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How Do You Heal From a Devastating Divorce?

Sudden loss is more devastating and disorientating than one we can see coming.

In the aftermath of the rejection or loss of a divorce, we need time to grieve. No single timetable fits all. Rejection is hardest when we have intertwined the “dailyness” of our lives with the other person, when we have relied on that person for practical, emotional, and financial support, and when trust—including trust in our own good judgment—has been violated.

Mary’s story is easy to identify with, even if the particulars don’t fit your experience. Married for 20 years, Mary enjoyed what she considered a “problem-free” relationship with her husband until he left her for a co-worker he had been sleeping with for over a decade. The aftermath of this rejection was profound, as Mary lost far more than her most significant relationship. She lost her identity and self-regard, as well as her sense of history, continuity, and meaning. Jeff’s disclosure that he had a lover for 10 years forced Mary to revise both her understanding of the past and her pictures of the future. Because she and Jeff had never talked about marital problems as they came up, the loss hit Mary like an earthquake, utterly without warning.

Understandably, sudden loss is more devastating and disorientating than one we can see coming, try to make sense of, and plan for. It is no wonder that Mary found herself overwhelmed by a crowd of emotions, including rage, humiliation, shame, helplessness, and depression. It was a sign of strength that Mary identified these painful feelings, allowed them into her experience, and shared them with me. She was also nearly frozen with fear.

Mary told me of her greatest fear—that she would never trust anyone again, or even want to get up in the morning. Very gradually, she began to heal. Every move forward required her to muster the courage to act in the face of anxiety. Finally, she took on the toughest, most fearful task of all—releasing herself from her still powerful rage at her ex-husband. “I don’t know if I can do it,” she confessed to me. “Why should I let him off the hook when he was such a bastard?”

Years after a devastating rejection, we may resist moving forward because we are not yet ready to detach from our suffering. It’s not that we take some twisted masochistic pleasure in feeling like the “done-in” partner. Rather, we may learn to wrap pain and suffering around ourselves like an old, familiar blanket. It can be our way of taking revenge—of showing the other person how deeply they have harmed us through their outrageous behavior. To move forward in our lives may feel akin to forgiving the transgressor, to saying: “Well, I’m doing well now, so I guess your behavior didn’t hurt me that much.”

Then there’s the fantasy that if we hang onto our justified rage and suffering long enough, the other person will finally see the light, realize how much they have harmed us, and feel as bad—perhaps even worse—than they have made us feel. It is a powerful and comforting fantasy. It is also just that—a fantasy.

Some of us may be afraid to let go of our anger because, in a strange way, it keeps us connected to the person who has hurt us. Anger is a form of intense attachment (albeit negative attachment), just like love. Both forms of emotional intensity keep us close to the other person, which is why so many couples are legally divorced, but not emotionally divorced. If you can’t talk on the phone or be in the same room with your ex-spouse without feeling your stomach clutch, you’re still attached. Detaching can provoke great anxiety—and require enormous courage.

When we let go of our anger and suffering we give up the dream that the person who harmed us will ever feel remorse, see things the way we do, or come back to us on their knees, pleading for another chance.

It took Mary a long time to let go of the secret hope that if she stayed angry long enough, Jeff would return on his knees, miserable and begging for forgiveness. As Mary faced the loss of this dream, she experienced an onslaught of intense emotions, from heart-thudding anxiety to deep grief and loneliness to, finally, a budding sense of energy and aliveness. Gradually, Mary found that when she thought of Jeff, she no longer felt a knee-jerk surge of rage. Instead, she was aware of a kind of quiet sadness—and on some days, a palpable sense of relief.

I don’t mean to imply that we hold onto our anger because we consciously want to show the other person how totally they’ve screwed up our lives. Nor are these feelings completely in our control (“Gee, I think this would be a good time to let go of my anger and suffering”). I’m by no means saying that anger is “bad” since it can take great courage to acknowledge and express anger.

But it requires just as much courage to free oneself from the corrosive effects of living too long with obsessive anger or rage—a challenge that may include forgiveness but certainly does not require it. What’s clear is that nothing is served by ruminating about the terrible things your ex did to you, and making yourself miserable in the process.

More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
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