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The Truth About Emotion and Divorce

Divorce, meet emotion. Emotion? Meet divorce. Oh, I see you’ve already met. But how are you two getting along?

In this post we’re going to get in there and put it all out on the table - the good, the bad and the less-than-pretty. And while you may be wondering, do we have to? It’s taking every scrap of strength just to keep it together… the answer my dear friend is: yep. You’re going through something super difficult and painful, and it might be tempting to put these feelings off in a corner somewhere, or deny them altogether. But emotions find a way of impacting just about every divorce decision you’re going to face.

There’s the healthy way to deal with all of this – say, accepting your pain and seeking help, or going for a long run. And then there’s polishing off a bottle of Cabernet six nights a week and telling yourself it’s okay because you lay off on Sundays.

I’m here for you. Together we’re gonna get you through this in the healthiest way possible, emotions and all. Specifically, we’ll focus on:

- The emotional stages of divorce…

- How these stages differ depending on what side of the separation decision you’re sitting on

- The difference between owning your emotions and drowning in them

- Some quick things to do when you feel your emotions are getting the best of you, compliments of your divorce squad.


The Emotional Stages of Divorce.

You’ve heard of the five stages of grief, right? Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. They come from Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ landmark book On Death and Dying. Well you can expect to touch upon these emotions – and a few others – with divorce. Makes sense, right, since divorce is like a death?

Denial is a big one for me, and something I became really familiar with when I was in college and my Dad became ill. He took six months to die. Actually, if I were to start counting from the time of his diagnosis, he took about seven years and three months to die. But the okay-no-more-pretending-he’s-going-to-bounce-back-and-be-ok-again phase? That lasted about six months. Six long, crappy months feeling like I was standing on the edge of a cliff waiting to be pushed off.

I didn’t go through the denial stage during those six months - or after he passed. But I sure as heck went through it for most of the first seven-plus years after his diagnosis. For all THOSE years, denial was my best friend. We were so tight, she pretty much moved in with me. [Kinda like my best friend from college Lynn, who basically moved into my dorm our freshman year because she didn’t like her roommate. And since I already had a roommate, and our dorm room was teeny tiny, Lynn slept in my bed. My TWIN bed. Denial and I were close like that, too.]

I loved denial because she allowed me to pretend all was right in my world. And she handed me the blinders that I wore each day. I was a highly functioning gal. The problem with denial was she gave me so much grace that she let me completely ignore what was really going on under the surface, until it was too bad to ignore. And then, it took a lot more work (and a healthy amount of therapy) to try to get back to a good place. This is work you can avoid.


We asked our divorce squad to weigh in on the big-ticket emotions they experienced during their divorce…

Katherine on Anger:

Angry, me? Hell, to the yes! When I was going through my divorce, happy songs on the radio made me scream. Minor, everyday annoyances would throw me off the rails. I was never, ever like this before - and it made me really uneasy. But after about 4 months, something happened. I started to feel a little better each day. Micro-steps. It truly was a day-by-day process that took a good while. But I got there.

Lynn also on Anger:

My advice: stay mad. As silly as this sounds, it proved to be quite effective. Little to nothing was accomplished when I was moping. Nothing spurs determination like reasonable anger.

Cynthia on Depression:

The grief for me was deep. I thought, and had hoped, that my 27 year marriage would last my entire life. So this was a huge loss... a loss of faith, a loss of so many things I had hoped for -- for myself, my children and my ex. With the help of a good therapist I learned to trust myself and my feelings and reconnect with what I wanted for my own life - after spending decades focused on my children and spouse.

Dan on Bargaining:

No stage is without challenge, but I think the worst is when fair bargaining doesn't work. Wanting to just get done with it, but the other side won't accept a compromise. My ex's lawyer just wanted to inflame the situation. Patience is important from the get-go.

Jill on Acceptance:

Acceptance is hard, and not just within yourself. Many friends - close friends - stopped calling because I was not part of a couple. The key is to find your biggest cheerleaders and lean on them (really lean on them) for a while.

My advice: Wherever you’re at, you gotta give in to it.

One of my favorite yoga teachers, Bryan Kest says: “Be where you’re at, cuz you’re already there.” When I first heard him say this, I scratched my head for a minute (which can be tricky to do from some yoga poses). It sounded to me like he was saying we shouldn’t strive for improvement, which is counterintuitive to what we’re taught since childhood. But then I got it. What he means is that we need to stop trying so hard to get to some place that’s different from where we are at this moment. Wherever you are, embrace that place. Whether that place is deliriously happy or monumentally sad. Let yourself be there.

It’s easy to want to stay put emotionally when we’re happy. It’s a lot harder to actually sit in your sadness. But just for a minute, stop fighting the need to feel different. Sadness might be exactly what you need right now. I didn’t start to heal my dad’s loss until I let myself grieve him first. The only real way out is through.


That being said, there’s a difference between being in touch with your emotions and drowning in them.

True story: My friend Elise showed up at carpool line in her ratty-ass pajamas one afternoon. Yes, at 3:30 in the afternoon. Hair and teeth un-brushed. She was about six weeks into her divorce and wasn’t dealing so well. All went “fine” until she was about to pull out of the school parking lot and got rear-ended by another mom. Yep, there was Elise checking out her rear bumper, in the parking lot of her kids’ somewhat snooty private school, in her 12 year-old pajamas. The ones with the pink fuzzy poodles and beach balls on them.

The lesson here? It’s totally okay to cry into your Ben ‘n Jerry’s once in a while. It’s totally not okay to pick up your kids from school in your PJs three weeks in a row. And lady, don’t think you’re safe doing that just because you don’t have to get out of the car.


Are you the “leaver” or the one who’s been left?

Depending whether this divorce was your decision or not, you might have a bunch of other emotions besides grief. You might feel shock - especially if your spouse wasn’t open with you about his unhappiness. I’ve known many women who were blindsided when their spouses came to them out of what felt like the clear blue with the words “I don’t love you anymore.”

On the other hand, if you’re the one who wants out, you might also feel relief. Or intense guilt. Or both. Or you might feel like you’re on a rollercoaster of emotion – relieved and happy one minute, doubting and guilt-ridden the next.

But when you feel your emotions are beyond what you can handle – or if close friends or family suggest you’re in over your head – it’s time to seek help. Here’s a great post on the importance of seeking out a professional to help get you through, and how to do so with ease.

I promise you, my beloved caterpillar, if you let yourself go through the pain of growth, you will emerge from this time a butterfly. You will hurt and grieve and mourn, and then, if you let yourself be where you are meant to be, you WILL get through it. You will wake up one day and realize that you’ve grown wings. That you’re stronger and braver than you ever knew. That you may bend, but are unbreakable.

“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.” – Bob Marley


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