Independent Coach and Therapist Hester Bancroft, who herself went through the breakdown of her 20 year marriage but found happiness again, shares her tips for surviving the trials and tribulations of divorce.
Major life changes, such as divorce, can have a profound effect on our sense of who we are. Some people can take years to fully acknowledge that their marriage is over and that the only conceivable way forward is to divorce, whilst others have to deal with the (sometimes unexpected) news that their partner wishes to leave.
Whichever way a divorce comes about, we tend to experience feelings of sadness, disappointment and, at times, serious self-doubt.
In addition, post divorce, we can suffer a loss of identity and feel the need to redefine ourselves and make multiple transitions in our roles and relationships. Unsurprisingly then, in this period of our lives we can feel an almost overwhelming sense of having lost a part of ourselves.
In order to successfully navigate our way through this transitional period, we need to be able to make sense of our relationship and the subsequent separation in a balanced and constructive way. In addition, we need to readjust our vision of the future; the path that we had consciously (or unconsciously) envisaged needs replacing.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s Stages of Grief was originally intended to support those going through the grief associated with death but it is also now widely recognised as a useful and important model to help us understand the process of grief during other major losses such as the end of a significant relationship.
Importantly, whatever type of grief we are experiencing, the trajectory we move through as we navigate the stages is rarely neatly compartmentalised; instead we move backwards and forwards between the stages, until we finally reach acceptance.
The five stages of grief during divorce
This is the (often unconscious) refusal to accept what is happening. In a relationship breakdown it can manifest itself in a refusal to accept the relationship is over and that our partner truly wants to leave or, alternatively, that we ourselves need to end the relationship.
Denial is a defence mechanism which comes into play if the fear or pain becomes too overwhelming. Any of us can go into denial when we feel that the life that we know (even if it is making us deeply unhappy) is less frightening than the one we do not, or if we feel that the pain of losing our partner will be worse than any pain the relationship is currently causing us.
Unsurprisingly then, we can become stuck in this stage and thus locked in an unhappy or unfulfilling relationship.
This can be experienced in many different ways and can be directed towards different people. We can become angry with ourselves (questioning why we married our partner, why this is happening to us or why we can’t fix our relationship). We can also feel anger towards our partner (questioning why they are leaving, why they are no longer the person we thought they were or why they are not trying harder to make it work).
In addition, we can feel anger towards others – even those who have not contributed to our unhappiness in any way. It is therefore crucially important for us to talk about what we are feeling to those who love us, care about us and have our best interests at heart.
This can be experienced as a wish to try and hold on to as much of the relationship as possible. During the bargaining phase we may make unrealistic promises or suggest that the separation should simply be a ‘break’ or a ‘trial’ for a set period of time with a hope or plan of ultimate reconciliation. We may also propose that certain elements of the relationship could be maintained such, as attending certain events as a couple or taking holidays together.
In its extreme, the bargaining phase can result in a willingness to compromise one’s values and beliefs provided the relationship stays in tact (such as agreeing to a partner carrying on another relationship outside the marriage).
The sadness phase of grief is crucial to moving on from (and letting go of) the anger. This is the mourning period for the relationship. The sadness (or sometimes depression) during this phase can affect our sleeping patterns, appetite and desire to socialise.
In addition to this, we may also feel regret, uncertainty and fear about our future. For many of us, this is the hardest stage but it is important to recognise that this is a natural (and necessary) part of the process.
During this phase it is important for us to prioritise nurturing ourselves – ensuring we eat well, get as much sleep as we can and surround ourselves with people with whom we feel totally at ease.
This is the stage when we are able to move on from the relationship. We can accept that the relationship is over and is, therefore, no longer worth pursuing. We can see our previous relationship much more clearly; what worked well and what didn’t. We can also talk about the relationship rationally (perhaps even warmly) without having feelings of sadness or regret.
This is the time when we are ready to start creating the life we now wish to have, we can consider our options and experiment with how we want our new life to be. This is also the stage during which we start to become comfortable with our new social self and can adjust and embrace our roles within existing and new relationships.
The ease and speed with which we move through the stages of grief is linked to the amount of understanding and awareness we have, not only of our own emotions and behaviours throughout the relationship and subsequent separation, but also those of our ex-partner.
Unsurprisingly if we hold on to feelings of anger, we can find it hard to ever reach acceptance. Anger, whether it stems from feelings of having been abandoned or from a perceived unfairness over arrangements (financial or custodial), can result in us suffering from feelings of long-term bitterness and regret.
Our ability to see our own part (however big or small) in the breakdown of the relationship increases our own self-awareness and helps us make sense of the situation in a more balanced and productive way. Even if we did not wish for the relationship to end there are always different ways we could have been, or different ways we could have coped with the challenges within the relationship.
Importantly, when coming through a separation, we have the opportunity to learn from our experience and move to a new level of understanding about ourselves which will serve us well – in particular in ensuring we build positive and fulfilling relationships in the future.
In addition, and of equal importance, is our ability to look through our partner’s eyes and understand their experience of the breakdown. Not only does this help us to see things from both sides, it also eases some of our pain.
It is useful to focus on what we know about the person we are parting from; about them as a human being, about their beliefs and about their needs and limitations. In this way, it is possible to become more pragmatic, more understanding and, most importantly, let go of feelings of anger.
There is a tendency when separating to focus on the things that are currently so hard in the relationship and, in doing so, forget the things that were once so easy. Whatever the reason you are parting, your partner was probably, at one time, exactly what you were looking for. You both chose to spend a significant part of your journey alongside one another and will therefore have shared significant life experiences, both sad and joyful.
Even though you are now parting, it is crucial to acknowledge the reasons why you were once both drawn to each other.
Changing roles and relationships
When we come out of a long-term relationship, many of us can experience our newly single identity as problematic. We can face unexpected and upsetting exclusion, or even hostility, from people within our previous social groups. Inevitably these experiences can impact both on our self-esteem and on our sense of self.
Perhaps inevitably, some friendships will be tested when a couple separate. Some friends can struggle to remain on good terms with both parties. In addition, whilst some friends may be very willing and able to listen, support and encourage us, other friends may find it hard not to bring their own (sometimes unhelpful) beliefs, values and judgements to the situation.
In addition, separation can cause upset and turmoil within an existing social group, particularly when there are others within the group who are not secure in themselves or in their own relationship. These insecurities can sometimes create feelings of rejection; friends can withdraw from us due to feeling somehow displaced from our lives or no longer needed.
In addition, some friends’ partners may suddenly perceive us as threatening to their relationship (as it may bring up questions about their own marriage or they may worry about their partner now socialising with a newly single friend). They may, therefore, make it hard for their partner to spend time with us.
Unsurprisingly then, it is common immediately post divorce for us to experience both emotional and social loneliness, so invariably our social lives need refining and rebuilding. Whilst some friendships become more distant, other friendships will become deeper and more enriched. There is a new found freedom in being able to organise how, and with whom, free time is spent.
There is often an accompanying realisation of how much support, guidance and companionship true friends can provide. New friendships can also spring up – sometimes through new interests, new hobbies or new trainings that we suddenly find we have the time and the inclination to introduce into our lives.
Finances and social positioning
One of the other significant changes for all of us when coming through a divorce is the inevitable reduction in assets and income; this has not only very real practical implications but can also have an impact on our sense of identity within our existing social group. For many of us our wellbeing is linked to our relative income (i.e. our income relative to others in our social group). Thus, when we go through a divorce, the likely change in our finances may also impact on our sense of who we are.
Unsurprisingly then, work, existing or new, plays an important part, not only in helping us feel financially more stable, but also in establishing our new sense of self by providing clarity, structure and an often much-needed sense of identity. It is clear that work identity (in terms of meaningfulness, social interaction, support, productivity and positive distraction) is associated with higher self-esteem and lower distress during divorce.
Anyone coming out of a long marriage during which they have not worked or during which they gave up their career to look after the children may need support in recognising what options and possibilities are open to them. It is increasingly common for people to retrain and embark on second careers in light of new interests, new passions or new understandings of abilities they have not previously either recognised or utilised.
Taking a course, entering a new environment, acquiring new skills and achieving new or improved economic independence can all contribute to building our self-esteem, expanding our social lives and creating a new and positive identity for ourselves.
Complications of another
As we all know, divorce can be complicated by one partner (or both) becoming involved with another person. Whilst in an ideal world no one else would be involved in the breakdown of the relationship, it is important to recognise that during this period, both partners will have had (perhaps long) periods of feeling unloved and lonely. When any of us feel this way we can all become vulnerable to the attention of others.
So, whilst the pain and hurt from any betrayal can be heart-breaking, it is important to recognise that infidelity in these circumstances is very often a reflection of the state of the relationship (and of what needs are not being met) rather than the reason for its breakdown. This, of course, does not make it acceptable, but does perhaps make it ultimately less painful.
If we find another person is involved, the tendency is for that person to immediately consume our attention, sap our energy and stir up what can feel like overwhelming emotions. It is helpful to recognise that if it wasn’t that person it would, in all probability and at some point in the future, have been someone else. It is far more productive and worthwhile to focus our attention, and our energy, on ourselves and our need to move on from the relationship in as positive a way as possible.
If we hold a genuine belief that the other person did indeed cause the relationship breakdown then it is useful to recognise that if our partner was truly happy and still chose to become involved with someone else then they may not be the person we would choose to spend the rest of our life with anyway.
Whilst sometimes, understandably, a newly divorced person can reject the idea of entering into another serious relationship (and some people do live happy and fulfilling single lives), for most of us a new partner appears to be the key for greater well being after divorce.
It is hugely beneficial to spend some time alone before embarking on a new relationship in order that we learn how to be happy and secure in ourselves. It is when we feel strong enough to stand on our own two feet (physically, emotionally and financially) that we are truly able to make empowered decisions about the rest of our lives.
If we are relying on a new partner to make us feel happy or secure, we are in danger of making ill-fated decisions based on need rather than purely considering whether a prospective partner will add to our happiness and enjoyment of life.
The knowledge any of us gain from our previous relationships is crucial to understanding what we would like in a future long-term partner; what qualities are important to us in that person, what behaviours would not be acceptable and how we want a new relationship to ‘be’ and to ‘feel’.
Importantly, it is not only our choice of partner that influences the type of relationship that is created, it is also our way of ‘being’ that influences how successful a new relationship will be. Interestingly, we can very often unwittingly recreate the same type of relationship we had previously despite choosing a very different type of partner. This happens when our relationship behaviour (based on our unconscious expectations of a new partner) remains unchanged.
For example, a woman who has separated from a controlling man may feel she has successfully found exactly the type of man she now wants (such as a man who believes in having an equally supportive and respectful relationship) but she may not have changed her way of ‘being’ in a relationship – she may still, for example, have a tendency to defer to her partner or regularly seek ‘permission’ from her partner for things she wants to do, or she may still hold an expectation that her partner will ‘look after’ her financially or emotionally.
Over time, in this situation, even a partner with no desire to control may feel the need to lead and the balance of power within the relationship then shifts. This may result in the woman believing all men are controlling when, in fact, they may simply be responding to her behaviour. Without recognising her own need to become more self-reliant and independent, this woman will always tend to create the same type of relationship and thus her wish for an equally supportive and mutually respectful relationship is unlikely to become a reality.
It is crucial for us to bring our conscious awareness to not only what we want in a new partner, but also what shifts we need to make in our own way of ‘being’ in a relationship.
Whatever feelings we have towards our partner, when we have children, there is the undeniable truth that our lives will always be tied together – we will forever be co-parents.
As such, we will have to navigate our way through significant events in the future; parent’s evenings, graduations, weddings and christenings are all times when we all want our children’s happiness and wellbeing come first. The more amicable our parting is, the easier these things are to cope with and even, perhaps, do well together.
Children do, of course, bring additional emotional, financial and logistical implications to the separation process. Importantly, these extra arrangements are best worked out between the parting parents without involving the children so that the news can then be delivered in the clearest way possible.
Once children have been told about the practical implications (how the divorce will affect their living arrangements, their schooling and their access to both parents) they will look for reassurance that everyone will, ultimately, be alright. Because of this it is preferable for the delivery of the news to be done by both parents whenever possible.
The delivery itself is best done in a calm and factual manner but also with the absolute acknowledgement to the children that however they feel is completely alright (they may feel angry, sad, numb or even relieved). It can also be helpful to share that we too feel emotional but that we know that, for everyone in the family, these feelings will pass.
Once we have delivered the facts, it is helpful to let the children lead the questions. Our job then is simply to answer those questions as openly as possible. For little ones this often means they go off and play quite quickly, returning at different moments to ask more. Of course, one of the questions children often want clarity on is ‘why?’ and it is important that we make it crystal clear that it is because we, their parents, are not getting along, that we will be happier building separate (but connected) lives and it is absolutely nothing to do with them or their behaviour.
If a couple have an agreement never to make negative or disparaging comments about one another we can usually avoid placing any unintentional pressure on children to be loyal to one parent or another (or worse, feel the need to switch loyalties depending on who is parenting them at the time).
If divorce is handled in a straightforward manner, and at least one parent continues to be emotionally available and supportive whilst maintaining the same clearly reinforced boundaries as before, children can, and indeed do, come through a family split relatively unscathed.
The new you
Divorce is, without doubt, a challenging process for us all. We have to face our fears, deal with our disappointment, re-define ourselves whilst simultaneously re-thinking the rest of our lives.
In addition, if we have children, we have the added pressure of maintaining our duties as an available and competent parent when, at times, it can seem hard enough looking after ourselves.
However, as the pain of our separation eases and the social self is re-established, confidence and belief in our own abilities grows.