What do you do if you’re the person on the receiving end of the news that your marriage is ending? You have had no chance to prepare yourself to respond when faced with a devastating event that will change everything. You have raged or screamed or reeled and experienced feelings that are so large and overwhelming that you thought they would grab you by the heels and drag you down into the depths of despair until you drowned. You may have begged and pleaded with your spouse or replayed conversations in your mind until you think you’ll go mad. Yet, you have lived through that crisis long enough to find this article, so there is some evidence that experiencing the end of your relationship might not kill you and there is hope for life after divorce.
Assemble a tribe
There is no way around these emotions – you have to go through them. In fact, the more you use your energy to push your feelings away, the stronger and more frightening they become. It’s critical that you find a safe place to face the emotional hurricane that is passing over your world (and it will pass – they always do). That shelter could be in the form of a compassionate therapist, friend, or family member (but not a child); it might be found in your religious community, or in a place of solitude. Take some time to listen to what your broken heart is telling you it needs, then ask for whatever will bring those things or people or resources to you, just for a little while. Yes, there are children to feed and other obligations to attend to, and those will be waiting for you when you feel strong enough to put one foot in front of the other. Allow those around you to help you. You would be there for them, right? Why not give them the opportunity to be there for you in your hour of true need.
These are your allies and guides – those people who have your ultimate best interests at heart, and who will not allow you to indulge in destructive behavior toward yourself or others. Practice trust and honesty with those who show up willing to be your tribe and support you. Trust and honesty – two of the primary casualties of being blindsided by a breakup – also contain the seeds of healing. Most people are surprised at the size of the tribe they can assemble when they call for one. Ask your tribe to be your filter – to use their collective good judgment to keep you from doing things that will not serve you well in the long run.
The question the tribe will remind you to ask: “Will what I am about to do or say lead me closer to getting more of what I want my life to be like when this divorce is over?” Unless the answer is a resounding, “yes!” don’t do it. In fact, no gets two votes and yes only gets one, so if you’re not sure, don’t do it. Just don’t. Your tribe will find another way for you to purge your feelings of anger and fantasies of revenge, or to commiserate with that part of you that wants to tell your side of the story.
Put one foot in front of the other
After you have a chance to take a breath and find some ground beneath your feet the question changes from, “will I survive this horrific blow?” to, “how will I deal with this situation?” Will the actions of another person define you as broken, defeated, and cynical for the rest of your life, or will you find a way to emerge from the darkness with a better sense of who you are at your core? Can you see the benefit of allowing the energy of the tsunami-force feelings to launch you into a place of peace and wonder about what’s next for you? Maybe … or maybe not right now, but at least that’s the goal. Only one thing is certain, and that is that things are going to change. What if you choose to make that change work for you rather than resist it? What if you take this opportunity to remember who you are and become reacquainted with that person? It might sound like an exhausting proposition right now, but the longer you hold on to the possibility that you will see the light of another day – and that it could be a day on which you will feel joy – the closer you are to turning that possibility into a reality.
Many people who are thrust into the throes of divorce without their knowledge or consent feel incapable of controlling their behavior. They do not have access to that part of their brains that allows them to think about the logical consequences of their actions, so they wander aimlessly down the path of least resistance where poor judgment leads to short-term ego boosts that only make matters worse. For this time in the divorce process, it’s helpful to have some practical rules to live by which, if followed, will improve your chances of getting through your divorce in a way that opens up possibilities rather than shuts them down. Ask your tribe to support you in sticking to the following commitments:
- I will not use weapons of mass destruction against my ex. As tempting as it is to call up your husband’s boss and tell him that he has a rattlesnake for an employee, this is not beneficial to you. You may need financial support for yourself or your children, so it’s better for everyone if he keeps his job. As much as it might feel powerful in the moment to burn all her belongings, including her new Mercedes, on the front lawn, the negative consequences of such a rash action (arrest, criminal charges, evidence of your questionable mental health) far outweigh the short-lived rush of watching that new bracelet melt into a sad little frown. There is a reason these things are called weapons of mass destruction. When you use them to annihilate your spouse, they destroy you, too. Commit to maintaining your dignity, even when it seems like it would be so much more satisfying to publicly humiliate and ruin your spouse.
No one is telling you not to feel how you feel. Quite the contrary, it is important to let your being express all the emotions that have been stirred up by this traumatic event, so they can dissipate. Let your tribe help you come up with other ways to indulge your urge to retaliate against the person who has caused you so much pain. (Because they love and support you, they will make sure that no photos, videos, or live-streaming of these events will be allowed.) Maybe you have a campfire ceremony where you fuel the flames with note cards on which you have written all the resentments that you have carried with you over the years. Or, create a voodoo doll to be the victim of your revenge prank; create an effigy of your spouse and use it like a piñata; scream invectives at a photograph or tack it to a dartboard. Be creative. Creativity is life-giving and life-affirming.
- I will not use social media, text messages, or e-mail to express my outrage or get revenge. Who was the genius who thought posting a video of her toddler sipping a margarita on Instagram was a good idea? Remember the man who posted that he hates his boss, forgetting that he was Facebook friends with the guy? When it comes to posting on social media – or putting anything you do in anger or for revenge in any form that others can see, for that matter – just don’t. Don’t do it. It will come back to bite you. It doesn’t matter that you were drunk, or justified, or that it was just a joke. When that post is printed out and handed to you while you’re testifying at the trial over custody of your children – which, by the way, would never have even happened without that post – there will be no context. There is just no way to explain away how it seemed right in the moment to publish nude or humiliating photos of your spouse. Instead, all those bad intentions come back at you like a boomerang. Who could blame her for wanting to end a marriage to a man who would behave in such a hurtful way?
People seem to forget that when you put something in writing, it will be around for everyone to see. You receive a text message from your ex that says, “Will you pick up the children at 6:00?” which, on its face, seems fairly benign. But you know that there’s a hidden meaning there. You have already had a heated conversation about why you need to get them at 5:30 instead. But when you shoot back, “You, manipulative, @#$%^! If those kids aren’t ready at 5:30, I will fire at you so hard you won’t know what hit you!” to your children’s mother, who looks like the villain? Plus, your children could see it. And, when you do it 20 or 200 times a day, the possibility of a bad result increases dramatically.
Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., a leading expert on high-conflict couples, suggests that the best response to angry messages is a reply that is brief, informative, friendly, and firm (BIFF). A BIFF response from your ex might look like this:
I remember now that you said you were going to try to make a movie that starts at 6:10. As I mentioned previously, the children’s play practice lasts until 5:30, but I will get them home as soon after that as I can. Please confirm that you will pick up the children between 5:45 and 6:00.
The point is that an angry, bitter, rant will hardly get you more of what you want. Without the gratuitous name-calling and threats, the response might also have included: “Would it help if I bring them to meet you at the movie theater instead, or would you prefer to pick them up from play practice?” But since you chose the tone, you won’t be getting any favors. Your situation is painful enough for you. Please don’t make it worse by allowing your emotions to override your sense. Before you send anything in writing – to anyone, really, but especially to someone you need to get along with – look at it from an objective point of view (or get a tribe member to help you). When other people read this exchange between you and your ex, it looks bad for you, no matter how you try to explain it away.
- I will find someone to talk to about my feelings, and it won’t be my children. Please do not talk to your children about your feelings about their other parent or the divorce. Even grown children feel awkward and put into a loyalty bind when asked to take sides in a divorce. It might be OK to say, “Please do not get into a car with anyone who has been drinking, even if it’s me or your mom,” to your children. But saying to children, “Your mom is a drunk slut,” when it doesn’t directly involve their safety is selfish and hurtful. The same goes for, “I feel so sad I think I will die.” It’s not information children need to know. Seek advice from a mental health professional about the best way to talk to your children about your divorce in an age-appropriate way. That same mental health professional can help you move from an emotional place where you feel you need to recruit others to concur with your feelings to one where you are consciously choosing to behave in a way that will be beneficial for you and others in your world.
- I will not make long-term decisions while I am experiencing strong emotions. Smart decisions require emotional neutrality. When you’re at the effect of strong emotions, you’re not using all of your brain. Divorce is a complicated process that has a lot of moving parts. Wait until you and your spouse have a shared reality to make long-term decisions.
Whether you’re the spouse who is initiating a divorce or the one who is surprised by it, the decision to divorce has been made. How you communicate with and behave toward your spouse at the beginning of the divorce will impact how the whole process – and to a large extent, the rest of your life – plays out. Take this opportunity to get in touch with your essential being and learn to demonstrate who you are as you navigate this unknown circumstance. Use the energy that others might use to try to annihilate their spouse to strengthen your resolve to get to the other side of your divorce with your dignity and self-esteem intact. This is your opportunity to discover and demonstrate who you are in relation to someone who no longer loves you, or who has been deeply wounded by things you have done, or who is acting irrationally. A mindful approach to divorce will allow you to receive the lessons that are there for you. If you are going through this difficult process anyway, give yourself and everyone else who is touched by your divorce the opportunity to grow.