Divorce is an often complicated and draining process, especially as lawyers and courts get involved. You're planning for your future, aiming to figure out finances, and possibly learning how co-parenting will now work. By the time it's all over, you might not have even stopped to consider your own emotions as you navigate this new stage of your life.
But before you can truly move forward, it's important to process these feelings fully. You may be dealing with anger, sadness, grief, and worry, all of which are entirely normal and understandable reactions.
We talked to Mary Kay Cocharo, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with over 30 years of experience, to compile a list of strategies and resources to get you through this difficult time.
No matter the circumstances, the mix of emotions you're dealing with during your separation can often be confusing or even frightening. You might be unsure how to fully comprehend how you feel or how you should feel. But it's important to remember there are no correct emotions. Your feelings, whatever they might be, are valid. Instead of fighting back, give yourself a break and be kind to yourself.
Research has found that people with self-compassion are able to handle the daily challenges of divorce better in the months after separation. Being understanding and caring to yourself will go a long way in getting over your divorce.
Divorce has become less stigmatized in our culture over time. After all, many first-time marriages fail, and the divorce rate is even higher for second and subsequent marriages, Cocharo says. Still, there might be a temptation to view marriage as a defeat, which can hinder how divorced couples move on with their lives.
"Even the word ‘fail' is indicative of how we look at divorce," Cocharo says. "It's a good idea not to—or at least try not to — look at it as a failure, but rather as something that's no longer serving each party."
This perspective ties back into the idea of being kind to yourself. Cocharo encourages individuals not to beat themselves up with the "failure narrative." Instead, look back at the good moments in the relationship and, more importantly, the moments that have brought growth in yourself.
No matter the circumstances, it's normal to have a grieving period for your marriage. After all, you are ending a big part of your life. As a part of looking at divorce healthily, Cocharo encourages her clients to complete a "constructive closure ritual." This could be a half or full day where a couple sits together and says goodbye to all the bad and good in the relationship. Every relationship is different, and the circumstances don't always allow the parting spouses to get together in this way. But even if emotions (or safety) prevent it from being a two-person process, take time to "say goodbye."
Say goodbye to all the things you don't want anymore—the things that led to your divorce, whether that's lying, infidelity, or betrayal. But Cocharo emphasizes also saying goodbye to all you "thought [you] were going to get when you said ‘I do.'" That includes the good moments, the kind moments, and plans of what your life was supposed to be together.
"That is a very deep emotional process," Cocharo says. "I find that when couples are able to do it, that they really can have a lot of compassion for what the other is experiencing."
Cocharo warns that divorce has the possibility of getting nasty, especially when lawyers and courtrooms are involved. But keeping a positive environment around not only you and your former partner but especially around your children is beneficial to all involved.
Studies show that children exposed to constant parental conflict are more at risk for psychological and social problems. On top of that, high stress will only make getting through your divorce more difficult for yourself.
Cocharo suggests collaborative divorce or mediation—instead of going straight to litigation—to reduce nastiness. In a collaborative divorce, you will typically have more say in the decisions surrounding your divorce, Cocharo says. If you opt for mediation, a neutral third party may help you and your former partner feel more empowered to "design your own separation."
In any emotional situation, it's extremely helpful to have a shoulder to lean on. Seek out someone you trust to act as a confidant, someone you can speak freely with and rely on. They can help you through the difficult moments as you process your divorce or even act as a sounding board as you make the critical decisions surrounding your new life.
However, Cocharo cautions to choose only one friend and stick to that one friend. It's common to feel the urge to overshare, whether that's on Facebook or with a group of friends, when you're going through something emotional. But that's likely to hurt you in the long run, she says.
"The problem with [oversharing] is that the people you're telling these things to are not going to necessarily be moving forward as you do," Cocharo says. "So they will get stuck with these stories that you're telling them, and that's not useful moving forward."
Whether you're the one that initiated the divorce or not, it's common to feel a little lost. Your life is in the midst of a significant change, and it might be hard to feel settled. So, it's essential to keep your routine and avoid isolating yourself during this time, Cocharo says. Continue doing the things that make you happy, whether that's in your social life, your hobbies, or your weekly habits.
"If you went to Church on Sundays, then go to Church on Sundays; if you used to eat salads, keep eating salads," Cocharo says. "Really stick to a routine, so your life feels as normal as possible."
Once you're newly single, you might want to jump right back into the dating game. However, it takes time to work through the emotions surrounding your divorce, and there's no need to rush it. Cocharo cautions her clients to take a step back and give themselves a break before looking for a new partner. Take the time to feel like yourself again, do the things you love, learn what a healthy relationship looks like for you, and fully resolve your feelings.
That's especially important if children are involved, Cocharo says. While the idea of finding someone new may be exciting, new partners, especially soon after a divorce, may be very confusing for children.
"Give yourself some time to work through these emotions, to come back to yourself," Cocharo says. "I know people get scared, and they start reaching out to find someone, but it's usually not a great idea."
Especially if you're having trouble finding a trusted friend or confidant, Cocharo encourages seeking out a trusted therapist or divorce group to help you work through this difficult time. Divorce represents a "loss of a lifestyle," she says, and it carries different stages of grief, just like any loss.
Ultimately, the goal is to work through these different levels, which may include sadness, depression, fear, and anxiety, and—to get to a level of acceptance where you can move forward. Individual therapy or divorce groups where you can hear stories from people going through a similar situation can be a great support during this time.
"To get to acceptance, sometimes you need some help and guidance moving through the various stages," Cocharo says.
If you're unsure about therapy at the moment, start with resources you can work through on your own. Websites such as Mental Health America's provide information on navigating this new stage of your life. They should also remind you that you're not alone, and that there's plenty of help out there as you learn how to deal with your divorce.