Finding Empathy for your Ex After Divorce – Yes, It’s Possible.

Finding Empathy For Your Ex After Divorce - Yes, it’s possible.
Photo by Alex Green: https://www.pexels.com/photo/frustrated-black-man-talking-to-female-psychologist-or-friend-5699489/
Carol Madden
Carol Madden
Separation and Divorce Coach
Carol Madden Coaching

Divorce brings out the ugliness in us.

No matter how hard we try not to let that happen, it’s inevitable.

One of the hardest things to do when going through a divorce is to find empathy for the person who is bringing up pain within us that is so strong, we barely recognise ourselves anymore.

As humans, we find it difficult to shift our lens from the one we view the world through to someone else’s. This is because we experience the world through an egocentric bias.

An egocentric bias causes people to rely too heavily on their own point of view when they look at the events in their life or try to see things from other people’s perspectives.

A good example of this is the frustration we feel if someone cuts us off when we’re driving. We don’t stop and think that maybe they’re desperate for a job and are running late for an interview. We just assume that they are arrogant assholes.

It’s worth challenging your egocentric bias during divorce because it can bring you peace and make the situation more amicable in the long run.

If you have children, this will directly benefit their emotional well-being. Try doing it for them if not for anyone else.

It feels impossible at first

In the very first stages of my separation, I found so many ways to blame my ex for what was happening to us and justify some of how I was behaving.

Looking back now, I know that I was in survival mode. It was a form of denial that kept me safe from the immeasurable hurt and shock that I was in.

Our bodies are in constant fight or flight mode when a significant relationship ends.

When you add children into the mix, the tension is even worse. You’re trying so hard to suppress the rage, anger and grief that sometimes wants to explode out of you in order to protect your kids.

Six months after our trial separation, my ex and I attempted to reconcile for the sake of our children. Neither of us was coping with our fears of an unknown future, playing on a constant loop in our heads.

During this time, I suffered a collapsed disc in my neck out of nowhere and could not get out of bed for an entire week.

This is a clear-cut example of how much strain we are under when we are trying not to let the most crippling of emotions get the better of us.

It’s the human condition to only think of our own pain and suffering when we’re going through trauma. Especially when we attribute that pain and trauma to someone else’s actions.

Even though it sounds crazy to be able to find empathy for someone else at this time, I want to try and open your mind a little to why this is important for your own emotional state and how you can reframe your thinking to be able to get there if it’s something you believe wouldn’t be possible for you.

Small disclaimer: Some people are emotionally abusive or have personality disorders. These people lack the ability to find empathy or see things from another’s perspective.

For the purpose of what I’m going to share today, I’m assuming that both you and your ex are capable of feeling empathy for each other.

Comparing the start to the end.

Can you remember the first few months of meeting your ex?

How did it feel?

What qualities did you see in them?

Something drew you to them and made you decide that you could spend the rest of your life with this person.

That’s a huge call.

Although it can be painful to do this, it’s helpful to cast your mind back and think of the good things you saw. And the caring things that you did for each other.

Now compare it to how you treated each other at the end of your marriage.

Very different, am I right?

People in extreme pain and grief act out in ways they didn’t think were possible.

If you’re being honest with yourself, I’m sure you can think of some things you said or did in the last stages of your marriage that were not your finest moments.

The first step in finding empathy for someone else is to take ownership and forgive ourselves for mistakes we may have made. It’s challenging to look at another person’s struggles when we haven’t done a sincere inventory of our part in the situation.

Forgiving the unforgivable

Sometimes there has been infidelity. Does this give you a licence to always be angry at your ex and never forgive?

Sure, if you want to stay stuck in pain and negativity.

If you’ve experienced infidelity, I want to share this quote by Esther Perel, a renowned psychotherapist known for her work on relationships and cheating.

“People cheat on each other in a hundred different ways: indifference, emotional neglect, contempt, lack of respect, years of refusal of intimacy. Cheating doesn’t begin to describe the ways that people let each other down.” – Esther Perel.

Even if you consider yourself to be a caring and supportive partner throughout the marriage, think of what emptiness had to have been inside your ex to feel they needed the validation or adrenaline rush of trying to seek attention outside of the relationship.

I will even challenge you one step further. Imagine the deep shame and failure your ex now has to work through, knowing that the actions they chose hurt someone else to the core.

Are you able to find empathy for someone going through that?

The above point is not to excuse infidelity. In a perfect world, your partner would come to you and explain what they weren’t getting from you before they resorted to finding it somewhere else, but the world is not perfect.

The point is this. No matter what caused the breakdown of your relationship, we are all imperfect and will all make mistakes.

Once we can begin to step outside of our own pain, we can start to see that our exes are going through their own life journeys.

Profound loss

Consider everything you are grieving the loss of after divorce;

  • family dynamics
  • mutual friendships
  • daily contact with your children
  • a life partner
  • plans for the later part of your life
  • in some cases, a home.

Your ex has also lost those things.

I doubt any parent could look at their kids going through a divorce and not feel extreme sadness. There will always be grief for your children’s pain after a divorce. Your ex is feeling this too.

Nobody gets married and dreamily pictures the day that they sign their divorce papers.

When we get married, we dream big. Your ex is having to let go of their dreams too.

You may be going through it on your own, but in so many ways, you are still going through something together.

You’re still a team

Fewer relationship dynamics are more challenging than that of co-parenting.

What other relationships have so many emotional and practical layers to them?

Although you are no longer the team in the way you used to be, you are still a team regardless. You have children to raise together, not as a couple but as two people who once loved each other and now have a new challenge ahead.

It doesn’t end when your kids leave school or child support payments end. You will both be there for your kids for the rest of your lives. Think graduations, relationships, breakups, and possibly, weddings and grandkids.

It’s worth everything it takes to be able to get to a place of being able to find peace within yourself about the way your relationship ended so that you can show up in your kids’ lives together without continuously having to dig deep to get through it.

Overcoming struggle

I understand all too well that this advice can be tough to get your head around when you’re in the first stages of divorce.

Often, people resist because they think they are letting their ex off the hook for unfair or unjust treatment.

As I often say, it’s not about your ex.

You’re letting yourself off the ‘emotional’ meat hook by being able to see the bigger picture of life’s twists, turns and inevitable challenges.

If you feel the need to blame or punish your ex for the way your marriage ended, ask yourself who is really suffering? Then ask yourself, who benefits if I am able to get to a place where I can give them some understanding for their own struggles?

Hint: It’s you and your kids.


Finding empathy for our exes is not something that comes naturally or easily for us when we are going through the gruelling journey of divorce and co-parenting.

Visualising your future as co-parents can be helpful when you get bogged down in day-to-day conflict with your ex.

If you struggle with this, you can reach out to a coach to help you work through feelings of animosity and reach for understanding when you feel pushed to your limits.

Ultimately, this is what is going to make the most positive difference to you and your kids’ lives as you move forward post-divorce.

Read more articles by Carol Madden.

About Carol Madden

Hello, my name is Carol Madden and I am a certified divorce coach working with clients around the world from my online practice in New Zealand.

I aim to help individuals navigate the often overwhelming emotions and practical considerations of separating from a spouse. I understand the unique challenges that divorce can bring, having been through my own divorce ten years ago.

I believe that divorce can be an opportunity for growth and positive change, rather than just a painful ending. Through my coaching, I help clients gain clarity and confidence as they move forward in their lives.

As a writer, I am excited to share my perspectives on divorce with readers seeking solid support during their separations. Whether providing tips for managing the emotional rollercoaster or offering practical advice for effectively co-parenting, I want to help others through this challenging time.

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