A divorce can be a gift in creating an even better life for yourself. In this three-part series, we are exploring creating your dream life post-divorce. In Part One, we discussed what was at stake and the impact of stress on the body. In Part Two, we will discuss words of wisdom to help you cope with life after divorce. By taking a proactive approach to personal growth, you can turn the end of your marriage into an opportunity for self-discovery and transformation.
I have some specific steps and exercises for you to work through to help get you on the path to healing, but first, I thought I would share a few words of advice as someone that has been the child of a divorce, walked through a divorce myself, and worked with many people that are also struggling with a divorce.
- You get to feel what you feel—part one.
No two divorces are the same, nor are the people going through them. As you proceed through a divorce, sometimes people don’t know what to say, or they say something that they think is helpful like, “You’ll be fine. Just start moving on. For the sake of your kids don’t show emotion.” While they may be well-intentioned, at the end of the day, you are the only person going through your divorce in your shoes, so you get to feel however the heck you want to feel. A divorce is a grieving experience for what the life you wanted to have and a significant life change to orchestrate. You may find that one day you feel one emotion, and the next, you think another. However, you feel it is perfectly correct for you.
- You get to feel what you feel—part two.
A few months after we started our separation, I was at my obstetrician for my regular check-up. He asked how I was, and I started crying. I explained everything that was happening, and I couldn’t stop crying. He told me he would prescribe an anti-depressant because my emotions were making it hard for me to function successfully, and the stress could impact not just my child inutero but both of my kids.
I cried my way through a thank you and started my new med the next day. Within a few days, I stopped crying and could not only be functional but began to be hopeful and possibly excited for my new chapter.
I share this because you do not have to suffer through the pain. You do not win a medal if you “push through it” while absolutely miserable. You get to feel whatever you feel, but you also deserve to be happy, healthy, and to start to heal and thrive.
Lean into your support system, and do not be afraid to ask for help. If you feel like you are in a crisis, dial 988. They do not just support people who are fully suicidal. They support people at any stage along the way. So if you are thinking about harming yourself or anyone else, please call.
I also refer people to Psychology Today to look up therapists. Typically it shows a picture, their specialties, and other background information to help you choose. If you are a parent, there is no better skill and strength to model to your children than asking for help when needed.
- Make time for yourself.
I know this sounds cliché and like an impossible feat when you already have so many plates spinning on a good day, but now, with a divorce in the mix. Yet it’s vital, and let me tell you why.
Unfortunately, when we go through a divorce, most of us do not have the luxury of halting our previous obligations like our jobs, bills, if we have kids- raising them, and all of the other commitments relying on us. That said, we are human and can only handle so much.
Think of yourself as a bottle of soda (or pop, depending on where you grew up), and then think of your stress as shaking the bottle. Most days, we give that bottle a good shake at least a few times throughout the day. Some days we get lucky, and
there are fewer shakes. Adding a divorce into the mix is like putting that bottle of soda into the paint-shaking machine at the paint store. Your bottle of soda is being constantly shaken with stress.
Remember we talked earlier about the impact of stress on your body, so you will need to be very intentional in countering that stress impact to minimize damage to your body now and in the future. If you do not actively try to reduce that stress, your bottle will eventually hit its breaking point and explode. Trust me, you do not want that.
One way to take your bottle of soda out of the paint shaker is to intentionally make time for yourself. Every. Single. Day. I’m not asking you to carve out three hours a day, but when you can, I definitely would. Even five minutes a day to do something that brings you joy is imperative to allow your brain to decompress and work towards reregulating your nervous system.
I recommend that you plan ahead of time when you are making this time and what you are doing because if your plan is to crash on the couch every night and drown yourself in sorrows with a six-pack, that will only shake your bottle of soda more. The goal is to give yourself time to escape from your situation to pour into yourself.
Incidentally, alcohol is a depressant, so while you may feel numb while you’re drinking, the next day may feel worse, which is why we start to see addictions take shape because to feel okay, we self-medicate with substances regularly.
Instead, I recommend spending time with family and friends. They are an incredibly uplifting distraction, and laughing is an excellent medicine for increasing serotonin. Other suggestions are forcing yourself to go on a walk, even if it’s just around the block, meditating, enjoying a hobby, putting together a puzzle, reading a book or journal, going on a road trip, going to a movie/theatre/festival/concert, remember you’re choosing whatever brings you joy.
- Mindfulness versus the UFC of Life
I think of divorce as the UFC of life sometimes. Two people in a ring with very few rules. If you want to see the worst of someone, watch them during a divorce. It doesn’t mean that all people that go through divorce show their worst sides, but
sometimes these once-in-love people morph into someone they don’t even recognize.
We have different parts of our brains that develop as we age, from the back to the front. One of our brains’ last pieces to fully develop is the prefrontal cortex, typically in our mid-20s.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for rational decision-making, good judgment, and other critical executive functioning. Unfortunately, a divorce is traumatic, so your brain automatically goes into survival mode using the back of your brain, throwing some of your best judgment and decision-making out the window.
The only way to get your prefrontal cortex out of survival mode is to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps calm the body and allows your prefrontal cortex to activate again.
Some of the best evidence-based ways to do that are through mindfulness, such as deep breathing, meditation, or moving your body (yoga, running, brisk walking). Mindfulness is being more aware of yourself and your emotions, which ultimately helps you regulate your whole self.
This holds true for your ex as well. The more either of you goes into survival mode, the less likely you will be able to execute rational judgment and decision-making. Consider embedding these strategies in your routine and before any challenging moments.
- You are going to be okay.
Divorce is scary for a lot of reasons. You may wonder how you will financially make it or feel like it will be hard to date again at whatever age you are. The reality is that you will adapt and make it work.
The biggest secret to your success will be your support network. Make sure you carefully choose people in your closest circle who can listen non-judgmentally but are willing to support you unconditionally.
They are the ones you trust to say that you have no food in the house or you need someone to watch the kids, and you know that they will be there for you every time. They don’t judge your situation, instead do everything they can to elevate you.
These are your people, and your people will help you find the things you need and be ready to catch you when you fall.
- When kids are involved
I remember being positive that our divorce would destroy our children forever. However, some of the best advice I ever received was:
“The kids will handle it as well as the parents, so if you co-parent and seek to do what’s best for your kids, they will be fine. If you are committed to being angry, hating their other parent, and talking bad about them to your child, your child will know, and then you run the risk of destroying them and their ability to have a happy, healthy, and functional life.”
That one hit me hard because it was a potent reminder of how critical it was that I was mindful of how I proceeded. Divorce is considered a trauma for all involved, but how the adults behave impacts the extent of potential damage and opportunities for healing.
Over the years, I have seen too many divorced parents still holding onto the anger, resentment and continuing to openly try to manipulate each other, even years later, with their child having a front-row seat.
That anger doesn’t bring your ex suffering, it brings you suffering. Holding onto it weighs you down and limits your ability to open yourself to find joy and happiness again. Acknowledge and thank your emotions for trying to protect you, and then say goodbye to them because they are not serving you well. If it isn’t elevating your life, you don’t need it.
As a teacher, I can say with 100% certainty that while you may not be able to see the damage physically, you are doing to your child, the emotional scars are long-lasting. I see it in how they relate to each other, how they parrot what you’ve said to or about the other parent in their own social conversations, how they respond to stress, and how they address conflict resolution.
The statistics on children with divorced parents aren’t rosy, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Children of divorced parents are 20-30% more likely to have mental health issues and an increased likelihood of academic problems, aggression, and future relationship issues. The odds significantly rise with parents that have not
dealt with their own emotions independently of their children and actively work to co-parent without the anger and negative emotions.
While a divorce can be one of the most challenging life transitions you may experience it can also be the start of your best life chapter yet. In Part Three, we will discuss the step-by-step roadmap of holistic, evidence-based strategies to help you rediscover your identity, passions, and purpose after divorce. You deserve this.
About Dr Jennifer Ulie
Over the last two decades, Jennifer Ulie, Ph.D., has become a trusted voice and award-winning expert on building sustainable personal and organisational systems of mental, social & emotional wellness. Having presented to tens of thousands of professionals, she is a highly sought-after thought leader & public speaker for her wit, knowledge, relatability, and engaging talks.
Dr. Ulie is the founder and CEO of Mensana Wellness Solutions. She has been a teacher, professor, nonprofit founder & Executive Director, legislative advocate, school board member, and legal expert witness. She has founded, launched, and led countless stakeholder groups, coalitions, conferences, programs, and online courses & certifications.
She sits on multiple regional and national professional organisations, advisory boards, and boards of directors. She has published peer-reviewed articles and is an academic journal peer reviewer. Dr. Ulie has been featured on multiple media outlets, including CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, NPR, and PBS. She can be contacted at mymensana.com or on social media @mymensana.