Divorce sucks. The unraveling and separating of lives is painful and messy, no matter how mature or well-intentioned the parties. My own divorce is now four-plus years in the rearview mirror, but I have several friends who are at various stages in the process right now, and it’s got me ruminating on what I learned, and what I wish I could share with people in the midst.
Last year, I wrote an essay about my ex-husband, with his permission, here at BCC. Reading it will give some context and gravity to my experience, and to what I took away from the process, not just as a woman and a mother, but as a Latter-day Saint.
While divorce is devastating for anyone, as Mormons we have the added pressure of what we were taught to believe was forever. Our marriages, we learn from Sunbeams on up, from our parents’ knees for Family Night, and in every YM and YW lesson, are for Eternity. That pressure, and platitudes about righteousness and presumed sin, are an extra layer and burden to a Latter-day Saint marriage that fails. It also sets up a powerful social impetus to cast blame, and to look for pat answers to what are always complicated questions. The answers to those questions are not easy, and not found in a platitude. When we insist on there being a Sinner and a Victim, when we wage wars of social collateral and gossip, when we assign blame instead of looking at our own hearts, when we pick sides and cast dispersions, we fail as Latter-day Saints and as Christians.
In my divorce, it would be seductively simple to assign blame entirely at my ex-husband’s feet. The narrative is acceptable— even encouraged, sadly— and I could easily wrap the mantle of “Wronged One” around my shoulders. Only it would be a cop out. It would be dishonest, and it would stunt any hope I had to grow from what was the single most painful experience of my life. I knew that I could not shortchange myself or my kids that way. I resolved to learn, and to do as I believed my faith demanded of me- to show compassion and love.
I spent nearly 20 years with my ex-husband. We met when I was barely more than a girl, and divorced when I was on the dark side of my 30′s and holding three children afloat. He was my friend before he was my husband, and that friendship and genuine respect for his humanity is what I hold dear now. With that in mind, here is what I learned, and what I wish I could share with my friends and with anyone going through a divorce…
Grieve. Acknowledge the loss of something that once held great promise and hope. The temptation to burry feelings, to mask sorrow with anger and rage is strong- it’s easier to be mad than it is to hurt. Give yourself permission to feel sorrow, and allow it to roll over you. Like the waves of the ocean, it won’t be forever, and what feels like overwhelming crushing weight will crash around you, and then it will ebb. It will probably happen over and over, but the more you allow the process to take place, the more certain you will be of your ability to withstand the pain, and not shrink from it, and the more confident and sure you will be of the flux and flow being part of the healing.
Be Honest. Taking a long hard look at ourselves can be frightening. In a divorce, no matter how it may seem at one point or another, the truth is, it took two people. A relationship is built on thousands of days, and millions of moments, where each partner is present, and contributes. It’s a dangerous fallacy to wrap oneself as a victim and it disallows the opportunity to grow and learn. The lessons we need in life will repeat until we understand, and figuring out my own character flaws and acknowledging them and the part they played in my divorce was integral to any hope for a healthy future relationship. Pride, the need for control and the desire to be right in a marriage can be just as corrosive as any addiction.
Rise Above Pettiness and Cruelty. No one knows where to strike to inflict the most harm like a spouse. If you’re being honest with yourself, you will be able to see where you might be contributing to a poisonous environment- it’s possible to tell yourself that you are justified, because s/he did this or that, but the truth is, you’re the one you have to live with. There is more than enough hurt in the separating without either partner manufacturing more. This isn’t junior high, and gathering folks for “your side” is petty and cruel. If you need people to be unkind to your ex in order to feel good about yourself, about your social position or about your friends, that says more about your character than you’re probably aware. And it’s not flattering. Be a grown up.
Don’t be Afraid. Life changes. Yes, change can be really hard- especially if you didn’t want it. But if you’re open to learning about yourself, there are things that might be in store for you that you never imagined. The shape and matrix of your life is changing, but who you are still belongs to you. This is part of why not allowing bitterness and cruelty to define you is so important. When you are no longer part of a pair, you have the sudden ability to figure out again who you want to be, what matters to you. That’s a powerful choice, and one that can take you in directions you hadn’t previously imagined. Not being afraid requires you to dust yourself off and find your place on the horizon.
Be Kind to Yourself. It takes time to heal- don’t walk faster than you are able. Some days, the best you can do is just make it through. Each step you take toward healing is a success. Have good friends who you can confide in, and who help you deal with your emotions in a healthy way- or who can occasionally just let you vent. Take time for yourself. Use the time your kids are with the other parent to do small things you may have neglected when you had less time alone.
Blame is a Waste of Time. Period. If you’re devoting time and energy to blame-placing, you are not healing and you are not moving forward. Blame is toxic, and it turns one into a victim. It’s also quite a narcotic, and is very seductive— it’s a hard pit to avoid, but avoiding it is necessary. You are responsible for you, and the only actions that are under your control are yours. Blame is giving yourself away. Own up to what you can about your own role, and allow other people to do that in their own time and their own way. Avoiding blame allows you to respect yourself and allows other people the room to do the same.
That brings me to children. I have a powerful cadre of feelings about children in a divorce.
Bite Your Tongue. This seems like a no-brainer, but so many people screw this one up. No matter how much you want to, no matter how justified you might feel, no matter how strong the urge- never. ever. speak ill of your children’s other parent. I mean it. NEVER. Whether you like it or not, the children are half of your ex. They know it. When you malign the other parent, you are maligning half of your children. If you have to literally chomp on your tongue, do it. If the best you can do is to say nothing, then do that. You needn’t offer praise if you feel none is deserved, but let your silence be your comment. No matter how you feel, the children will love their other parent, and honestly… they should. Fracturing them, placing blame, teaching them to harbor anger are damaging and unfitting a mature parent.
Let Your Children Be Children. If you need your children “on your side”, you need to sit down and have a long, hard look at yourself. Allowing children room to continue to have a loving relationship with both parents is one of the best things you can do during a divorce. If you need to vent about what s/he did, do so to a private confident, out of hearing of the children. Give the kids room to express themselves without having to be careful about hurting your feelings- children are not equipped to be the emotional support of their parents during a divorce, but they can and do feel this responsibility if parents are behaving immaturely. It’s the job of the parent to be the parent. Use your support structure, not your kids.
Divorce is Survivable. I’m in the camp of belief that divorce doesn’t have to be crippling to children. If we give our children the ability to write their own narrative, to express themselves, give them the freedom to continue to love both parents without emotional guilt or manipulation, and the support they need, they can grow up happy and healthy, even if the ideal family didn’t work. There are truly times where divorce is a healthier option than staying married.
Encourage Interaction. Make it easy for your children to interact with their other parent. Provide guilt-free ways for your kids to speak of, interact with, and include their other parent in their daily lives. Don’t mope or let the children see resentment in you when they enjoy time with their other parent. You are the parent, and your happiness and emotional well-being is not (and should not be) contingent on your children.
Finally, I would add:
It will get better. This will not always be a gaping wound. Time will move forward, and if you keep the bitterness from your heart, you will heal, and you will be happy again.
My own parents are divorced. My brothers and I were 17, 10 and 5. I give immense credit to my parents- my step-father included. No child was ever made responsible for adult emotions or actions. In hindsight, I am certain there were complicated feelings and difficulties; we were never, ever put in the middle. Both my mother, father and step-father set aside whatever differences there might have been. I have never heard a bad word from any of them about the others. My dad and step-dad even coached Little League together. To this day, I sense no resentment, no anger. It made an environment where we were safe being kids, and we trusted our parents to be adults. I’m even more grateful for this example now, and it’s part of why I chose the path I did with my ex-husband. It requires we rise above, at a time when we are possibly feeling our most low. But it can be done. Thanks are due my parents, all three of them.
I also have gratitude for my ex-husband. Because of his willingness to take responsibility for his actions and his humility in the hard work of recovery, he has positively helped in the process of my healing, and that of our children.
Recommended reading: On Divorce and Children