Back in the 1950s, divorce was taboo, thanks to societal pressures and expectations concerning marriage. Marriage was supposed to be about the storybook wedding, and couples were supposed to stay married until “death do us part.” For unhappy couples, this idealization of marriage and stigmatization of divorce often implied staying put in a miserable marriage or dissolving the marriage under “hush hush” conditions.
Today those who have made the difficult decision to divorce face less societal pressure and stigmatization, but the forbidden nature of divorce still lingers and can prevent people from talking about issues related to divorce and their impact on mental and emotional wellbeing.
A case in point: life after divorce. Many people have fears about life after divorce and may be too scared, hesitant, or unwilling to talk about them. They may stay silent due to worries about being judged or looked down upon.
The reality is that fears surrounding life after divorce can be profound—because divorce is the opposite of what the institution of marriage provides. Marriage comes with feelings of security on many different levels. It is security that someone will be there when needed (financial security, support during hard times, etc.). Whether these feelings of security are based in reality or fantasy, marriage is generally an idealized institution promising happiness and prosperity. The insecurity and uncertainty of post-divorce life, on the other hand? That inevitably triggers fears and anxieties.
Common Fears About Life After Divorce
Talking to a good friend, divorce support group and/or trusted mental health professional about these fears can be a pathway to healing. Divorce can feel like a leap into the unknown, after all. Bringing up one’s fears about what life will be like after divorce can help mitigate feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Some common fears that may be worth talking about, for example:
Loss of friends and family
Spouses often have shared friends. Divorce may mean having to choose between friends, or mutual friends may feel they have to take sides. Naturally, the prospect of losing friendships or—worse yet, being left with no friends—can be scary.
Similarly, if there were social, religious, or spiritual groups that both spouses were part of, navigating these dynamics after a divorce can be uncomfortable and anxiety-producing.
There may also be close relationships with immediate and extended family members. After divorce, in-laws become out-laws and close family relationships change to distant ones or are totally cut off.
In a marriage, couples may be accustomed to double incomes. Or, if one spouse is not working, there is comfort in knowing the other can pay the bills. Divorce may stoke fears about financial insecurity with a single income. Divorce settlements that require child support or alimony cause people to worry about being able to pay that plus meet their own financial needs. Retirement may look more dismal when long-term financial plans have changed due to divorce.
Co-parenting can be a daunting task, especially if parents break up on poor terms. Limited custody or loss of custody bring fears of disconnection from their children. They may worry that the other parent may be more loved and their influence as a parent may be diminished.
Marriage comes with a permanent life partner, whereas divorce typically entails (at least initially) being single and alone. Fears of having to feel the deep pang of loneliness can be so strong that they keep people in an unhappy marriage. Divorcees may also have doubts of finding another love again.
Left unaddressed, these fears can turn into debilitating mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or adjustment disorders. (Learn about how mental health treatment at FHE Health is helping people find healing and recovery from these issues.)
New Opportunities for Self-Growth in Life After Divorce
Life after divorce, however, can also be happy and prosperous. It can be an amazing period of self-growth when viewed as a time for new opportunities. Here are five ways to embrace life after divorce rather than fear it.
1. Reconnect and rebuild relationships
Marriage may have taken a large chunk of daily energy and focus, as well as time away from friends and family. Reconnect with friends who may have been neglected. Rejoin former social groups or activities that once brought joy and a sense of belonging but may have been sidelined by marriage. Reach out to family members and make time for them—maybe plan one-on-one gatherings with them.
2. Deepen relationships with children
Think of co-parenting as an opportunity to become closer to children. Divorced parents have more ability to have individual time with their children, whereas before that time was shared by both parents together. Life after divorce can be a chance to know one’s children on a deeper level, by scheduling experiential activities that strengthen the parent-child bond. Hiking, sports, music, cultural events, or vacations are some examples. Talk about what children are feeling during the divorce process and connect with them emotionally.
3. Improve the picker
The post-divorce season can be a time to reflect on the positives and negatives of a past marriage. Identify with the help of family, friends, or professionals whether the spouse was an emotionally healthy and mentally fit partner. If they were not, then it may be time to consider the traits of a more suitable life partner and how to identify these traits moving forward. Write down the top ten traits and qualities that you would want in a future significant other and do not lower your expectations on this list. Allowing others to help pick the right person can also be a good approach.
4. Join support groups
Loneliness is a common feeling among divorcees. Do not go through divorce alone. Seek the help of others going through the same issues through support groups. There are many types of support groups for general divorce, co-parenting, gender-specific issues, codependency, etc. Find support groups through health professionals, therapy websites, community centers, churches, or online searches.
5. Embark on a journey of self-discovery
Divorce can open up time alone in positive ways, as it allows one to get to know oneself on a deeper level. Take time for solitude and reflection of life priorities, values, and goals. Confront and alleviate any judgment of feelings of failure or low self-worth, with the help of self-compassion and self-forgiveness. Evaluate your strengths and limitations and work to improve to become your own ideal mate. Spend time reconnecting with nature. Meditate through spiritual practices to find strength in God, a higher power and/or within oneself. Being alone does not have to equate with loneliness when inner peace is within reach.
Divorce can be difficult in so many ways and is a major life change that affects people emotionally, mentally, and financially. (On Dartmouth University’s Life Change Index Scale, also known as “The Stress Test,” divorce ranked as the second most stressful life event. The most stressful was the death of a spouse.)
The stress and the challenges notwithstanding, it is entirely possible to emerge from the end of a marriage stronger, healthier, and happier than before. It starts by turning that life change from the negative into the positive and embracing life after divorce.
This article was provided by Dr. Sachi Ananda, PhD, LMHC, MCAP, who directs “Shatterproof”, a treatment program for first responders at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health.