3 Transformational Effects of Divorce

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Recently, I spent an evening with a group of friends who have all experienced divorce – in fact, it was our divorces that first brought us together and connected us for life. At the time we met, we were at various stages of licking our wounds and wondering how we were ever going to get through the heaviness, the heartache and the hardship. Five years later, our conversation had changed.

Everyone around the table had survived that dark period and we now had brighter new lives to discuss. One gave birth to a sweet baby boy within the past year. One is selling their marital home so that they can finally wash their hands of this last shared asset. Another is entering the uncharted waters of making a blended family work. All of us have moved on to healthier, happier long-term relationships.

I was immensely proud of the way we’d all come through the biggest trial of our lives feeling stronger, wiser, more compassionate and grateful. Not everyone can say that, so how did we get so lucky?

It made me think of the old analogy of the potato and the egg. If you take two pots of boiling water and place raw potatoes in one pot and uncooked eggs in the other, what happens? The same boiling water that softens the potato until it’s mushy and malleable will harden the egg, fortifying its thin shell and stabilizing its delicate center.

Despite having faced the same adversity, the potato and the egg react differently. The meaning is simple: it’s not about the circumstances you’re in, it’s about your response to it – not to mention the stuff you’re really made of – that makes all the difference.

At one time, each of us had been in over our heads in circumstances beyond our control. But we didn’t sink for long, and we never let the situation poach us to the point of becoming weak, causing us to yield to the pain or give up all hope of something better. Instead, we all endured to became stronger, more resilient and more certain of ourselves and about the life we want and deserve.

Maria Shriver writes that divorce can positively change the trajectory of your life and ultimately help you regain yourself; you can choose to transform the person you are into the person you were meant to become. I definitely see that in myself and in my friends.

Here are Maria’s three transformational effects of divorce:

1. It can increase your empathy for humanity.

Divorce can be the most painful experience of your life and it can pour salt onto the old wounds from past traumatic experiences. It has the potential to cause an extreme level of despair, yet it also has the ability to teach us important lessons about the human condition and our perceptions. When we experience great loss, we can relate to others who have also experienced loss. It often takes a personal setback of great magnitude to make us sensitive to the pain that others are experiencing around us. Divorce can increase your awareness of human suffering, foster humaneness and improve your overall treatment of yourself and others.

2. It can give you the skills to love at a capacity that you never would have known was possible.

Some admit that the end of their marriage was the worst thing they could have ever imagined happening to them. But, once the worst has happened, there is nothing left to fear. Our expectations of life start to shift, we start to grow and we begin to open ourselves up to experiences that we never would have considered before. Divorce changes the way that we perceive and relate to others and the way that others perceive and relate to us. As a consequence, it encourages us to want to pursue friendships and romantic relationships that have greater substance. Learning the extent of our own resilience and reconnecting with ourselves through the divorce process can aid in the restoration of self-esteem and lead to a more authentic way of honoring others and honoring ourselves in the context of a relationship.

3. It can lead to self-actualization.

By forcing you to dig deep for inner strength that you never knew existed, identify your hidden strengths and channel your resources for survival, divorce can lead to previously unexplored opportunities. Whether you are a stay-at-home mom forced to enter the workforce to make a living for yourself and your children, a woman re-entering the workforce, or a working professional needing to compensate for a sudden change in lifestyle, divorce can be the catalyst for major change. Divorce provides an opportunity to reset your life and start on the path of pursuing your personal interests. It can even promote spirituality, by prompting you to do some soul-searching in order to learn how to cope and define your greater purpose.

As I looked around the room in admiration, it was obvious that we each determined our positive outcomes by the choices we made – not only for ourselves, but for our children and for our futures. Sometimes that meant going to court and fighting for what we believed was right, sometimes that meant keeping lips zipped and taking the high road for the sake of peace and civility. It always meant putting one foot in front of the other and making a purposeful decision to move forward.

Here we were, living proof that you can get dunked into abysmal circumstances and still come out okay. I’m sure that’s because we each learned how you react to adversity defines who you become. In letting the boiling water of divorce act as the catalyst for change, we allowed the water to transform us.

I Saw the Signs; I Just Couldn’t Read ‘Em

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Wouldn’t it be great if the people we dated came with warning labels? Caution: This person drinks too much. Caution: This person is not emotionally available. Caution: This person is a narcissistic serial cheater.

Just because we can’t see warning labels, or the red flags, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Sometimes we ignore them at our own peril. Sometimes we see the signs but can’t interpret them.

I met my ex in college; in fact, I hired him at the campus radio station when I was assistant station manager. He dutifully showed up for his volunteer on-air shift without fail, so in my eyes, that cemented him as loyal and dependable. We started dating just before graduation and as the recipient of a prestigious academic award, he had his pick of job offers. I thought I had landed a real catch.

A funny thing happens when you’re newly in love: you put on rose colored glasses and the person you’re gazing at, along with the rest of the world, is rosy and bright and wonderfully sparkly. The downside of wearing rose colored glasses is that it makes red flags not look so red at all.

That’s the only way I can explain how I reacted, or didn’t react, when my ex handed me (he handed it to me!) the first big red flag. As we talked about our past relationships, he admitted that he’d cheated on every single one of his girlfriends. He left Girl 1 for Girl 2, then Girl 2 for Girl 3 (to whom he’d been engaged before Girl 4 came along), and so on…

Yet, how did I translate this? That he was merely a young stud out there sowing his wild oats. That he wasn’t meant to settle down with any of those girls. But now that he’d found me – his true love, his soon-to-be bride, the one he was building a life with – things would be different. In fact, I was so naïve that it didn’t even occur to me until years later that he likely left his most recent college girlfriend to date me – or much worse, that he hadn’t left her before he started dating me.

The rose colored glasses we wear are fitted with our own ethical lens – our values, morals and beliefs. I had no comprehension that someone who cheated on past girlfriends would be equipped to cheat on his own wife. Our marriage was protected by the vows we made to forsake all others, right? Of course, infidelity happens, but there was no way it could happen to us. It was beyond my grasp that someone close to me was capable of living a double life.

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In the early fallout of my divorce, people would sometimes ask: did you see any signs? My answer: I wish. They were all there, only I didn’t recognize them or I dismissed them as “normal” behavior.

He moved awfully fast. We clicked right from the start, which to me meant that we were destined to be together. For the first time, I didn’t need to do the work to pursue the guy – he genuinely wanted me, and that felt great. On one of our early dates, he told me he loved me – but I didn’t say it back right away. Even at 19, I knew that it didn’t feel quite right. Of course, I was flattered. Within a month, he asked me to marry him. I honestly believed that it was because he loved me so much he couldn’t live without me.

He disrespected his mother. It’s true: you really can tell the way a man will treat his wife by how he treats his mother. While my ex loves his mom, he also snipes at her, belittles her and is overly critical of her. He acts like he knows better than she does. At first, I chalked it up to his tenuous childhood and that this was their unique way of communicating. But, you guessed it, I was also on the receiving end of his condescending tone – many times I was told to “give my head a shake” or “don’t be so stupid.” He’d even snapped his fingers at me to “fetch” something out of reach a time or two. Yuck.

He wore success to cover up a lack of character. At the office, he was focused on climbing the corporate ladder. He worked very hard to impress the higher-ups and complete his professional development studies to boost his status within the industry. While I believed his persistence was about making a better future for our family, it was only about appearances and earning his key to a decidedly un-family friendly VIP room of indulgences. What I saw as growing confidence was actually increasing arrogance, and success only fed into his sense of entitlement.

He used up every inch of leeway I gave him. Because he worked so hard in a stressful environment, he said he needed time to relax. So he golfed. A lot. At first, this bothered me as I was also juggling a career, busy home life and two young kids, but after being told not to be so “selfish,” I eased up. So I didn’t complain when he went golfing every weekend until 4pm. I didn’t complain when he woke up at dawn to hit the links. I didn’t complain when he golfed after work or went out of town to participate in tournaments with clients and colleagues. I simply smiled and told him to have fun whenever he slung his golf bag over his shoulder, never dreaming it was also the perfect alibi for his extramarital pursuits.

And then there was the night he didn’t come home at all. He had attended an annual industry event, where large amounts of alcohol are traditionally consumed. He’d come home drunk from this function in years past, but was always in bed by midnight. On this occasion, he came tiptoeing in as the sun was coming up. I was beyond furious and demanded to know where he had been. He said he’d tied one on and had slept it off in the car. I didn’t buy it and told him as much, but he remained stony and unapologetic. For the rest of the week, I slept on the basement sofa, crying and wondering if this was how my marriage was going to end. I was sure he’d been up to no good but without a shred of proof, I was left to believe it was only in my head. I caved and forgave him.

When D-Day finally came around a year later, he spontaneously confessed a decade’s worth of lies and transgressions – including the reason he hadn’t come home that night was because he’d been in someone else’s bed.

Remember that initial red flag that was handed to me when we began dating – his admission that he’d cheated on his previous girlfriends? As the atomic bomb dropped on our marriage it came back to bite me: “I told you right from the start that I’ve never been faithful to anyone,” he barked, as if it was my fault for trusting him.

Twenty years later, the rose colored glasses were off: I finally saw the red flag. (BTW, Maya Angelou was right: When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.)

Upon reading this, you’re probably thinking that the signs were so freaking obvious. I only wish they had been neatly stacked and added up together, but they weren’t presented to me that way. All I can say is that hindsight is 20/20 – we always gain better understanding of an event after it happens, not before.

The funny thing is I don’t blame myself for having missed the signs in the first place. This box of life doesn’t come with a deception decoder ring. I know I couldn’t translate what was right in front of me because I’d never seen it up close before.

If I could go back and tell my younger self to wake up and start reading the signs, believe me – I would. I’d also give her a hug and tell her that she deserved much better. Luckily, I know now that I’ll never miss or misread them again.

Things Will Be Different Next Time

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Harry: You ever miss being married? I bet you were great at it.

Erica: Sometimes. At night. But not that much anymore.

That’s a scene from the lovable Something’s Gotta Give. If you’ve never seen the movie, put down your phone or step away from the computer and do yourself a favor: go watch it. Right. Now. If you’ve already seen it, then you know that the question Harry poses to Erica is one that nearly all divorced people ponder at one time or another: you ever miss being married?

Yes, I do miss it. And yes, I thought I was pretty great at it.

First of all, let me make it perfectly clear that I do not miss being married to my ex. Secondly, I am in a loving and fulfilling relationship with my partner. Living together as a “we” certainly satisfies the things I craved when it was just “me.” We truly enjoy one another, even if we’re doing yard work or pushing a cart through the supermarket, and it’s wonderful to have someone who just gets when you need a hand, a hug or a back scratch. Life is good and I am grateful for every moment.

But we are not married.

One day, God willing, we will be and I get excited just thinking about calling this man my husband. Although we are monogamous and have merged our lives, I’m looking forward to the day we will make our commitment permanent. So how can I be sure that my second marriage will be any different than the first? A lot of it has to do with how much I’ve changed and learned and grown.

I’m older and wiser.

Humorist Helen Rowland once quipped, “A bride at her second marriage doesn’t wear a veil because she wants to see what she’s getting.” Ain’t that the truth! Remarriage is not a decision to be taken lightly, especially considering that I already took a huge leap of faith once and fell flat. But back then, I was young and foolish – I barely knew who I was, let alone who I was marrying. I am now 26 years older and I’ve been through that stage. The next time I make vows, I know it will be in the voice of the person I am, not the person I want to become someday.

I realize that romance doesn’t come automatically.

Here’s a major difference between my love partner and my ex-husband. In the wake of the divorce, my parents helped to redecorate my house to celebrate my new life. Part of that included stringing beautiful blue twinkle lights around the outside deck and pergola. When my ex spotted them, he immediately questioned why the “silly” lights were there since it wasn’t Christmas (that was the last time he stepped foot in my house, btw). Yet, when my partner saw them, he loved how romantic they looked and to this day, we switch them on nearly every evening to bask in their glow.

Like roses, romance will die unless you tend to it regularly. I thank my lucky stars that my partner is a romantic like me because not only does he put in the effort, he recognizes when I do the same. No, every day is not Valentine’s Day around here, but we do make a point of doing tender things for one another: text messages, date nights, holding hands, taking turns bringing coffee to bed and looking forward to just being together at the end of the day. We work at keeping a spark because we know how cold life can be without it.

I can recognize and respond to my emotional triggers.

We all have baggage that we bring to relationships. The late, great Nora Ephron, bless her heart, had a brilliant perspective on it. “One good thing I’d like to say about divorce,” she wrote, “is that it sometimes makes it possible for you to be a much better wife to your next husband because you have a place for your anger; it’s not directed at the person you are currently with.”

I am the first to admit that there are times I let residual issues affect me emotionally. Early in my current relationship, I put our future in serious jeopardy by aiming my ire and insecurities at the wrong person. Since then I have learned to identify my negative triggers and know when it’s time to grab them by the horns and drop kick them to the curb. They don’t have a place here and certainly aren’t a genuine reflection of how I feel about my partner or even how I feel about myself.

I view time as a precious commodity.

This summer, my partner and I joined his family in celebrating his aunt and uncle’s 50th anniversary. It was a joyous occasion in every regard but one: I realized that he and I will never reach the same milestone. When you get married at 20 as I did, your whole life is ahead of you. You walk down the aisle into this big, blissful unknown with much to look forward to. While there are no guarantees in life, for most young newlyweds, ‘til death do us part is still a long way away.

When you find love later in life, things are different. You both come into it with the realization that it’s important to cherish the number of years you get together, whether it’s three or thirty. That eliminates the carelessness that comes from taking time for granted.

I’m in a much better place.

Without a doubt, this is my most deep, meaningful and honest relationship. Know what else is great? After 40, life looks and feels different; there is a new mindfulness and maturity present. We both know we’ve grown into the people we want to be and know we have chosen the mate we want to enjoy life alongside. With that comes mutual respect, along with acceptance, appreciation, affection and kindness. We both feel blessed. I’ve never been so sure that a high-level marriage isn’t about a gold band or a piece of paper, it’s in the way you treat each other every day. We’ve already got a head start.

In the year after my divorce, I was sure I’d never want to get married again. Like Erica in Something’s Gotta Give, there wasn’t much about it that I missed and I enjoyed most things about my new life as an independent, single woman. Much of that bravado was likely my ego talking, a defense mechanism to protect myself from getting hurt again.

Soon after I met my partner, I knew I had been wrong. Like Harry says in When Harry Met Sally, “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” medium_p1010240

While divorce may break you, it also makes you stronger in the places that were broken. That includes your heart and your capacity to give someone your all.

Having been married before, I’m certain that I want to do it again. I know that I deserve real love, lasting happiness, and another chance to get things right.

A Word to the Whys

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Like most little boys, my son loved toy cars – playing with them, collecting them and discovering what made those little diecast beauties go. He’d take them apart piece by piece and put their tiny components to the test by crushing, bending and burning them. He didn’t do it to be destructive; he did it because they mattered so deeply to him that he wanted to understand them to the fullest.

While I am not a tinkerer by nature, I certainly understand the inclination to pick something apart to figure out how it works. Or why it didn’t.

I spent a lot of time taking the wheels off my marriage to understand why it failed. According to the statistics, we were supposed to beat the odds. We didn’t live together before we got married. We were both college educated with successful careers. While his parents divorced when he was young, mine were still together (I figured one should effectively cancel out the other). And besides, the highest risk of divorce occurs in the first 10 years of marriage. We’d made it over that hump long ago and yet, things derailed.

Naturally, I wanted to know why. Why did this happen? Why did I invest myself over and over again in a 20-year relationship only to end up with a handful of nothing? Why did I trust my heart to someone who would willingly cause me so much pain? Surely, there was an explanation for the world of hurt I was in.

I searched for reason and where there was none, I filled it in with dangerous self-blame: What did I miss? What should I have done more/less of? What’s wrong with me? I badly wanted answers so that I could rationalize what happened. Aha! Here’s why he did that. If I had only done this, then maybe that wouldn’t have happened.

If I could only explain it, then maybe I’d be able to get closure or at least, exercise some control over an uncontrollable situation. Enlightenment would surely protect me from ever repeating the same mistake again, right?

Five years out, I am still looking for clues as to why things happened the way they did. Sometimes I’ll trip over an article about divorce and scan it for clues to see if I recognize any familiar patterns and pitfalls. Sometimes I’ll seek out others who have taken the time to dissect their divorce in case I can mine any nuggets of clarity from what they’ve unearthed.

This summer, I was deeply immersed in a collection of Nora Ephron’s writing. Although she is best known for When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail (the last being among my Top 5 all-time favorites), the reason I was compelled to read the book was because it contained a full-length novel: a thinly-veiled, fictionalized version of her marriage to, betrayal by and divorce from Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. Heartburn later became a 1986 movie starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson (which I have never seen but intend to get around to it).

Through her pregnant-and-dumped character Rachel, Nora deconstructs a marital structure from the inside out. She even breaks down the possible reasons why a straying husband is unable to remain faithful: a dysfunctional childhood without boundaries, degenerate friends without boundaries, and deplorable women without boundaries (see what I mean about patterns?).

“Ephron used her Heartburn protagonist to expose the heartbreak and the dark humor of his affair and their subsequent divorce,” wrote the Huffington Post. “Ephron’s willingness to write candidly about her experiences make Heartburn especially poignant. Intentionally or not, her book encouraged other women to share their own stories.”

Nora dismantled and exposed the inner workings of her broken relationship to put it all out there. It not only made good copy, it was like her way of saying, “Here. Take from this what you will. I learned from it and I hope you can too.”

Despite the amount of soul searching she does in Heartburn, our heroine Rachel (aka Nora) still does not find hard answers. The takeaway, at least for me, is that maybe there are none to be had. Perhaps it’s time to grasp that there are things that simply cannot be explained – because they are meant only to be accepted.

“From the time I was a young child through my late thirties, I believed that growing up was about finding certainty and solving the mysteries of life,” writes the amazing Brené Brown. “It seemed to me that the end game was answers and control – especially control over important outcomes and what people think. The formula was pretty clear: vulnerability is weakness, self-worth is based on what you achieve, and accomplishments and acquisitions bring joy and meaning.”

That certainly hits close to home for me. Brown goes on to say that when she turned 47, she came to the realization that the prime of our lives is NOT about answers.

“It starts when we finally allow ourselves to soften into the mysteries and live in the questions. For me, the softening came after a long, painful midlife unraveling; fueled by the exhaustion that comes from too much pretending, pleasing and perfecting. For me, midlife was not a crisis, it was an unraveling. By definition, you can’t control or manage an unraveling.”

Although the need to pick things apart may be instinctive, I am trusting that I will soon be able to let go of searching for answers I may never find. In its place, allowing myself to unravel, to soften into the mysteries and to finally live comfortably in the questions sounds mighty good.