The experience of divorce can be one of the most difficult and traumatic experiences of a person’s life. You may experience a loss in a lifestyle that you have become accustomed to, feelings of grief about goals that you had for the future, worries about your child/ren, loss of mutual friends, and financial changes. There may also be significant emotional impacts from the end of a relationship. You may feel anxious, depressed, have low self-esteem, or feel as though you have failed. These are all normal reactions to a divorce. Fortunately, healing and recovery from divorce is possible.
Factors to Consider When Recovering from Divorce
When a person experiences divorce, they may start wondering how long recovery and healing will take. Feelings of impatience during this process is normal and understandable. You may feel anxious to move on from the divorce and may view reflecting on the past as counterproductive to that goal. However, the best way to move forward with your life after divorce is to take the time you need to heal and recover, even if you feel like you want to rush through and get it over with. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for healing from divorce. There are a number of factors that can impact your experience of recovery.
- Length of the marriage: The longer you were married to your ex-spouse, the longer it may take to heal from the divorce. You may feel a sense of loss about future plans or goals that you planned. No matter the length of the marriage, divorce can cause an emotional and life upheaval. If you had been married for a long time, this change in circumstances can be more difficult to work through and accept. When people get married, their lives become intertwined emotionally, financially, and otherwise. The longer the marriage, the more difficult and time-consuming it may be to separate yourself from the life you had while you were married.
- Child/ren: If you have a child/ren with your ex-spouse, regardless of whether they are biological, adopted, or stepchildren, the healing and recovery from divorce can be more challenging. If you have a co-parenting arrangement with your ex-spouse, you may still need to see them when dropping off or picking up your child/ren. This can make it difficult to move forward. Your child/ren may also be impacted by the divorce and helping them process what has happened might keep you feeling stuck in the past.
- Health of and commitment to the marriage: If you had a healthy and committed marriage for a long time that eventually began to deteriorate, healing from divorce may be more challenging and harder to accept.
- Gender socialization: One of the main ways to heal from a divorce is to talk about and address your feelings and emotions, rather than avoiding them or playing them off as “no big deal.” While some of these stereotypes may be gender-specific, having been raised with the mantra of “stiff upper lip” or “boys don’t cry” may impede the healing process. Those who have been taught early on that it is okay to express feelings and emotions may have an easier time navigating through this loss.
- Violence or abuse: Sometimes a marriage ends because there has been violence or abuse between spouses or between a parent and a child/ren. Even if your marriage has ended due to these circumstances, it does not mean that divorce is easy. On average, it takes a person who has been harmed by domestic violence seven times to leave a relationship, usually because of safety concerns or concern for their child/ren. Once a person in this situation does divorce the person who has done harm to them, they not only need to navigate the experience of divorce but also their trauma stemming from the violence or abuse. This can make it difficult to heal and recover from the experience.
This is not an exhaustive list of factors. Others might include age, personality, financial stability, and whether you’ve had a prior divorce. It’s important to remember that everyone recovers from divorce differently and at their own pace.
Stages of Healing & Recovery
Psychologist Thomas Whiteman identifies six stages of divorce recovery. These stages are meant to be a guide to help people heal from divorce. You may experience some of these stages, variations of them, or your healing may look completely different. You may also experience these stages in a different order. Everyone’s healing process is unique to them.
- Denial: Sometimes when people go through a traumatic event like a divorce, they may experience denial. Oftentimes denial is a reaction that a person has to the shock of a big life change or traumatic event, such as divorce. Denial is actually a way that we mentally protect ourselves from a difficult situation or experience. After a divorce, a person may not be ready to process the experience. This is completely normal. If you are experiencing denial, it may be helpful to seek individual counseling to work through this stage of healing.
- Anger: Anger is a response that we have to either real or perceived Oftentimes, people feel angry about the divorce or toward their ex-spouse. This can be especially true if the divorce was sudden and unexpected or if the relationship ended because of fighting, violence, or a violation of trust. Anger may be experienced more by the person who is being divorced versus the person who commenced the divorce and can present itself in a number of different ways depending on the person. If you are feeling anger because of your divorce, it may be helpful to find a way to channel your anger in a way that is healthy and productive. For some people, physical exercise or activity is helpful, such as hiking, going to the gym, playing a sport, or running. For others, relaxation strategies may be more helpful. These could include meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or a relaxing hobby. Everyone deals with their anger differently. If you are struggling with your anger and how to address it, it might be helpful to seek individual counseling or an anger management support group.
- Bargaining: In the context of recovering from the experience of divorce, bargaining occurs when a person desperately tries to reconcile the marriage. This stage of healing can occur for either spouse but may be more likely experienced by the spouse who was divorced versus the spouse who commenced the divorce. You or your ex-spouse may promise that they will never do something or act in a certain way again, especially if such an action factored into the divorce, or they may try to plan a vacation or reconcile in some other way. At this point in the recovery process, it may be helpful to seek a support group for people who have experienced divorce.
- Depression: Depression is a very common part of healing from divorce. It is completely normal to be depressed even if you are the spouse who wanted the divorce. During this stage of recovery, you may feel grief about the end of your relationship or overwhelmed by the changes in your new life. Depression can present itself physically, emotionally, and behaviorally. Physical symptoms can include fatigue, sleep issues, and changes in appetite. Emotional symptoms can include feelings of hopelessness, anger, loneliness, and loss of interest or pleasure, while behavioral symptoms can include withdrawal from friends and family and neglecting daily tasks. Talking to supportive people in your life or seeking individual counseling can be helpful at this stage.
- Acceptance: At this stage of recovery, a person may recognize and accept that the “past is the past” and can begin looking toward the future. Although we can find acceptance with the help of the people in our lives, oftentimes, acceptance is an internal realization that comes from working through our feelings and emotions in order to find peace with the changes in our lives.
- Forgiveness: Psychologist Thomas Whiteman refers to forgiveness as the “final stage” of divorce recovery. At this stage, you may feel ready to create a relationship with your ex-spouse that is focused on the present and future, rather than on what has happened in the past. It’s important to note that it is not always safe or possible to forgive your ex-spouse by establishing a new and healthy relationship with them. Forgiveness can be an internal process, rather than an external one. If you are the person who is seeking forgiveness, it’s possible that your ex-spouse may not accept your apology. This can lead to anger, and it may feel like you are regressing in your recovery process. A support group for people who have experienced divorce can be helpful at this stage.
It’s crucial to remember that healing is not linear. Somedays you may feel as though you are moving forward and other days you may feel like you have regressed. If Whiteman’s stages of divorce recovery resonate with your process, you may oscillate between stages. Because healing is unique for everyone, the length of each stage varies. Although it can be incredibly helpful to find support through friends, family, and support groups, it is important not to compare your progress to others; your healing and recovery is unique to you.
Tips for Recovery
Although each divorce is distinctive, there are some basic tips for recovery that may be helpful in beginning your healing journey.
- Commit to your recovery: Healing is hard work, but it’s possible. Like any recovery process, it’s important to work on achieving your goals daily. There will be setbacks and days that are more difficult than others and that’s okay. What is most important is your commitment, not perfection.
- Allow yourself to grieve: Grief is a very difficult emotion to process and work through. In the context of divorce, it might even feel out-of-place, particularly for the person who commenced the divorce. Remember, even though your marriage did not work out, it doesn’t mean that you don’t grieve the person you are separating from and the goals and dreams you had for the future. You may grieve the happy memories that you had during the marriage and even miss your ex-spouse at times because of this. This can even be true when a relationship ends because of violence or abuse. This is completely normal. If you are experiencing grief, it can be helpful to reach out to family and friends or seek individual counseling.
- Ask for help & try to avoid isolation: If you are struggling with the experience of divorce or are feeling depressed, seek out support from friends and family. It’s important to surround yourself with people who help you to stay in the present and plan for the future, rather than those who keep you stuck in the past. It can be difficult to reach out for help, especially if you are feeling depressed. However, avoiding isolation is an important part of healing from divorce.
- Prioritize self-care: Self-care is incredibly important when going through the emotional experience of divorce. However, it can also be very difficult to find the time and energy for self-care when dealing with the stress of the divorce process. It’s important to explore what self-care looks like for you. Maybe it’s doing a hobby you enjoy, taking a walk or a hike, physical exercise, meditation, or yoga. Self-care can also include building up confidence and self-esteem, finding time to relax, getting enough sleep, or creating a routine. Once you’ve figured out what works for you, try your best to work your self-care practices into your daily routine. Remember, it’s okay if on some days you can’t find the energy to practice self-care. What is most important is your commitment to your health and self-care practices.
- Make space for your emotions: Resisting our emotions about the experience of divorce may make your recovery process more challenging. Making space for feelings that arise and processing them as they happen, rather than avoiding them, can help your healing to move along more smoothly. For some, the emotional impact of divorce can lead to depression and anxiety. This is completely normal. However, if we let our emotions build up because we do not want to face them, it can lead to overwhelm and maybe even an emotional outburst. One way to think about this is to imagine that your emotions are a soda bottle. If you let things build up, especially as your feelings get more intense, and you don’t’ address them, the bottle will explode under pressure. If you face each obstacle as it arises and you process your feelings in the moment, it can help you to lead a happier and healthier life. If you are finding it difficult to face your emotions, individual counseling may be of help.
- Don’t wait for an apology to forgive: As mentioned before, forgiveness can be a process that is internal or external. In some cases, you may have to accept that your ex-spouse will not offer an apology, or you may not be ready to offer an apology to your ex-spouse. It’s important to think of forgiveness outside of the context of giving or receiving an apology. As the last stage in Whiteman’s six stages of divorce recovery, forgiveness is an important part of healing from divorce. You may want to explore ways to find forgiveness in the absence of an apology.
- Learn from your experience: Sometimes it can be hard to see the lessons that an experience like divorce can offer. However, your recovery from divorce can be smoother if you can embrace change and explore the lessons that you have learned during the divorce process. Maybe you learned something about what you do or don’t want from a future relationship or maybe you find independence post-divorce and realize how much you cherish it. No matter how big or small these lessons are, they are an important part of healing after divorce.
Recovering and healing from divorce isn’t always simple or direct. You may have days where you feel ready to move forward and days where you find it is difficult to not dwell in the past. It’s important to cultivate self-awareness so that you know what you need in the moment, allow your feelings to arise when they do, and seek support when necessary. Remember, what’s most integral is your commitment to recovery, and reminding yourself that not only is healing possible, but that you can become a stronger person through the process.