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There are certain life transitions that are emotionally taxing and divorce is clearly one of them. This is especially the case for someone who didn’t want the divorce. A divorce is often compared to a death — a devastating loss, albeit one based on a decision rather than a literal death. There is considerable pain, grief, anger, depression. The emotional fallout can be considerable.
It’s important to note that this enormous emotional upheaval can be successfully navigated. Many go on to thrive after they’ve healed from this sorrow, some even with a deeper sense of appreciation for life overall.
The divorce is behind you…what’s next?
Whether the period leading up to the divorce was contentious or smooth, whether you and your partner agreed on splitting up or whether one heart was broken at the dissolution of your relationship, once the divorce papers are signed, you’re probably thinking some version of “now what”?
The tendency toward life-planning runs on a continuum: you may be used to planning your future (near and far) to an exacting degree, you may be more a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser and take things as they come, or you may be somewhere in between. And you’re not likely to change to what degree you plan at this point (nor should you if your approach to planning works for you!). But for most people I’ve worked with in transitioning from married life to single life, some effort toward conceptualizing what you want from your life can be extremely helpful in feeling empowered.
With that said, I want to gently caution you here not to add unnecessary pain, struggle, or stress to your mental life as you learn the ropes for living as a divorced person. Namely, beware the popular push to “reinvent” yourself after divorce. If this concept works for you, great. But for many people, it ends up feeling like undue pressure to transform yourself from the person you once were. Your marriage ended, you didn’t end!
So I’d like to talk about reinventing versus rediscovery so that you can think about which fits you best, and so that you can avoid the trap that assumes you need an intensive metaphoric makeover.
Reinvention or rediscovery? What’s your mindset?
The implication underlying reinvention is that what came before was lacking in some way. Believing that you have to reinvent yourself after divorce can make you feel like you’re somehow not good enough as you are. And that’s the last thing you need as you adjust to being single again (which can be stressful enough on its own).
So how do you know if you’re unnaturally forcing yourself to reinvent yourself when you really and truly just want to rediscover yourself?
Here are some questions that can help you determine your underlying motives for making potentially life-changing decisions in the days, weeks, or months after your divorce.
Who is it really for?
When you ask yourself why you’re on the verge of enrolling in months of (expensive) non-refundable dance lessons, or why you’re about to close on a condo you’re not sure is your style, try to remember to ask yourself who this decision is for. In other words, do you feel internal pressure pushing you to achieve a certain external outcome? (Like revenge… “Wait till he sees where I live! He’ll eat his heart out!”) Or do you feel an internal motivation? (As in feeling joy… “I’ve always wanted to live here; I can afford it and it feels right.”)
Perhaps external pressure is coming from someone else. Maybe you have well-meaning family and friends telling you what you “should” be doing. Regardless of how well-meaning they are, however, only you can decide what is right for you.
There are enough things over the course of our lives that we have to do…there are plenty of non-negotiable shoulds. But when it comes to voluntary decisions (as opposed to something work-related or paying taxes, for example), try to replace the “shoulds” with “wants.”
A litmus test for this is: would you do whatever it is you’re considering if no one else ever knew about it? If the answer is no, you may be making a decision for someone else or for some extrinsic reason that won’t fulfill you in the long run.
Is it authentic?
Will the decision that you’re contemplating complement who you are and what you like about yourself, or will it cause you to contort yourself or hide what’s authentic about you? Are you living your own life, or someone else’s life? (Or the outward version of their life they post on Facebook?)
For instance (and speaking of Facebook), say you’ve happily avoided being on any social media up to now. It’s just not something you’ve wanted to be involved in. If you hear “reinvent yourself once you sign those divorce papers!”, do you feel you should open up a Facebook account and devote lots of time to that, despite still knowing it’s not what you want to do?
That’s an example where not a lot’s at stake, obviously. After all, if you did try social media and abandoned it, there’s no harm done (unless you end up beating yourself up over it, unless you define it as a failure, internalize it, and use it to feel bad about yourself).
But there are bigger stakes examples, as is the scenario of someone who becomes dangerously promiscuous after a divorce in the attempt to shed the person s/he once was. Not only can that open one up to physical risk, but emotional, too, assuming the chronic uncharacteristic behavior will take a mental toll as well (and there’s a fair chance of that).
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try things you want to try! (And of course you don’t have to wait till post-divorce to try them.) But if you’re an introvert who hates mingling in crowds without a specific purpose (versus, say, a book group, where you feel more comfortable because the focus is not on small-talk) and if you regularly force yourself to attend social Meetups after your divorce and you hate every minute and start dreading quitting time at work because of what comes after, then you might want to reexamine your motives and give yourself permission to rediscover yourself so that you can love your time off instead of fear it or fight it.
Would you include it in your memoir?
There are times in life that are so stressful and so difficult that the sheer act of coping can drain us like nothing else. Many people report doing something uncharacteristic during those times, things they’d never do otherwise, things they look back on and say, “Why did I do that?”
This isn’t meant as an excuse for “bad” behavior, nor is it meant to make you feel bad about doing something you later regret. Rather, it’s just offering you the lens of understanding to look through so you can put it into context and not go around with crushing guilt over what you did during the confusing time of extreme stress.
But because we are talking about the time after the divorce, when ideally you will be more settled and less in an acute stage of shock or extreme stress than earlier in the process, we can talk about the fact that staying true to your personal ideals and your personal integrity will be important to you in the long-run.
Here’s a little test you can use to determine whether or not some life change you’re considering is staying true to those ideals. Ask yourself: “Would I put this in my memoir?”
If the answer is “no,” you may want to sit with the decision a bit more before you make it.
(Keep in mind that I’m not talking about private details that you wouldn’t ever want anyone reading about. I’m talking about the broadstrokes of one’s life, the timeline you tend to see in biographies.)
This next point comes as a relief to some people, and it’s a source of frustration to others: there isn’t a single “right” way to shape your life after divorce. Which means there isn’t a “wrong” way, either. Which also means there will be times you won’t know whether something is a good idea until after you’ve done it.
Don’t let this discourage you, though, let this inspire you to reclaim the life you own. In a real sense, it will be a journey of rediscovery…reacquainting yourself with yourself: with the “you” you’ve always been, as well as the “you” you have become after living more life, achieving more milestones, and gathering more wisdom.
Sometimes a client wants me to give him/her some blueprint to follow for life after divorce, and although I appreciate how overwhelmed or unmoored this newly-divorced person may be feeling, and I understand how much a relief a series of bullet-pointed directives might be, it can’t work that way. Although I can help explore potential decisions before they’re made, the only person who can truly know whether something is authentic (whether through discovery down the road or deep knowing during moments of consideration) is the unique person whose unique life it is.
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Georgetown where he works with individuals, couples and runs groups.