Half our life is going up in flames. Our home and family are swept asunder. Divorce shatters our sacred dreams of eternal marriage and even our faith in the goodness of humankind. Since our marriage vows were taken in the presence of our community, the defeat of divorce is a public one. We can’t hide our failure to have and to hold ’til death do us part. Everywhere we turn, we’re reminded of our bitter loss.
How did we make the long journey from the bliss and promise of the wedding day to the defeat, guilt and pain of divorce? As we do everything in our power to hold back the dismemberment of our partnership, we also need to find our own strength and purpose. By understanding more clearly what we’re going through we can improve our wellbeing now and in the future.
Facing into the jaws of change
Facing questions about an impending divorce hurts like hell. We see our spouse as a source of massive pain, and our instinct is to turn away. Even when every bone in our body is telling us it’s over, this is the right time to courageously open up to the whole story, and try to understand our role in it. Coming together and understanding the pain that developed where there was once only love can be the most important and most growing opportunity of our lives. Counseling now will reduce the trauma, speed up the healing, and if there are kids, improve their emotional support through this tumultuous period in their lives. It also may help us avoid repeating the same painful decisions that got us here in the first place.
The most powerful approach to counseling is for both parties to assume, or even pretend, there is something worth saving. When we contrast our remembered harmony with our current plight, deep hopes and fears are often flushed out of their hidden stronghold. These awakenings help us get through this period, and lead us to the next step in our personal growth. Couples weekends such as those hosted by the Imago Therapy organization give us an opportunity to plunge into this exploration.
Havoc of separation
When the decision to part becomes final, the turmoil reaches a crescendo. How do we even get divorced, and what are our legal rights and obligations? Who gets the house and kids? Being thrown into the sordid details of breaking apart feels like a waking nightmare. And just at the time when we need the most support, some of our support group may pull away, unable to navigate the pain and disruption of the breakup. To survive this period, we need to rely on every survival skill at our disposal. We should reach out to family, friends, coworkers, religious fellows and mentors, immerse ourselves in activities, counseling, support groups– anything we can do to keep our heads above water.
Our emotions are confusing, and even frightening, and for many of us our instinct is to stuff our feelings back down into the darkness of anger and denial. While stuffing feelings may seem to save us, the improvement is only temporary. The longer we try to deny our feelings, the more powerful, rigid and crippling they become. When we allow the pain to control us we turn bitter and hurt ourselves even more by cutting ourselves off from redeeming positive feelings and memories. By “blackwashing” important areas of our life journey we destroy a part of ourselves. Bitterness poisons the vessel that contains it.
Healing through grieving
Grieving is the process of opening up to a whole process of suffering. Rather than sticking just with the pain, we open up to the whole range of emotions. We realize that our suffering now results directly from the joy and passion of our union. Without the joy, there could be no pain. These opposites of joy and sorrow, hope and disappointment are intimately intertwined, and when we allow ourselves to experience both sides we become ten thousand times more whole than when we try to hold them apart. By mourning and accepting our loss, we gradually evolve from anger to forgiveness and acceptance.
Grieving and forgiving are the two most powerful methods available for moving beyond our pain into a healthy present and future. Forgiving doesn’t mean that we were wrong, or that the other person really didn’t hurt us, and grieving doesn’t mean giving up. Forgiving and grieving simply mean that by opening up to the emotions of loss we prepare to let the past go and turn our attention to the present.
Lost time, lost youth
When we lose our relationship we also feel we are losing time. We seem to have fast forwarded past an entire chapter in our lives, and we suddenly feel closer to the end. The pain of our lost relationship becomes mixed in with the sense that we have lost our youth. We can untie this knot of tangled thoughts and feelings by facing the sorrowful awareness that we are not on this earth forever. Just as we heal from other losses through grieving, we also may heal from the terrible anger and fear of losing our youth. By openly accepting the passage of time, we come to realize that we are not finished yet, and we improve the quality of the days that we have to live.
Guilt is another damaging byproduct of divorce. Guilt traps us in the past and accomplishes nothing. One of the best antidotes to guilt is forgiving ourselves.
Ready to grow
When we get beyond the crippling aftermath of divorce, we come face to face with our own growth. The old life is gone, and now in this new chapter in our lives, we need to take an active part in building our future. While we may feel terribly constrained by our past, this profound transition may provide a valuable opportunity to learn about ourselves, and to open up to new wisdom about our possibilities for outgrowing old patterns.
Mysterious fascination, what can we learn about attraction?
In a failed marriage, it’s usually so easy to blame the other person or to dismiss the whole situation as a bad mistake. Naturally we want to avoid making the same mistake again, but if we’re not quite sure what went wrong, we don’t know how to change. No matter how unjust or foolish was the situation, we can find deep insights into ourselves and our patterns by accepting the part we played in entering the relationship.
Choosing a partner involves deep unconscious patterns. We could become smarter about our present and future by gaining insight into the patterns that drive us into partnership in the first place. When we choose a partner, we often feel a mysterious fascination. What is it that draws us to this particular person?
Perhaps we have already noticed that the mistakes we have made in relationships in the past bear an uncanny resemblance to things we have been trying to avoid. As we recognize these patterns, we begin to learn what part we played in the scene. We realize that we expect our partnership to fulfill our unconscious needs, and how we often feel drawn to a partner who does not provide those needs. To understand our relationships, we need to learn more about ourselves. As we learn about our own needs, we also learn about the needs of other people. We realize they are not just there to fulfill our dreams, since they have dreams and limitations of their own. Gradually our deepening understanding of ourselves and others deepens our relationships and makes us more whole.
When we enter marriage, we expect it to last a lifetime. In our marriage vows we say, in the presence of each other, our community, the law of the land, and our religion, that we’ll be together until death. Now that we face the possibility of parting while alive, we must face confusing, complex emotions.
Despite these great difficulties, life does go on. We live to see a new day. And we strive to live it in the best way we can. Our coping tools are valuable on ordinary days. In the aftermath of divorce our emotional maturity and wisdom become more important than ever. As we go through difficult situations, the best response to our pain seems to be to reach for the stars, in our effort to be the best humans we can be.
See also: Blame, Blended family, Child within, Couples counseling, Forgivness, Grief, Imago Therapy
Getting the love you want, a guide for couples by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.
Imago Relationship Therapy, An introduction to theory and practice by Rick Brown with Toni Reinhold
Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, A practical guide for improving communication and getting what you want from relationship by John Gray, Ph.D.
Seven principles for making marriage work by John M. Gottman, Ph.D. and Nan Silver