Need to know
When my former husband and I finally agreed to divorce, our ending was more of a mutual ‘I give up!’ moment than an explosion that blew us apart. We’d been struggling for so long – fighting, living without affection or sex, trying one couples therapist after another – yet here we were on the same page at last. However, beneath the surface calm, I was hurting intensely. I suspected he was going to return to the girlfriend he had been seeing. I was filled with an excruciating sort of grief, made up of some parts pure sorrow, some parts intense anxiety about our children and the future, and some parts persistent rage. I walked around with a thought bubble floating above my head: ‘What’s going to happen next? How the heck am I going to recover from this?’
In this Guide, I’m going to explore the answers to those questions based on my own experience of living through divorce, as well as what I have learned from relevant social science research, and from my 30 years as a psychologist working with others navigating these stormy waters. I will be offering both concrete suggestions for adjusting and adapting to life after a separation or divorce, and providing ideas for how to gain some mastery over your mind, and the frantic worries that may be haunting you.
My own anxieties were both free-floating and very specific. I worried intensely about our seven-year-old son, who kept asking ‘Why is Daddy living in a “department”?’ and our 11-year-old daughter, who became both extremely frustrated by her little brother, and deeply protective of him. Both had already lived through a number of years of uncertainty with unhappy parents.
I worried that I would not be able to afford to stay in our home and remain in a neighbourhood where I had friends to call on for carpools and dog care, and where my children could play all day long inside and out with a flock of other kids. I worried that I would be single forever, living with an identity of ‘Rejected and Divorced’.
The years that followed were hard – I can’t minimise that – but they also led to the kind of growth and wisdom that allowed me a second marriage that has been happily sturdy for 20 years, new experiences I would never have imagined for myself, the capacity to be good friends with my former husband and his wife, and – thank goodness – the opportunity to watch our children adapt, recover and thrive – themselves partnering with wonderful mates.
One of the challenges for many people following divorce is mastering a sense of failure, pessimism and helplessness. Parents who divorce worry especially about the impact of the divorce on their children. Many are not aware that they have the power to limit the risk to themselves, and the risk to their children, if they know about the most powerful risk factors and protective factors.
Divorce can also interrupt your social ties in so many ways. You are no longer part of a couple – so some friends may stop including you in dinner parties. You may have to move, giving up familiar roots in your neighbourhood. Your low mood may deter you from making an effort to arrange social dates with friends and family. Later, I will talk more about how to work on creating, maintaining and strengthening your social support network after a divorce.
Finally, many people who have made the difficult decision to end a marriage head into their future worried about repeating old mistakes, and recreating unworkable relationship patterns the next time around. I’ll give you advice for shifting those patterns to build healthier connections in the future.
The human spirit – for both adults and children – can be incredibly resilient. I will explore choices you can make in your day-to-day life to bolster your resiliency, make it easier to adapt, and build a strong social network that will protect your mental health, and even bolster your physical health over time. Divorce is not the end of the story. It is one very emotional, and often very sorrowful, chapter, but there are going to be many chapters written after that one.
What to do
Consider how you divorce
If you are contemplating a separation, or are heading toward divorce, one way to create cushioning for yourself and your family will be to carefully consider which process to use to create plans and resolve your differences about money, property and parenting. Couples can choose a process that will provide more support, be less adversarial, and rely less on court decisions and more on the input and thoughtfulness of the individuals involved. While litigation is, in a small number of cases, necessary, most people can make effective use of mediation, ‘collaborative divorce’, or ‘cooperative negotiation’ models. These models make a huge difference in how people will land once the divorce is legally complete.
While a review of these various collaborative divorce models and processes is beyond the scope of this Guide, my psychological advice here will be relevant regardless of the kind of divorce process you have engaged in. Some of the guidance will focus particularly on how to recover from more painful divorce experiences.
Use SMART goals to take back control of your life
Once you are in the midst of a divorce, a good starting point for regaining control and writing a new chapter of your life is to create a ‘business plan for life’. Setting intentions about financial, psychological, relationship and parenting health will not only help you create a sense of efficacy – an ‘I can do this!’ experience – the exercise will also lead to thoughtful decision-making in all areas of your life, during a period when painful emotions can overrule rational thought. Using the framework of setting SMART goals, borrowed from the field of industrial psychology and corporate management, you can set your intentions for the first year or two after divorce using these goal posts:
Specific (simple, sensible, significant)
Measurable (meaningful, motivating)
Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based)
Time-bound (time-based, time-limited, time/cost-limited, timely, time-sensitive)
To give you a sense of what these goals might look like, below I’ve shared some of my own from years ago. Note, you need not make every goal you set fit all SMART criteria. Aiming to fit one or more of them is a great start:
Specific: organise bi-weekly potluck suppers with a few other moms and their children to ensure I am building connections and creating events to look forward to – but that don’t take me away from the kids.
Measurable: work on adding a few client hours a week to my practice, to bring in some extra money, and limit my anxiety about finances.
Achievable: continue to attend my own individual therapy once a week, asking my therapist if she could slide her fee for the coming months while I adjust to a new financial picture.
Relevant: arrange to spend one-on-one time with each of my children, knowing that special time with them will help me stay in touch with how they are coping, and will help them feel my focus on them – balancing out all the times I feel preoccupied with my own feelings and stress.
Time-bound: (1) Commit to myself to take a 30-minute walk every day with our dog, with or without the children, and do 50 sit-ups and 25 push-ups. Keep an exercise log. If I stick to this for 30 days, buy myself a new item of clothing. (2) Reach out to my brothers regularly, at least by phone. Set up a visit with each within the next few months. (3) Make a plan with friends or family for the Christmas break when the kids will be with their dad, so I am not alone. Try to confirm a plan by 1 November.
You might notice that several of these goals are in some way connected to strengthening and accessing social support, a topic I’m going to cover in more depth below.
A large note of caution I would add about creating this kind of plan (and writing it down) is that, if you don’t follow up on any of your goals, you might feel guilty, or just beat yourself up in some way. One way to inoculate yourself against that outcome is to add a note that achieving any one of your goals is going to be helpful. Good is not the enemy of perfect! When you are navigating something as stressful – or traumatic – as a divorce, an important goal is to look for moments to feel proud of yourself, and give yourself many get-out-of-jail-free cards.
The potential benefits of working on this kind of plan include feeling pride and settling anxiety over the myriad issues you may be worried about. After all, you now have a plan, and you’re making progress on some thoughtful ideas that could help you recover.
Cultivate your social support
Because of the almost inevitable effect of divorce on your social world, one especially important step now, while you go through a divorce, is making the effort to plan, reach out, and take care of yourself by letting friends know you need them – and being sure to reciprocate their efforts to include you or arrange activities with you.
One idea I found incredibly helpful as I was recovering from my divorce – and which led to decades of fruitful relationships – was to begin organising informal potluck dinners with friends on a monthly basis. Dinners rotated among our homes throughout the city. Some people loved hosting, others preferred to just drop in as guests, but these potlucks became beloved events for everyone involved. The evenings expanded our network – everyone met new people and was able to connect with those they already knew. Conversations led to both opportunities for emotional support as well as connections that created openings for instrumental support – from carpools to shared babysitting swaps and dog-sitting trades.
Another easy way to boost your sense of connection, and increase your experience of happiness and wellbeing, is to pay attention to all the opportunities for small interactions with ‘weak ties’ you can have throughout your week. ‘Weak ties’ (in contrast to the ‘strong ties’ with friends, family and close colleagues) are all those people in your life whom you see regularly but have no deep relationship with – the coffeeshop barista who knows your name, or the person you see at the bus stop every morning. The social scientists Mark Granovetter and Gillian Sandstrom have both studied the amazing benefits we reap from creating, noticing and developing conversations with these strangers we see repeatedly – or even once! Their research shows that, when you have a positive interaction with a stranger once or twice, that person is no longer a stranger – they become someone who helps you feel connected to your community, as well as a little less lonely and a little bit happier in the moment and throughout your life.
The beauty of these tiny interactions is that anyone can have them. The biggest challenge for those of us who may be more shy or introverted is breaking the ice with friendliness despite any awkwardness we might feel for the first few moments. My advice is to try it! If you are not already a person who tends to chat to strangers and say ‘Hello’ to all you meet, do a short experiment with yourself. Make a mindful effort to say ‘Hi’, and initiate a quick conversation with one person every day whom you do not know. ‘I love that T-shirt! I’m a Red Sox fan too!’ ‘You’re doing a great job handling this long line. I know it takes patience.’ Or ‘Good morning – I think I’ve seen you at this bus stop before. I live just down the street.’
Take stock of how it feels to create these tiny interactions, and try to notice them when others initiate them with you. If you find that it gets easier, and more fun, over time, notice whether that leads to any greater feeling of connectedness – in your neighbourhood, your building or wherever you are. Know that, as you try this, you are bolstering your physical and emotional wellbeing – which will help you move forward and recover your life. Who knows… it might even lead to a new relationship.
Aim for cooperative coparenting
If you don’t have children, you can skip this step which is about the parenting approaches you can adopt, or aspire to, to protect your children through a divorce and lower your own long-term stress that might otherwise arise from coparenting conflict (for coparenting advice related specifically to the sometimes awkward business of child handoffs/handovers, please jump to the Learn More section of this Guide below).
Parenting conflict is one of the major risk factors for children post-divorce. Conflict that is persistent over years, and focuses on topics related to the children (such as arguments about who will pick up the kids from soccer, who will pay for a prom dress, or whether kids are allowed to call the off-duty parent whenever they choose) are particularly damaging.
The following approach will help to reduce coparenting conflict or keep it infrequent and quickly resolved. It’s based on books by Bill Eddy, co-founder of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, including BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People (2011) and BIFF for CoParent Communication: Your Guide to Difficult Texts, Emails, and Social Media Posts (2020). ‘BIFF’ stands for: brief, informative, friendly and firm. I will take you through each point in turn.
First, keep all messages to your coparent about children issues brief. This means no more than one short paragraph. Even better, a few sentences. Using bullet points helps to keep a message easy to read, and short. If an issue is complex and requires discussion, consider a conversation when both you and your coparent feel available and in a good state of mind. (If the relationship is really troubled and a civil conversation feels impossible, make an appointment with a mental health professional seasoned in helping coparents reduce conflict.)
Second, only send your coparent messages about your children that are informative: that is, focused on a concrete, specific topic. Avoid adding in commentary about extraneous issues, past wounds, your coparent’s faults or complaints.
Third, I advise my clients to re-read all messages that are in written form and aim for a friendly – or at least collegial – tone. Scrub them of any snark in tone or word. Even if you are reacting to a message that was unkind or sarcastic, the idea is to rise above, and stick to BIFF. By reducing stress and strife, this could lengthen your life, and you will protect your children and your other relationships too.
Fourth, be firm in your communications about your children, which means being clear and stating your preferences directly. If you cannot accommodate a favour your coparent has asked, then a simple, but very clear ‘I am so sorry, I am not able to do that’ is better than hemming, hawing or defensive excuses.
Here is an example of a revised email communication with a coparent who asked if they could trade weekends looking after the children next month.
Original message to the coparent:
ANOTHER ASK? Are you kidding me? Do I need to list all the favours you have asked of me in the past three months? It is incredibly inconvenient for me. And now I am sure you will be resentful if I say no, so I am – one more time – between a rock and a hard place. And when was the last time you agreed to trade time with me?
Scrubbed according to the BIFF approach:
I’m so sorry. I won’t be able to do that trade next month. I will try to be more accommodating later this spring but right now is tough for me.
I have guided countless clients toward this approach to communication and I can tell you – it’s not always easy to do. When we are hurt by someone, angered by their behaviour, and/or repeatedly triggered by old relationship patterns that have been dysfunctional for a while, taking time to breathe, calm down, and think clearly before speaking or pressing ‘Send’ is a challenge. If you can manage those steps first, the construction of a BIFF message will come more easily.
In general, the grease that makes the machinery of coparenting move more smoothly will often include expressing appreciation and gratitude, maintaining grace and calm in the face of a coparent’s poor behaviour, and always protecting your children, as best you can, from conflict between you and the other parent. Research shows that when parents are able to communicate cooperatively, and children feel parents get along pretty well, children’s adjustment on all sorts of scales – academic, social, emotional – is more positive over the years. Not only that but, by keeping conflict at a minimum, children remain much closer to both parents as they grow up.
In that spirit, here are two more tips for those with children, especially in the early months and years post-separation, when everyone is on a tough learning curve:
- Consider using a coparenting app such as Our Family Wizard, to ease scheduling issues and help keep track of children’s busy timetables.
- Invite your coparent to join you in sending each other weekly ‘logs’. Logs are brief summaries (think bullet points) of how the children were doing during your time with them. The topics might include your children’s health, anything relevant that happened during school/daycare, and what they’ve been up to with their social life and other activities.
Logs help parents have a sense of what happened in their children’s lives while they were in the other home. Parents can therefore make the experience of living in two homes feel more seamless for the children and can follow up with children about things that happened while you were apart. This gives children a sense of family cohesion, and helps coparents feel informed, respected, and… once again, reduces conflict and increases a sense of wellbeing for parents.
Prepare for the next chapter of you
When you are going through a divorce, or are adjusting to one, it is normal to spend a lot of time thinking about who you will be as a ‘divorced person’. At some point, once you are ready to begin looking to the future, you might understandably worry about whether you will ever find love again, or worry that, if and when you do fall in love, you might repeat previous mistakes, and land in another unhappy relationship.
When I am working with someone transitioning out of a marriage or recovering from a divorce, I share my belief that the most important exercise for preparing well for future relationships is to spend time looking backward at their previous relationship patterns, and work hard to understand what patterns led to health and happiness, and which ones contributed to the divorce.
Another way of thinking about this is to give just as much thought to what you want and need in a relationship as you would when considering a job, or the purchase of a house. We so often fall in love – for conscious and unconscious reasons – and then in the euphoria of new-love endorphins, we pay less attention to the repetitive patterns that constitute that new relationship. I believe that the best predictor of the future is the past. Unless you put a lot of effort into learning from the past, you won’t create more successful patterns in the future.
Reflect on past relationship patterns
One way of looking both backwards and forwards is to consider the various distinct roles within any long-term relationship that call for different skills, different kinds of communication, and lead to different sets of interpersonal dynamics between the two partners. Not all will apply to everyone, but exploring those that apply to your relationship will be helpful.
Within one long-term relationship, you might navigate a friendship, a roommate relationship, a sort of business relationship in terms of managing spending and saving, a romantic-partner relationship that usually includes physical intimacy and, for couples with children, there is the coparenting relationship too.
One aspect of the overall relationship that people often ignore, or pay less mindful attention to, is what I call the ‘individual growth relationship’ – the extent to which each partner supports the other in finding meaning in their life, and in evolving in healthy ways over time. This part of a relationship might include spiritual journeys that the couple share, or perhaps one partner encouraging the other to gain skills and knowledge so they can shift to a job that will make them happier. This is a crucial aspect of long-term relationships because, when people are mated over years and decades, they will inevitably change over time. They will face adversity, challenges, and sometimes achieve great successes. How a couple navigates both adversity and success is directly related to how content vs distressed a couple feels over time.
My clients find it very helpful to give a lot of thought to how these aspects of their marriage functioned. Where were the strengths, and where the vulnerabilities? Examining your own contribution to both the successes and the problems in one area will help you feel aware, alert and active as you initiate and develop your next long-term relationship.
During my own divorce, through many sessions of marital counselling, I came to realise that my husband and I were pretty bad at supporting one another in the individual growth area. He loved his job but I resented his long work hours. He showed little interest in my evolving career, though he was supportive of my part-time schedule so I could get home for our small children. We were good roommates and, for a long time, very good friends. But as our differences intensified, we lost our romance, argued about the children, and spent less and less time together.
When I met my current husband, I initiated many, many conversations with him about all aspects of our relationship. While he came to enjoy these discussions, he initially told me that he felt like I had a miner’s light on my forehead – peering into his soul in attempts to see the recesses of the cave, in order to make sure there were no hidden dangers lurking in there – or, if there were any, to shine the light on them so I could understand them. By the time we married two years later, my husband had gotten pretty darn good at employing his own miner’s light. Being able to talk through our rough spots and really understand one another has stood us in good stead for 20 years.
Know the signs of positive (as well as toxic) long-term relationships
Another avenue for coming to an understanding about your previous relationships, and moving into readiness for a future relationship that will be healthy and nurturing, is taking stock of some of the fundamental building blocks – as well as sources of toxicity – that are quite common in marriages, and then staying mindful and aware of any red flags, or encouraging signs, in your future relationships. For this, I find the work of the psychologists and marital experts John Gottman and Julie Gottman particularly accessible and useful.
The Gottmans’ most popular concepts are ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, or the four interpersonal actions that create distress (and predict divorce if they happen too frequently), and their ‘Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work’.
The Horsemen are:
- criticism of a partner;
- contempt, which is usually derived from a position of superiority;
- defensiveness; and
- stonewalling, which is displayed through emotional withdrawal from interactions.
And on the positive side, the seven principles that make a marriage work are:
- sharing love maps (you and your partner getting to know each other’s inner worlds);
- nurturing fondness and admiration;
- turning toward each other, instead of away;
- letting your partner influence you;
- solving your solvable problems;
- overcoming gridlock; and
- creating shared meaning together.
Digging into these concepts through the Gottmans’ books and other resources can be incredibly helpful, whether you are considering your prior marriage to assess what might have gone wrong, or observing patterns in your new relationship to see if you and your partner are establishing healthy patterns.
Take time to adjust, and stay hopeful
Not everyone who is recovering from a divorce will be interested in, or ready to think about future love, so do take your time and, if necessary, return to the previous step only once you’re ready. In fact, many people make a conscious choice to spend some significant time as a single person, foregoing the dating scene for a while. I support that idea – all of us benefit from some time in our own company. The work of adjusting, adapting and recovering from divorce is so important, and takes up quite a bit of psychic energy. I hope this Guide has offered some helpful tips to make that work easier, and more hopeful. I’m definitely a believer in life offering new opportunities for all of us divorced folks.
I will always remember one client I worked with during the months of her divorce mediation. She was in her 70s when her husband of 40-plus years decided to leave her for a somewhat younger woman. Throughout the divorce process, she felt depressed, bitter and frightened about her future. She got through it OK, with support from her adult children, her close friends and her mah-jong group, but my recollection of her was of a very sad, shrunken person. She reminded me of a prune – shrivelled, but sweet inside.
A couple of years after I said goodbye to her, and wished her well, a beautiful and glowing elderly woman called my name on the sidewalk in front of my office building. This petite, smiling person walked up to me and gave me a warm hug – she was that same client. I looked at her in surprise and delight because she looked… happy! She told me that the divorce had been horrible, but also an opportunity for her to change up her life – even at her age. She had sold her large home in the suburbs, moved into a condo downtown, and joined the garden club in her new building. She was now working with innercity teens to plant their own vegetable gardens on their school grounds, and she felt energised, younger than ever, and even peaceful about her former husband’s decisions. ‘I never would have ended our marriage,’ she said. ‘But it was pretty empty, and I was bored. He basically knocked me overboard, but I not only learned to swim, I ended up swimming to a whole new place – and I love it!’
That story might sound like a lot of ‘kumbaya’ and rainbows, but it is not unusual. Everyone can write new chapters of their own lives, and those chapters can be exciting, stimulating and joyful… eventually.
Key points – How to survive and thrive through divorce
- Divorce is not the end of the story. It’s a highly emotional, challenging time, but there are going to be many more chapters to your life.
- Consider how you divorce. Various formal modes of negotiation and cooperation will make the experience less adversarial. If you can, choose one of these processes. Even if you can’t, the following steps will help you through this stage of your life.
- Use SMART goals to take back control. This process of planning, borrowed from the field of industrial psychology and corporate management, will help you set your intentions for the first year or two post-divorce.
- Cultivate your social support. It’s almost inevitable that your social world is going to take a knock just when you need more support – so one of the most important steps to take is letting your friends know you need them, as well as looking for new ways to forge connections.
- Aim for cooperative coparenting. By following the BIFF approach to communication (brief, informative, friendly and firm), you can reduce conflict with your coparent, and protect yourself and your children.
- Prepare for the next chapter of you. When you’re feeling ready, reflect on your past relationship patterns and get to know the hallmarks of positive (as well as toxic) relationships – this will help you feel aware, alert and active as you initiate and develop your next long-term relationship.
- Take time to adjust, and stay hopeful. The work of adjusting, adapting and recovering from divorce is so important, and takes up quite a bit of psychic energy. But, remember, life will throw up new opportunities. Your next chapters can be exciting, stimulating and joyful… eventually.
Managing children’s handoffs/handovers
If the children’s handoffs/handovers with your coparent are tough, tense or make you anxious, try to create a schedule that fits in with the times that your children transition to and from school, or to and from daycare, or to and from a third party. For example, if your children transition from Parent A to Parent B on a Monday, and back to Parent A on a Wednesday, then Parent A could drop off the children at school on Monday morning and then pick them back up again on Wednesday straight from school, or soccer practice, or after-school care. Parent-to-parent transitions are often stressful for children – even when they are civil. Kids sometimes worry there might be conflict or tension, and it is tiring for children to feel that they might be in the middle of something. But scheduling the dropoffs and pickups in this way will minimise awkward moments with your coparent and help everyone feel more relaxed.
Do respect the boundaries of custodial time. Before making any plans with your child that fall on your coparent’s time, talk with your coparent first. If your child asks you directly: ‘Can I sleep over at Taylor’s house on Friday?’ and you realise Friday is your coparent’s custodial time, aim for a very neutral response such as: ‘That’s when you will be with your mom/dad. I really don’t know what’s up that weekend so you better check with your mom/dad. If you want, I’ll give them a heads up that you have been invited.’
Similarly, if your child tells you about a fieldtrip, and you would love to go as a chaperone on that trip, but the trip falls on your coparent’s time, respond neutrally to your child, such as: ‘Sounds like you’re looking forward to that trip!’ Then talk with your coparent out of earshot of your child to ask if they themselves want to chaperone, or if they are OK with your stepping up. If it’s their day with your child, they should have first dibs on chaperoning. If they tell you it’s fine for you to join the trip, express appreciation.
Links & books
On her podcast Divorce on Planet Earth, the psychotherapist Kate Scharff interviewed me about what the research says about the impact of divorce on children, and how to decrease the risks and increase your support.
The book Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey (2022) by the science writer Florence Williams is a valuable resource.
Williams also speaks briefly but insightfully about how to recover from the heartbreak of divorce in this YouTube clip from the Grow Through It channel.
To build up your own supportive community, try growing new friendships with other parents – the article ‘Making Friends with Other Parents Is Like Dating’ (2020) by Lyz Lenz in The New York Times (paywall) will help. A free alternative is the Psyche Guide ‘How to Make Friends as an Adult’ (2020) by the psychologist Marisa G Franco.
In her TED talk ‘Rethinking Infidelity’ (2015), the relationship therapist Esther Perel examines cheating as an expression of longing and loss, and helps us understand romantic relationships in general.
The book The Relationship Cure: A Five-Step Guide for Building Better Connections with Family, Friends, and Lovers (2001) by John Gottman and Joan DeClaire provides a deeper exploration of how to create healthy and intimate relationships with everyone.
The book The Good Divorce (1994) by the psychologist Constance Ahrons is a classic guide for parents who want to divorce in ways that are most protective of their children.