Whether it’s rife with conflict or not, divorce is rarely easy. When you’re ending a marriage, you may struggle to move on with your life. But you can successfully work through the emotions and start a new life after divorce, says clinical social worker specialist Karen Tucker, LISW-S, ACSW.
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“You may feel rejected, angry, profoundly hurt or out of control. It’s also possible that you’ll feel relieved and hopeful,” Tucker says. “It’s important to pay attention to your emotions and to get help when you need it.”
But there are usually stages of emotional upheaval people face when they’re on the road to starting over. As with any loss, you’ll go through periods of adjustment, active recovery and life reformation.
Knowing what to expect (and understanding that the feelings are normal) will help you get to the other side.
How to rebuild after a divorce
Here are nine strategies to help you move through divorce to a healthy new life.
Let yourself feel
By letting yourself feel, you’ll actually recover better in the long run.
“Your emotional experiences are valid and uniquely your own. There’s no right or wrong way to feel,” Tucker says. “People universally grieve the loss of their dreams — the could’ve, would’ve, should’ve.”
Take time to let these feelings out.
Talk it out
Working with a professional therapist can give you solid support, as well as practical tips to help you manage your money, housing, child care and health insurance. Professional guidance can also help you create time and space to grieve over your loss.
“It’s important to utilize your support system during any emotional crisis or change,” says Tucker. “However, a therapist can serve as a nonjudgmental listener, providing guidance and skills coaching, rather than someone who will react emotionally, taking sides and telling you what to do. By developing healthy responses to life stressors, you learn how to avoid making things worse.”
Embrace coping skills
Emotional regulation is a lifelong skill, Tucker says. It helps you learn how to handle intense emotions, focusing on positive self-care and self-soothing.
“People going through a divorce are in survival mode in the beginning and are often not focused on their own well-being,” Tucker notes. “They benefit from learning how to manage their emotions in a crisis, as well as every day.”
Choosing to spend time engaged in pleasurable activities, practicing self-soothing and mindfulness allows you to focus on self-care.
“The hope is that you will feel rejuvenated and able to manage the stressors that are inevitably around the next corner,” explains Tucker. “These skills reduce your vulnerability to emotional suffering when painful emotions overwhelm you.”
Remember that it’s important to maintain healthy sleep, regular exercise, a healthy diet, avoid mood-altering chemicals and to take medications as prescribed.
“Doing one thing a day that makes you feel productive and competent also reinforces your self-esteem at a time when your self-esteem often takes a huge blow,” advises Tucker.
Work together to focus on children
For divorcing parents, Tucker recommends concentrating on what’s best for the children.
Remember, you’ll be co-parents for life. Embrace that role and work to make decisions for your children by putting them first.
“In today’s world, there are more choices than engaging in an antagonistic divorce,” says Tucker. “Explore what parent mediation and collaborative divorce offers.”
This is a more child-centered approach and avoids placing your child in an untenable position.
“Your child is already struggling with major changes in their life and worrying about you, the future and what all this means for their family,” says Tucker.
Watch out for stumbling blocks
Get help if you see signs that you’re stuck on anger and resentment, feelings of extreme sadness or anxiety, choosing misery, suffering alone rather than reaching out, succumbing to fear and developing depression.
“For every step forward, there are times we feel we’re taking two steps backward,” Tucker notes. “These are the times when reaching out and asking for help is so important. This is a hard time. Many of us aren’t prepared to deal with all the complications that a divorce may bring.”
It can feel overwhelming and isolating. You can fall into self-blame and internalize your feelings of shame and guilt that can trigger a downward spiral.
“If you’re vulnerable to anxiety and depression at these times, you can benefit from medications and talk therapy,” says Tucker. “If you were in an abusive relationship, education and support groups are available. Start with your primary care physician and they can often explore treatment options with you.”
Avoid hanging on in desperation
You may fall into the trap of trying desperately to reconcile with your spouse, begging for forgiveness or promising anything to hold on to the relationship.
“Divorce feels so final that people are willing to try again and again,” she says.
You may fear being alone. You may feel dependent on your spouse for financial security, housing and your children’s college education.
“People fear the unknown,” says Tucker. “This is where attorneys and therapists can be good resources. We need help challenging our negative thoughts and beliefs. We need good information. Separation and divorce often cause us to feel powerless and helpless. Information is power.”
Don’t rush into a new relationship
“You need time to heal,” says Tucker. “Heal from the grief, loss and pain of a relationship that has ended. This is not failure, but we feel we have failed.”
Before you can establish a new, healthier relationship, you need to learn the lessons from your previous relationship. What worked, what didn’t? What patterns exist? Do you choose a certain type over and over? Can you trust yourself? Can you trust someone new?
“This can be a time of discovery,” says Tucker. “You have changed and will continue to change. It’s important to allow this change to happen.”
Use self-help and other resources
Books, online resources (research carefully to find legitimate ones) and church-based divorce-recovery programs are all good places to find additional support.
“There are so many self-help books that are on the market that can be very helpful,” says Tucker. “Look for books on codependency, anger management, betrayal, grief and loss or self-esteem.”
You may also benefit from a divorce recovery group.
“It’s comforting to know that you are not alone and what you’re experiencing may be more common that you think,” says Tucker. “Books and support groups provide information, validation and support during challenging times.”
Even though it might not feel like your life is in a good place, try to be positive. Ultimately, you’ll work your way through the challenges and move on.
“You know you’re moving forward when you begin to build a new life worth living,” Tucker says.
What’s life like after divorce?
After a divorce, you’ll go through an adjustment period, full of different stages and emotions.
It’s important during this time that you focus on taking care of yourself. Think about self-care like taking a relaxing bath each week or trying your hand at painting. Use this time to try new things.
You also want to make sure you’re taking care of your physical health, by eating healthy foods and not turning to alcohol or drugs.
Maybe easier said than done, but embrace this change and new chapter in your life.
When to seek help after a divorce
Don’t underestimate the power of talking to someone. Whether that’s a trusted friend or family member or a professional therapist, having a sounding board about how you’re feeling is important.
Ultimately, as you work through emotional issues, you can move forward and create healthy new relationships.
“Part of it is taking personal responsibility and accepting your new life,” Tucker says.