free.

The playing field isn't level when it comes to letting go of bad experiences. But these five steps will help you get back on your feet.

Copyright 2016 Peg Streep

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  • Bridges, William. Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. New York: Da Capo Press, 2004.
  • Gollwitzer, Peter M., “Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans,” American Psychologist, Vol 54(7), Jul 1999, 493-503.
  • Linville, Patricia, “Self-Complexity and Affective Extremity: Don’t Put All of Your Eggs in One Cognitive Basket,”” Social Cognition. 1, no.1. (1985): 94-120.
  • Linville, Patricia W. “Self-Complexity As a Cognitive Buffer Against Stress-Related Illness and Depression,: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1987), 12, no.4, 663-676.