Mighty Life List
Jul 5 2012

Divorce Field Guide: Best Advice


-via my Instagram stream.

Thanks everyone for your comments and emails last week (re: Divorce and Grief). I should preface this post by saying that I’m able to write about divorce now because the worst is over. I’m in a happy, productive place. As I mentioned last week, there are still flashes of grief, and I expect that to persist for a while, but overall I’m looking forward to what’s next.

I didn’t post much through the divorce, because I was too tender, but I’m here now because I’m hoping these notes and the comments can be helpful – especially to those of you who are going through the worst of it right now.

What follows are the three best pieces of advice I received from friends when I was at my unhappiest:

1. Lower the bar for a while.

A girlfriend said she had a kind, mild friend who went a little nuts during her divorce. She was enraged, destroying expensive common property, and behaving in other ways that were out of character. But after a year, she’d mostly returned to normal.

“Everyone gets at least a year of crazy,” my friend said. “Don’t expect to be yourself for a while.”

Whenever I felt overwhelmed, I remembered those words. I didn’t feel like myself, but temporarily setting a lower bar made me feel accomplished for not throwing a rock through anyone’s window. Small victories.

2. There’s good stuff waiting.

Shortly after my separation, I had lunch with an acquaintance whose parents had been divorced when she was around Hank’s age. She said both parents had found new mates who made them happier, and that she could see how hard things would have been if they’d stayed together.

“I’m so excited for you,” she said. “You get to have your own place, figure out who you are on your own, fall in love again, and have first kisses again.”

She knew I wasn’t there yet, but she’ was genuinely excited for me. She’d seen first hand that there could be a happier life on the other side of the hard part, and it gave me hope.

3. It takes a very good boyfriend to beat no boyfriend at all.

There’s no loneliness as deep as feeling alone in the company of someone you love.

A while after the separation, I was starting to feel better. I was listening to new music, enjoying time with my kiddo more, and having long chats with far-flung girlfriends.

On one of those calls with a friend who had also been through a divorce, we talked about how it’s scary to wonder whether you’ll ever be in a relationship again.

“Take your time,” she said. “It takes a damn good boyfriend to beat no boyfriend at all.”

There’s the wisdom that got me through to a happier place. What’s the most helpful breakup advice you’ve received?

Jun 26 2012

Divorce and Grief

The revenants, Amy Friend

Image: The revenants, by Amy Friend © 2002-2012.

I was a wife, and now I’m not.

The product is so much cleaner than the process. And in the beginning, this is how I thought of divorce. Discrete, an event. So I waited for it to be over.

There were mundane moments of suffering — my thumb would feel for my missing wedding band, I’d overfill the teakettle, or be half-asleep and bewildered to find only a single toothbrush near the sink. Every time, the surprise of it was clarifying, a series of breathtaking realizations. I moved the tissue box from room to room.

Beyond these details there was a progression of endings — moving out, quitting therapy, getting a lawyer, signing papers — all of it mounted toward the final goal. But each milestone passed without much change in my feelings. The finish line I imagined was in motion. Slowly I came to understand that divorce wasn’t so much an event as a death.

The distinction is crucial, for two reasons. First, because we have fewer expectations of when we’ll recover after a death. We understand that feeling normal again is more a function of time than effort. Second, because we have better tools for coping with mourning than with divorce. There’s a protocol of care, we forgive outbursts, moments of insanity. And if we’ve lost someone, perhaps we go easier on ourselves.

I did not go easy on myself. The grief eclipsed me, and embarrassed me. And thinking of it as an event only increased my suffering. When each phase found me still mourning, I worried that I would never be myself again.

Pain and confusion aside, just the paperwork seemed insurmountable. It was easy for me to get caught up in logistics and mistake them for the journey. Once you’ve taken actions A-Z, you are no longer married, and you get your life back.

Except, as with a death, once everything normalizes it doesn’t resemble your life anymore. The plans you’d made, the things you’d thought settled, are blown apart.

Now I’m no longer a wife, but the afterimage of that identity remains. Sometimes my habits still bend to accommodate the preferences of a person who isn’t there. I don’t know how long it will last, only that I don’t need a finite date anymore.

Divorce has changed me, matured me, perhaps more than marriage did. Now I know that our loneliest moments are some of the most universal.

If you’re going through a divorce, try not to worry so much about when everything will end, just know that it will. You’ll get through it, and there’s so much possibility waiting on the other side.

For those of you who have gone through it, when did you start feeling better? Did your thinking about the divorce process change over time? Advice appreciated in comments.

Feb 28 2011

Life List How To: One Way to Start

It feels a little strange to write about this, because I’m hardly in a position to offer advice right now. Please think of this as something I’m sharing because it helped me sort the army of emotions advancing on my psyche. If you’re feeling equally defenseless in the face of something Big and Bad, or even if you’re just a little befuddled, I hope this will be useful.

Emotions First

When my best-laid plans for my family went awry, my impulse was to respond with a frenzy of planning, and list making, and goal setting.

Instead I napped and took too many baths. Sometimes I napped in the bathtub, which I recommend. Anyway, once I’d restocked enough energy to think about anything but impending doom, I thought now might be a reasonable time to reassess my priorities.

Fortunately, I came across a well-timed article by Martha Beck about using the emotions you’d like to experience to guide your goals (I think it’s the same one Lara mentioned in comments). You look at how you want to feel overall, and then choose activities that support those objectives. I thought it would be a smart organizing principle for deciding what to do next.

Three Steps

First, I needed to figure out how I wanted to feel besides “not like this.” So I did what the article suggested, and here’s how that process unfolded for me:

1. I made a list of all the things I’d like to feel that I’m not right now: content, rested, sane.

2. I decided the main thing I want is more peace, but that seemed too one dimensional, so I made a little outline of all the other emotions that define peace to me. Mine looked like this (forgive the inherent cheese, it’s the nature of the beast):

Peaceful:

Abundant
-Free
-Joyful
-Enthusiastic
-Celebratory

Connected
-Supported
-Loved
-Community

Present
-Aware
-Content
-Curious
-Amazement

Flexible
-Laid Back
-Well Rested

3. Next, for each emotion, I wrote down things that have evoked that feeling in the past. Holy hell, my friends. This was genuinely startling.

I realized how many things I genuinely love that I rarely do. For example, I thought about times I’d experienced joy, and I kept coming back to swimming. I particularly love swimming in natural bodies of water, and I almost never do it. This is ridiculous because we have a cabin a block from a river. Apparently I’ve been denying myself joy because it’s too much of a pain. Joy gets too much sand in the car.

I also realized how many mundane bits of happiness I needlessly deny myself. I used to love getting dressed in the morning, especially if I was feeling blue. Looking pulled together is like armor, it makes me feel so much more confident. Over the years, as my schedule has shifted to accommodate the people around me, I started to rush through grooming, to be stressed about how long it took. I stopped ironing, resisted the urge to change an outfit that wasn’t working. Getting ready in the morning became a chore, because I felt like everyone was waiting on me. Now when I feel time stress rising, I stop myself and think, “You enjoy this.” And I let my shoulders unhunch.

What’s Your Question?

The best thing about this process is that, for a while at least, it has given me a single question to ask myself about any decision in front of me. Will this make me feel more peaceful? If the answer is no, it’s off the list.

I need to make more time for water.

What’s the question you ask yourself before you make decisions? Or do you have another guiding principle for goal setting? I’m all ears.