What to expect in divorce
Although there is some anecdotal evidence suggesting lockdown may lead to an increase in divorce rates - with some law firms indicating a 40% increase in enquiries - the reality is that lockdown isn’t responsible for the end of your marriage. In this context, I’m talking about marriage, but really this relates to the end of any meaningful and committed relationship, no matter the length or the legal status of it.
Lockdown and the impact on our relationships
The pressures of lockdown, while not responsible for divorce, may well have hastened the end of your marriage. Suddenly finding oneself with little or no outlet beyond the four walls of one’s home is a sure-fire way to foreground any issues or problems in the relationship.
Most striking, perhaps, has been the removal of opportunity to bring others into the time you have with your partner. Time with friends and family, whether together or apart, is often an outlet that a couple needs. The removal of those social bonds means there is little choice but to enquire closely whether our social needs, amongst others, are being met by the person we have chosen to spend our lives with.
During times of crisis and difficulty, knowing you are loved, cherished, valued and will be cared for is essential. Lockdown may well have exposed any flaws in that dynamic, and while some relationships will bounce back, others may be nearing their end.
There are so many things to consider when you’re considering divorce, and this article is not about the practicalities of finding a solicitor or how to mediate or negotiate with an ex-partner. Instead, I’m going to explore some of the things you may feel or experience as the process goes on, in the hope that this helps you realise you are not alone and that divorce can be faced and worked through. It is the end of something, but it isn't the end of everything, even if it can feel that way at times.
6 things to consider when going through a divorce
Divorce, sadly, is still a dirty word and it is generally unavoidable that people would prefer you didn’t talk about it. Some fear divorce is contagious, while others worry that it means they should confront the current reality of their relationship; either is likely to make some people give you a wide berth. At times you may well be perceived as too dangerous to invite to social events. Few realise that you are in the process of grieving - you're not a danger and being excluded from social events, whether due to others not knowing how to approach the subject, or simply misunderstanding the situation, can be incredibly harmful.
The reality is that friends and family may find it hard to talk about. If they do want to talk, you may be met, at best, with unsolicited advice and, at worst, with recriminations or total silence. If you don’t have children, comments such as, “Thank goodness you haven’t got children,” may be well-meaning, but are certainly ill-considered. If you do have children, the panicked, “Oh, you’ll never be shot of your ex,” offers little comfort, serving mostly to manage the discomfort of the speaker, while leaving little room for you to talk about what you are going through. Understand they are trying, but it's OK to acknowledge this doesn't help you and to avoid encounters that actively hurt.
2. Reconnecting with who you are
You may find yourself protecting those around you from the pain of your divorce, performing as upbeat and 'your normal self' to show you are coping, and are not becoming the miserable divorced person we so often see in films and television. The tropes of divorced individuals have not modernised, and carving out a post-divorce identity can be a lonely business.
Understanding who you are as a single person takes time. To work out who we are as single people, who have also been married, requires a process of excavation because the 'single you' is different to who you were before marriage. You now have different experiences and expectations from the you that walked up the aisle.
It is the end of something, but it isn't the end of everything, even if it can feel that way at times.
3. Pressure to couple up again
This goes hand-in-hand with isolation and reconnecting with yourself. If you are coupled up, you can be easily understood in a culture that values social structures over splendid isolation. It may be that your marriage ended because one or both of you met your ideal partner. Congratulations if so, you are one of the lucky ones. If not, however, rushing into a new relationship may risk you repeating the same mistakes that led to your separation.
Having spent the years of your marriage knowing you were not, superficially at least, facing the world alone, a new relationship may also feel like a place of safety. The world is more understandable if you have someone notionally on your side. Learning to cope on your own, painful and frightening as it is, is the single best way to rebuild your self-esteem and resilience after a divorce. It may also be the only way that you are likely to move on fully and build a meaningful relationship in a way that doesn’t repeat the patterns of your past.
Other people may prefer you to be in a couple again, but withstand the pressure if you can. You may hear mutterings that you aren’t moving on, or that you must be bitter, but I suggest you know better. You are honouring your marriage and creating the space you need to mourn and heal. Being single does not mean being alone if you have the support around you.
4. You are grieving
I’m going to say it again: you are grieving. You have experienced a loss and it takes time to move through grief. It is painful, messy and difficult but there will also be good days. There will be bad days and there will be times where you can’t remember what day it is, but there will also be days when it gets easier and the light starts to return.
Take it minute by minute if you need to. Grief is a process but not a linear one and it’s OK to move backwards and forwards through mourning. You may experience all and any of anger, denial, depression and bargaining. Without allowing yourself the raw, awful and conversely rich emotional experience of those stages, you cannot reach acceptance.
Even if you initiated the divorce, it is unlikely to have happened in a vacuum and you will be grieving too. It's too easy to get caught up in the guilt of beginning divorce proceedings and to think that you don’t have a right to feel sad. You do. Divorce hurts for both of you, initiator or not, and the one person you might have sought out for support is the person on the other side. As with any grieving process, find your person or people – you’ll know who they are because they’re the ones who don’t shy away from talking about what you’re going through, and who keep on turning up for you.
5. Juggling work and divorce
Practically, if you are working, it might be useful to speak to your line manager or HR team. During a stressful experience, there are likely to be downstream impacts that we don’t even notice. You may feel distracted, be more sensitive to perceived criticisms or be struggling with a feeling of failure. These are temporary and a good employer will understand that, but people can’t be compassionate if they don’t know you are suffering. There may also be additional support available that may benefit from if you let your employer know.
Having an invisible infrastructure of understanding around you may just give you some breathing space. Too often we think we need to muscle through things, but my challenge to you would be to think about a time you’ve really performed at your best when you’ve simply pushed on through. Don’t make it harder on yourself; let people know.
6. All your relationships will change
I can’t emphasise enough the need to pick your people. The people you think might be there may not be, but there will be unexpected people in your circle who will keep showing up for you and who understand that the process isn’t done when the final papers are signed.
As a side note, if you and your family experienced divorce in your childhood, it may be very difficult for them to support you. Not just knowing how to support you, but even to show up for you. If there is any unprocessed or unresolved trauma from your own childhood experience of seeing your parents separate and divorce, old resentments, hurt and pain may well resurface. You are allowed to accept that this is the case for them, while also being angry, hurt and sad that your expectations from family now also need to be recalibrated while you’re already going through a major change.
And some positives...
It’s not all doom and gloom. An upside of divorce is that many of your friendships are likely to be reinvigorated. Ever notice how couples tend to socialise with couples? You don’t need to do that anymore (although you can if you want to). It is totally acceptable to organise time with friends alone and, if you are sharing custody, you might even have time now to do that.
Some of those friendships you thought had burnt out may well revive and be better than ever. It’s time to think about where you want to invest your time and energy, and that’s an exciting thing.
You have the opportunity to evaluate the things that are meaningful for you and to pursue them. Maybe you’ve always had a burning passion for mini-golf, but your ex hated it, so you never played. Perhaps it’s as simple as never having olives on the pizza because you were the only one who liked them. Maybe you have had a dream of travelling, but your ex was a home lover or vice versa, and you can finally staycation with impunity. It could be you are an unapologetic urbanite relocated to the country to fulfil your former spouse’s dreams, or maybe they stopped you moving to the countryside and having chickens. Whatever it is, there may well be something that you have the freedom now to pursue. Do it.
It’s time to think about where you want to invest your time and energy, and that’s an exciting thing.
Some final thoughts
One thing I’d like to emphasise is that you can get through a divorce without burning your old life to the ground; there are ways to move through divorce honouring your old relationship, the experiences you shared together and respecting the loss you are both facing. Doing so, if you can, means you can move into your future without regret or guilt, although you may feel both those things as you process what is happening.
It may be that your former partner cannot do that and is determined to make the process as painful as possible. That may be the best way they currently have for coping and, painful as it is, that is their choice. You can only focus on your experience and it is OK to put yourself at the heart of how you handle things. Even if you have children, I would urge you to put yourself at the centre of your decisions, because a well-supported and well-resourced parent is a good parent. You will be well-placed to make solid, more sound decisions if you are connecting to what’s important to you.
Some of these experiences will resonate and others won’t. No two divorces are alike. You may feel all, some or none of these things, but if something is holding you back from seeking out the opportunities that divorce presents, whether that is still feeling tethered to your marriage or being stuck in the grieving process, then take the time to work through it.
Rebuilding in the aftermath of any loss, and definitely in the wake of a divorce, is hard but it is also an opportunity to think deeply about what you value and the shape you want your life to take. It may be helpful to speak with someone who isn’t a friend or family member and if you think counselling will help, then reach out. It provides a confidential, safe place to process all your emotions - the good, the bad and the downright monstrous - and in doing so, to reconnect with your own whole and wholly loveable self.