Coping With Divorce: How to Break Up Without Breaking Down

Coping With Divorce: How to Break Up Without Breaking Down

Few things in life create such upheaval and stress as going through a divorce.  Our emotions are often a major hurdle in remaining focused and keeping it together as we navigate these unfamiliar and painful pathways.  What divorce usually does is set off a chain of stressful events that endures over a long period of time, and adjusting to this is complicated.   Studies have suggested that, other than the death of a spouse, divorce requires more reorganization than any other transition in life.

One significant emotion usually experienced in divorce is sadness.  Essentially, divorce is the death of a marriage and the death of a dream.  Therefore, just as with death, we may experience stages of loss and grief.  Generally speaking, there is Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance, which may be experienced in the following ways:

Denial:  “This is not happening to me.  It’s just a misunderstanding.   I’m sure that we can work it out.”

Anger:  “This isn’t fair.  How could he or she do this to me?  What did I do to deserve this?”

Bargaining:  “If you stay, then I’ll change.  I’ll do whatever  you want  (regarding money, sex, children, etc.) if you stay with me.”

Depression:  “This is really happening, and I don’t think that I can bear it.  It’s too much, and I can’t do anything about it.”

Acceptance:  “Okay.  This is how it is.  I need to accept this and move on.”

For the most part, people do not move smoothly from one stage to another.  In fact, most people going through a divorce visit these stages several times and at their own pace.   You may be angry one week and accepting another week – or day or hour.  In the meantime, however, how do you get from here to that point?  How do you build a bridge that you can cross to get to the other side where there is more peace and traction to move forward with your life?

Sometimes, you may feel so overwhelmed that your struggles get in the way of your ability to function on a day to day basis.  Sometimes the stress of divorce can diminish your capacity to think clearly and make rational decisions, and it can impair your mental and physical health.  If you find that you are not able to care for yourself or your children effectively, it’s important to get the right kind of help.  So, how do you deal with all of the stress that you are going through while, at the same time, trying to keep all of the moving parts moving in the right direction?  How do you manage to run your home and do your job and be there for your children and keep your house relatively clean and not break down?  Working with a therapist can be very helpful in dealing with the stress of divorce – for you and for your children.                                                         

Sometimes, however, therapy is not enough.  Sometimes the anxiety and depression during this time get to be too much.  You may need to increase your physical activity which naturally increases the “feel good” chemicals in your brain and in your body.  You may need to supplement with vitamins and minerals and probiotics that help to ease anxiety and depression and improve your immune system.  You may choose a portable electrical stimulation device that affects either the brain chemistry or brain waves and has a positive effect on depression, anxiety and sleep, or, in some cases, medication may be helpful.

The following are additional things that you can do to help your emotional, mental and physical health:

  1.  Eat healthy meals, exercise and get enough rest.  If you can do this, great!  If not, well, do the best that you can.
  2.   Meditation, mindfulness, muscle relaxation and deep breathing exercises are very helpful in slowing your body down.   The physiological responses to these activities combat the stress response in your body and actually help to heal you from the inside out.  Just doing these things for a few minutes a day can help to decrease chronic pain, stress, and depression, as well as help you sleep.
  3.   Massage therapy  lowers your blood pressure, encourages relaxation, improves circulation, promotes deeper and easier breathing, relieves headaches, enhances immunity and relaxes your muscles.
  4.  Work on your anger.  It has been said that, “Anger is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”  Being angry is often easier than feeling what’s beneath it, which is often hurt and shame.  Also, sometimes the thought of giving up our anger makes us feel that we are ok with what made us so angry.  Sometimes when we give up the anger, we feel less powerful.  It is often a driving force in our decision making.  There are certainly times when anger serves us well.  However, we need to learn or recognize when it becomes self- destructive and is no longer serving our needs.
  5.  Gather your data.  Learn what you can on your own.  Read about divorce, about finances, about children’s development.  Being an active participant with your attorney and your financial expert is crucial.  This is your life, and you need to be as educated as possible about what lies ahead for you and for your children so that you can create a path that will lead to the best outcomes possible.  
  6.  Take the high road if you can.  Our behaviors can either promote or sabotage.  Keep in mind that planting seeds of diplomacy and consideration and compassion now usually have a positive rate of return in the future.  Also, you need to be a model of maturity and decency in front of your children.   This is not always easy to do!
  7.  If you have had difficulty being able to communicate effectively and assertively, learning basic communication skills will go a long way as you negotiate either directly or indirectly with your spouse.  If there was a power imbalance in your relationship, and you felt less powerful than you wanted and needed to in your marriage, or if you experienced physical, sexual or mental abuse, you will need the strength of a strong ally and advocate.  Dealing with your fears and concerns through therapy can help you make it through this with greater self-respect, strength and self-worth.  You do not have to live the rest of your life feeling less than or beaten down.
  8.  Use this time to plan rather than to plot or react.  You may feel that you want this difficult time of waiting to end so badly that you are tempted to just give in and sign on the dotted line ASAP.  You must think through all of your options, otherwise, even years down the road, you may regret some of your reactive or impulsive decisions.
  9.  Give yourself a break.  Understand that this is a time of great transition.  You are moving from being married to being single. You may feel like you need to reinvent yourself and your identity.  Research has even shown that people who are kind and compassionate to themselves have an easier time managing the day to day difficulties of divorce.
  10.  Having a personal statement ready to say about your divorce can be very helpful.  You don’t want to be caught off guard by someone asking you a question that you aren’t prepared to answer.  You may have different statements for different occasions.  You are under no obligation to share information with anyone, except those whom you hire to help you.
  11.  Recognize how this is impacting your children.

All of this being said, it is important to find the right help for you.  When it comes to finding a therapist, there are certain criteria that are helpful to consider.  First and foremost, you want to work with someone with whom you feel comfortable;  someone you feel that you can trust with your mind and your body and your spirit.  You need to feel safe with this person and feel assured that his or her training and experience are aligned with the issues that you need help with.  You may want to find out what the therapist’s approach is and if this person can and will get in the trenches with you.  

Finally, it is important to note that the way that you feel about your ex-spouse today may not be the way that you feel about him or her down the road.  Sometimes, even if there is tremendous bitterness and anger and hurt now, you may be surprised at how your relationship transitions over time depending on circumstances.  The bottom line is to treat yourself and your kids in such a way that the foundation that you create from this point forward is strong enough and good enough to provide the basis for security and peace and avenues to happiness.


Deborah S. Wilder, Ph.D.

Psychologist, Divorce Mediator, Divorce Consultant, Parenting Coordinator