Dear Therapist..."Will I Ever Get Over My Divorce?"
My husband and I are getting a divorce. I’m heartbroken and in shock. This wasn’t my choice and I never thought I’d find myself here. I was so sure I had learned the lessons from my parents’ very troubled relationship and messy divorce – that I would ‘do things better.’ Yet here I am. What worries me most now is seeing how my mother never really moved on from her divorce – decades later the anger is still there and she remains defiantly single but I sense is very lonely – and I don’t want the same to be true for me. I want to learn and grow from this loss rather than get stuck in it. How not to repeat at least that part of the history?
Heart that wants to Heal
I’m so sorry. Divorce can be utterly devastating, an emotional earthquake that causes us to question our entire framework for understanding our lives, our place in the world, even our intrinsic self-worth.
Given the history of your parents’ divorce, your present situation also likely brings emotions associated with that earlier experience to the surface. It is a lot to process. I hear your desire not to get ‘frozen’ in the heartbreak. It is important to hold that intention of making it through the pain, but in my experience another way people can inadvertently get stuck is by trying to move too quickly, or to leapfrog the difficult emotions all together in an attempt to just get to the other side. Painful feelings buried alive have a tendency to linger (‘What we resist, persists’ in therapy-speak). So I encourage you to accept there is a difficult period of metabolising the emotions ahead, all the while remembering that the story doesn’t end there. Resilience is both a process and an outcome.
When we think about working with trauma (and divorce is traumatic for many), we can address three general spheres:
- resourcing and supporting ourselves
- processing the traumatic material
- integrating the experiences into new meaning, growth and relationships.
In the near term, I would focus on the first two. First, making sure to scale up the resources around you – emotional support in the form of therapy or support groups in addition to friends and family; financial, legal and logistical (e.g., help with childcare); physical in the sense of taking care of your body that is feeling the stresses and strains. Next, allowing yourself time and space to process the emotions. This could be with the help of your emotional supports, or/and via journaling, creativity, movement, periodic emotional check-ins. Be patient with yourself - healing and growth don’t come on demand. Then, in the words of poet William Stafford, ‘Sometimes from sorrow, for no reason you sing.’
The third part is where we can recognise the tendrils of positive change. American psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term ‘posttraumatic growth’ in the 1990s and identified five such ‘domains of growth’ that can emerge in the aftermath:
- a greater sense of personal strength
- improved relationships with others
- new possibilities for one’s life
- a greater appreciation for life
- and spiritual development.
Not everyone who experiences trauma will see growth in one or all of these areas. And some may experience it elsewhere – I’ve known clients who found creative inspiration in their pain and made beautiful art from it. Others who have cultivated an increased compassion and altruism as a result. None of it comes easily considering the starting place is a pretty devastating one. But there is a longstanding tradition of using intense crisis as a catalyst for positive development. It is understandable you want the same to be true for you, and, again, I encourage you to hold this intention. Just don’t be in a rush to get there – the ability to withstand, survive and emerge from the distress are crucial components of the growth in a process that needs time to unfold at its own pace.