The Three Paths After Divorce

Dealing with the actual end of a marriage is hard enough, but dealing with everything else that comes afterwards makes it feel like the divorce part is just the beginning.

Getting through all of the post-trials of divorce, including legal aspects, selling the house, co-parenting issues, splitting finances, communication challenges with one’s spouse, dealing with grief, handling family and children, and creating a new life for oneself takes a strong and courageous personality to navigate. Sometimes, there is also marital infidelity that ends the marriage, which magnifies the pain considerably.

Not all make it through that painful process to the light at the end of the tunnel, though. Many people are permanently wounded from their divorce experiences. These “walking wounded” experience residual pain that can last for years, and they never really get back to the same footing they were on before their divorce, or earlier. They may be stuck somewhere along the road, not letting other people in to their lives or closing themselves off to the world out of fear, hurt or pain.

In working with people going through divorce, I’ve sketched out three general paths I’ve seen clients assume: stagnation, regression and progression. Those going through the divorce process don’t necessarily fit tidily into one category, but sometimes dip in and out of more than one path through the divorce healing process. It is possible to find yourself in a combination of the phases, but for these purposes, they’re laid out each individually. Here goes:

Stagnation

Stagnation is when you’re stuck, and not able to advance in your own life, even if your marriage ends. There are many, many reasons for stagnation, but here are a few I’ve seen.

Sometimes, people aren’t ready to end their emotional ties to their marriage, so they continue to hold onto it, even if it’s no longer there. They hold onto the remnant of their marriage, or to unfulfilled fantasies of what it could have been, or needed to be, instead of letting go and starting the healing process. When stagnation sets in, these people can’t get on with their own lives post-divorce, because they’re too busy living in the past, or too afraid of the future, to move on. Letting go of broken dreams is hard, but necessary.

Dealing with the grief of the ended marriage, or working through fear or terror about making it on your own, is the key to resolving this stuck place, and the key to moving on. Working through the painful memories or feelings, such as hurt, loss, anger, fear, etc., is what can help you get you to the other side of healing, and help you move on with your life.

Children make this process of stagnation harder, because I talk with a lot of people that don’t want to make difficult decisions that they fear would impact their children. Maybe they don’t want to leave a bad marriage because they are ”doing it for the kids.” There are ways to deal with and communicate with your children to help them along this difficult time, and ideally, you and your spouse can go through this divorce process together. But, dealing with your own fear or apprehension about your children’s well being allows you to move through the stagnation process, because they will be o.k. in the end. Don’t make decisions for them if it commits you to a lifetime of unhappiness for yourself.

I talk with people who are simply too afraid to be alone, or have never experienced themselves in an environment where they are alone. Learning to be alone is actually different from being lonely: you can learn to be comfortable with yourself being alone, and you can deal with the emotional pains of being lonely. They’re two different things. Those ending their marriages fear loneliness, which alters their decision making process, often keeping them stagnant and not progressing.

Sometimes, the hardest thing is in confronting ourselves, after our role as spouse/family member has changed. Not knowing who you are, or experiencing identity crisis, is normal for many coming out of divorce. We get so used to playing certain roles in our family life, that when they go away, we don’t know how to be with ourselves, or know who we even are. Learning to befriend yourself again – or for the first time – is essential to pulling yourself out of stagnation and getting on with your life.

Regression

Regression happens when you resort to an earlier state of your life after marriage. After divorce, people sometimes want to “sow their wild oats,” and do all the things that marriage denied them, which can lead to immediate fun and gratification, but also problems in the long run. They’re free, and they want to celebrate it. The idea of “divorce parties” comes to mind, as people want to celebrate their “newfound freedom.”

When I talk with couples who have been together since they were fairly young, I see this happen in these cases. One – or both – partners never really had the opportunity to develop themselves in their younger lives, and explore the world alone. They got married early, and settled into their roles as married people, and then as parents together. They long for the easier, more “adolescent” times where they can be free, careless and do what they please, like party, date, have sex with new people or generally be free.

The problem comes in when you’re trying to relive these earlier experiences while trying to meet the adult demands of today. When regression goes wrong, many times things get neglected, like parenting responsibilities or general attendance to their children, because these regressive types are too busy having fun and meeting their own needs. The chains of marriage may have been thrown off, and now there’s no one to take care of except oneself, so the thinking goes. But, balancing the need for freedom and responsibility is important.

Dealing in counseling with the regrets you have about not living the way you intended to, or the way the marriage prevented you from living your life, would be helpful so that the regrets don’t drive you to regress too much, as a way to overcompensate for the regret.

Progression

 This is the healthiest route following divorce. On the progression path, you can learn to deal with the difficult feelings that are inevitable when a marriage dies. Like death, grief often accompanies the end of a marriage, so recognizing and dealing with the grief as it comes up, and all the feelings associated with it, is essential.

Sadness, pain, anger or rage, loss, betrayal – all are quite normal responses to the end of a marriage, and it’s important to be aware of what those experiences are for you when they arise in you. Be aware of your feelings, and of your avoidance responses to get rid of those negative feelings. There is no one “right” way to deal with divorce, but you have to learn what’s best for you. Seek out support from loved ones, friends, or others who have gone through divorce themselves. Don’t rush yourself into finding a new partner, or to dating. Take the time you need to fully heal yourself back to health.

People who progress well through the end of their marriage learn to take care of themselves, emotionally, psychologically, physically and generally. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t hardships and pain, because there will be both. But, those people have the fortitude and endurance to see it out, and deal with what’s to come, usually come back to their fuller selves at some point down the road.

They have the momentum to deal with the difficult decisions and hardships that inevitably come, like deciding on parenting plans, splitting the assets, or dealing with the permanent end of a marriage (and often friendship). Seeking out counseling is helpful for those dealing with divorce, so you may want to consider making that a part of your healing plan if you’re dealing with divorce. Remembering that there is an end to the pain, and life can go on, is important to remind yourself when the dark days come.

About Jason

As "The Man That Men Will Talk To," Jason Fierstein, MA, LPC is a private practice counselor and psychotherapist for men and couples in the greater Phoenix, Arizona, area. He works with struggling men to find happiness in their lives, and with their wives.
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