Everything can be a lesson when pain is the teacher.
And the pain of divorce has taught me SO much.
I learned that I can endure hard things. I learned that I’m smarter and more capable than I ever thought I was. (Even when told things like I’ll never be able to balance a checkbook – silly right?)
I’ve learned that I’m not the person that someone else tells me that I am. I’ve learned that it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to have bad days, and it’s okay to establish boundaries to avoid toxic relationships.
Here’s the rest of what I’ve learned.
Emotional betrayal is the worst kind.
There’s no such thing as an amiable divorce. For instance, the divorce process will teach you that private things won’t be as private as they should. In the book Single On Purpose, author John Kim talks about the concept of owning our stuff and becoming healthy BECAUSE we’re choosing to own our stuff. Emotionally unhealthy people don’t own their stuff. They tell half truths, lies, and aren’t part of an overall constructive process with the goal of healing. And when we share things that shouldn’t be shared, intimate feelings that were created in a private construct of marriage, that’s when emotional betrayal happens.
Another example of emotional betrayal is when one spouse shares details of your divorce with a child that negatively impacts their relationship towards the other spouse. Kids are sponges, they soak up everything. They’re also easily swayed. For instance, if once spouse shares details of their divorced relationship with their sons or daughters, there’s likely to be fallout between that child and the other parent. While not fair, it’s a consequence of divorce. Hopefully both parents can come together and create an environment where your kids can talk openly about how they’re feeling instead of pushing people away, gaslighting, and reacting instead of responding.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that I refuse to engage in conversation that isn’t constructive. It’s SO hard not to fight back and “speak your truth”, but resist fighting back. It’s easy to react instead of respond in a healthy manner. Resist. You’ll be better off because of it.
I’m the only person I can control.
Like so many spouses, I truly believed that I could change my ex’s behavior, her mindset, and attitude. It’s so clear now, but wasn’t at the time, that the only person I could (and should) control is me. I can’t change people and it’s not my responsibility to change others because they need to want to change themselves. Instead, I stayed in a degrading situation while trying to change the outcome. I now face relationship challenges with the understanding that I only have control over me. I’m the only one that can change me. No one has control over how I feel, just the same as I don’t have that power over anyone else. I’m the only person I can control and change. It’s not my role or job to change my spouse. It’s not your job to try and change yours, either.
I’m WAY less judgmental.
Before my divorce, I “knew” it all. Like Cliff Clavin, I was incredibly judgmental of people who were enduring marriage struggles and going through divorces. I used to have a black and white worldview to divorce situations, where now I don’t. Today I have tremendous compassion and empathy for those suffering and experiencing the pain of the end of a marriage. In some ways, it’s easier to experience death than divorce. My biggest discovery since my divorce has been that you never know how you’re going to react to a circumstance until you are actually IN it. I’m much less quick to judge now because life is full of many “gray areas.”
Not everyone is untrustworthy.
Since my divorce, I’ve been asked how I’ve learned to trust again. The truth is, I never stopped trusting others. I’m not a skeptical person by nature, and I tend to trust others until they give me a reason not to. Even though there were lies and half truths told about me, I refused to believe that every person would be the same. I decided early on to NOT become jaded and cynical, and instead treat trust as a gift to give rather than a part of me that was taken away.
I created a different bond with my daughters.
My two daughters are my world and I would do anything for them. Making sure they’re healthy and taken care of is my number one priority. But divorce has connected us in a significantly different way. We’re still healing together as a team, with focusing on building a deep bond as the goal. We’ve wrestled with tough, tough stuff. We’ve fought through things I never imagined we would, and we’ve come through victorious. I’ve learned things about how they felt that have shocked me to my core, and I’ve also said honest words to them that have had profoundly healing results. They constantly surprise me with how smart and mature they both are. Our relationship looks very different than what it once was, but we’re focusing on healing, healthy, and love.
Beware the sunk cost fallacy.
I learned about the concept of the sunk cost fallacy from reading Freakonomics. In a nutshell, it means we refuse to give up on something and admit defeat because of a psychological bias, even when you KNOW that success is impossible. There comes a point in every failed endeavor when the people involved know that success is likely impossible. Yet, we stay stuck in this endeavor or relationship because we’ve invested resources like time, money, and emotion. As we remain stuck in this relationship or endeavor, we are afraid to admit defeat thus feeling like our efforts are a total waste.
That’s the rub. If the endeavor is doomed to fail, the cost is already sunk.
I was focused on my past investments instead of my present and future costs-benefits. I needed to change my focus to decisions that are in my best interests instead of what I’ve invested in the past tense. This fallacy is why so many people struggle to leave bad relationships (and other bad situations).
I had friends, family, therapists, and coaches warn me that I was throwing good love after bad. But I didn’t listen. I loved her so much. I loved our story. I loved our potential. I wanted to believe that if I tried harder, did things differently, or made more compromises, it would turn out okay. The sunk cost fallacy had me in its cold grip.
In every other aspect of my life, I’ve been discerning about how I allocated my time and resources. I used to accept ordinary but don’t anymore. I used to abide by lackluster work but don’t anymore. I’m not okay with unhealthy friendships, and I don’t accept bad habits. But my love for my ex and our marriage blinded me. I was accepting of a lot of things that I shouldn’t have. And the same can be said about me – I’m sure she accepted things about my behaviors that she shouldn’t have. I won’t accept a mediocre relationship ever again – even if the sunk cost is painfully high.
Compromising and settling are two very different things.
People in successful relationships compromise all the time – it’s what makes them successful. Compromise is essential for healthy relationships. It’s also a powerful way of showing love. When partners practice healthy compromise, they alternate in saying, “you’re worth it.”
In unhealthy and imbalanced relationships, compromise ends up being one-sided. One partner says, “you’re worth it,” hoping the other partner will notice the sacrifice and reciprocate. But the reciprocation doesn’t come the way it should. Instead of saying, “you’re worth it,” the partner says, “My way is more important than you are.” If this imbalance persists for too long, the compromising partner will start to feel and believe that they aren’t worth compromising for.
When this happens, compromise turns into settling and accepting things that you shouldn’t. Compromise is the result of an active negotiation between two equal parties while settling is a passive result of one party believing they don’t even deserve to sit at the negotiation table.
I was convinced I was making healthy compromises for the sake of my marriage. But I was settling. I was afraid to speak up, afraid to say what I wanted, and felt emasculated. I wasn’t happily making sacrifices for the woman I loved rather I was giving up on things I cared about because I didn’t feel like I deserved them anymore. I’ll practice healthy compromise, but I won’t settle in my relationships ever again – even if it means walking away.
Shame kept me from seeking help.
Until that point, I’d been trying to deal with the problems in my marriage on my own. None of my friends or family knew how bad things really were. I didn’t want people to see the cracks in our façade. I thought people would think less of me. I thought people would think I’d failed. That I was flawed. That I was damaged.
I was living in shame and shame makes you isolate.
Guilt tells us that we did something bad while shame says I AM bad. Guilt can be a motivator while shame holds us back. Shame makes you think less of yourself and makes you see yourself as undeserving. It makes you afraid to use the most powerful thing in a mental health repertoire: your support system.
Some burdens are too heavy to carry on your own. I could no longer pretend I could do it on my own. I was buckling and forced to ask for help. My support network comforted me, encouraged me, supported me, and loved me. They helped me believe I could overcome my darkest moments.
It’s worth mentioning that you must be careful who you lean on for support. When going through a divorce there are certain people you should never, ever lean on because they don’t have the constructive context to be helpful and objective. For example, your kids shouldn’t be a sounding board for your emotional pain, no matter their ages. This will cause damage to them and also create a cruel, unfair bias towards one of their parents. Kids already go through enough pain and trauma in a divorce, they don’t need the additional burden of trying to navigate your emotions when they’re not properly equipped. Other people you should avoid for support are former in-laws, hyper-religious friends, and romantic flings. Instead, surround yourself with the best, healthiest people that are trained and qualified to help you grow through your grief.
As for my circle of support, I owe them everything. I won’t struggle in silence ever again.
Build a new life if you don’t like the current one.
Going through a divorce feels like the end of the world. But it isn’t.
We FEEL like our marriages become our worlds but a dead marriage is a world that needs to end so you can build a new one. One that fits your needs, preferences, priorities, values, and worldviews.
If you’re going through or recovering from a divorce, I want you to start building. Get excited about building. It will be hard. It will be scary. You will cry, panic, and lose sleep but eventually you’ll be ok.
Going through trials like the end of a marriage is a lot about perspective. You need to find the teachable moments and the things to be grateful for. Be honest with yourself about where you did your best and where you came up short. Reconnect with your values and priorities. Set new goals for yourself and build something spectacular. The ONLY person holding you back is you.