At age 45, I find myself living in a small apartment with my two teenage boys and walking dogs for a living. It’s not what I expected when I graduated cum laude over twenty years ago from an Ivy League institution. Instead of going to graduate school to pursue a “real” career, I got married and became a full time homemaker and mother. I have no regrets. Yes, even after my divorce.
Life during and after divorce is always full of unexpected challenges that are simply different from the ones you faced in the marriage. It proves that we are guaranteed nothing in this life, and that our plans for ourselves are never written in stone, nor are they necessarily the best for us over time. Life has a way of throwing wrenches in our paths, leaving us temporarily clueless. Which way now?
The question “How did I get here?” is a common one for divorcees. It is easy to look back at our marriages and wish we still had the comforts that may have come along with them, whether we wanted the divorce or not. Or it is easy to get caught in blame or regret over past offenses or mistakes. Obsessing about those serves you nothing, so don’t waste your time on things you cannot change.
It is important to learn from the past, as we tend to repeat unhealthy patterns if we do not become aware of them. For example, I grew up feeling like I had to be perfect and have no needs in my childhood, that I had to be perfect and almost invisible to keep my family from falling apart. I repeated this pattern in my marriage, denying my own needs for many years, being fiercely independent, and acting in manipulative ways in order to feel loved. Now that I am aware of this pattern, I put intention around avoiding it by communicating my needs to others, proving to myself that I can “fail” and still be loveable, and seeking relationships where there is mutual affirmation and support.
The past lends us essential lessons to integrate into our moving forward, propelling the question to move from “How did I get here?” to “Who am I now?” and “What do I do now?” Divorce is about navigating the future, step by step, not about obsessing about who or what to blame in the past. You must take an assessment of where you are now in order to access a map to move forward. You cannot get there without being here. “As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears,” wrote Sufi poet Rumi.
It is easy to get lost in overwhelm that spirals into catastrophic thinking when you take on every challenge at once during and after divorce. You feel like if you don’t tackle everything at once, you will forget something. At the same time, you feel like if you don’t focus on one thing, you won’t give it the attention it needs. The path is bumpy, indeed.
Here are five important tips to move forward without feeling overwhelmed by new challenges or getting stuck in the past:
- What feels most urgent or important? “Everything!” you may respond. This is a normal reaction, but it is not helpful. Write down your list of concerns, and prioritize them. Then, choose the one on the top of the list. Write out a couple small steps of action to take that day. Finding a few small things to focus on is very important because then at the end of the day, you will feel like you have accomplished something that will motivate you to keep going the next day, instead of getting stuck amidst a gazillion “to-do’s.”
- Prioritize self-care. Divorce is exhausting. Therefore, taking care of yourself is key. It is easy to overlook this, as the demands of your long list of concerns can cause you to burn out without even realizing it. Take time every day to do something healthy and relaxing, from going on a walk to meeting with a friend to enjoying an activity that calms you. Get sleep and eat healthfully. “Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live,” writes Jim Rohn.
- Harness your thoughts and feelings. During and after divorce, it is easy to let your thoughts and feeling travel backward, leading to sadness, resentment and other negative emotions. While emotions must be honored and processed in order to grieve, do so in the appropriate context, as with a therapist. However, in your daily living, and especially when interacting with your ex or attorney, put them aside on an imaginary shelf and focus on the now. The essential questions each and every day are “Who am I?” and “What can I do today?”
- Get information and support. Far too many divorcees go through the process or tackle post-divorce challenges without essential information and needed support. This results in poor decision making and isolation with disastrous consequences. It is easy to succumb to impulsive actions because you are so uncomfortable amidst the pain of your reality, yet accessing patience in order to get needed information and comforting support is vital to moving forward with clarity and confidence.
- Put your who before your what. Take some time to think about your strengths and other attributes you want to live into, such as integrity, respect or strength. As a result, you will make important decision from a place of solidarity. If you focus only on what you want, you are likely to make your life all about what you have instead of who you are, sort of like letting the tail wag the dog. Nasty divorces are a result of focusing only on the what, while amicable ones are grounded in the who.
Through following these tips, you can take the lessons from your past into the most important questions you need to asking now: “Who am I now?” and “What can I do today?” Divorce is about your future, not your past, so walk step by step in that direction, and surely, you will find your way.