If We Were Having Coffee…

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If we were having coffee, I’d listen quietly while you got it off your chest. You’ve been trying to rationalize the irrational, processing how the person you once committed all your love and life to has gone from being your closest ally to the antagonist who pushes all your buttons.

And if we were having coffee, I’d tell you that I’m proud of you for taking the high road and not turning every tense conversation with him into a volcanic event. I know it’s hard when he brings out the profanity-spewing, sarcasm-wielding Medusa in you. I know it’s hard when everything he says comes across like a condescending dig or a critical jab. You’re ultra-sensitive because divorce rips away all of your protective layers, leaving your emotions raw and your nerve endings dangerously exposed.

I’d nod knowingly because dealing with my ex used to set me off all the time; even seeing his name on the call display spiked my blood pressure. Sometimes it still does. But I’ve learned to handle it by using the 10-10-10 rule:

  • 10 seconds: Count to 10 to cool down before opening your mouth to speak.
  • 10 minutes: Take 10 minutes to cool down before returning a call.
  • 10 hours: Give yourself 10 hours (roughly equal to a good night’s sleep, coincidentally) to cool down before responding in writing.

I know it sounds like kindergarten, but trust me, it really works. The next time you sense your inner Medusa rising, try counting to 10 and see if that keeps all your venomous serpents under wraps.

If it makes you feel any better, you don’t have to become friends with your ex – but since you share children, you’re going to have to co-parent with each other for a long, long time. If you want to put the kids first, which we all do of course, you’ve got to find a healthier way to communicate for their benefit.

One thing that seems to help in conflict resolution evolution is to take emotion out of it; keep your dealings strictly professional (just think like your lawyer speaks) as if you were merely business associates. If that means eliminating face-to-face conversation and using only voice mail, text, or email in order to stay cool, calm and collected that’s perfectly fine, as long as the messages are civil, concise and child-focused.

Look, I don’t have all the answers. I’m just saying what’s worked for me might just work for you too. Communicating with your ex-partner during a divorce is like walking over hot coals – it’s excruciating, unpredictable and leaves you blistering. You wish like hell you didn’t have to endure the direct contact, but since you can’t avoid it, you might as well focus on getting through it as unscathed as possible.

If we were having coffee, it would be time for a refill and maybe a cookie or brownie to go with it. You deserve it while you’re trying to work through all this, my friend. You’re doing great.

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This post is part of the #WeekendCoffeeShare social experiment, inviting the WordPress.com blogging community to share what they’d say to their readers if they were sitting down together over a cup of coffee.

 

Stranger Things Have Happened

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When my ex comes to pick up our son for a weekend, we keep the exchange at arm’s length. It used to really push my stress meter into the red zone to have a face-to-face encounter with him. We agreed, for the sake of us all, it would be best if our teenage son waited for his father’s car to arrive and then met him in the driveway.

One of the unsettling things about seeing my ex at the doorstep was that I barely recognized him. It wasn’t only that he had updated his glasses and was growing out his hair – mere aesthetics really – but his whole appearance had changed. In a short period of time, the person with whom I’d shared half of my life was virtually a stranger to me.

When I brought this up to my counsellor, she had a simple explanation for the shift. It was a sign of personal growth that my ex didn’t look familiar.

As she described it, my psyche was telling me that we were no longer functioning as “us,” but had detached as two separate individuals. In light of all that had transpired at the end of our marriage, I didn’t know who he really was. In my mind, a line had been drawn between the person I thought I’d married and the person standing in the driveway waiting for our son.

While he is the father of my children, he is not someone I know. His life is now his and mine belongs to me. We no longer talk about how our respective days went, what we are struggling with or what we are looking forward to; I don’t know what he worries about or the last thing that made him laugh out loud. One of the kids may mention him in passing as they recollect something that happened on a recent visit, but they are only blurred details of a life that I am not part of and I do not belong in. It’s like not getting a joke that everyone else is in on; all I can do is smile and nod.

I know that the stranger I was once married to has no place in my life either. I have moved on and created a new life for myself. Yes, we share children and we always will, but we no longer know each other. There will be graduations and weddings and other future family events that we will both attend, but these occasions will only intersect our lives momentarily before we disconnect and resume being strangers once again.

If my ex and I were to meet today, I’m certain that I wouldn’t like nor be attracted to him. He’s just not my type. This, too, is a good thing, because it’s further proof that I’m evolving.

When I take a closer look at myself, I can see how much I’ve grown and changed for the better. I’m proud of that. I have come so far from the person I used to be, that I’m not sure I’d even recognize her anymore.

Leaning Toward the Light

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One of the earliest lessons in my divorce recovery was finding ways to treat myself with kindness. Funny how the last person we show gentleness and compassion to is ourselves.

So I started buying fresh-cut flowers – I mean the good ones. I love flowers. They breathe life into my space, slow me down and reduce my stress level. It’s not just all in my head, either: a Harvard University study proved that we have an emotional response to having a flowers at home. They have a positive effect on our well-being, strengthening feelings of compassion while decreasing depression, anxiety and worry.

Some say flowers are indulgent or a waste of money (they die anyway), but I say they’re even better than splurging on a bottle of wine (the bottle empties anyway). Hey, if you’re going to self-medicate, flowers have a more natural and healthful impact on mood and they won’t leave you with a hangover or drunk-dialing regrets.

Despite what chick flicks tell us, it’s perfectly fine to buy your own bouquet. Being kind to yourself is not sad or pitiful. What is sad is waiting around for someone else to pamper you so that you can feel good. Trust me on this. Buy your own flowers. Or a spa day. Or new sheets and lingerie. Or draw a scented bubble bath with candles. Date yourself, for crying out loud. You’re a catch!

I discovered that fresh flowers are not only a joy trigger for me, they are a continual source of inspiration. They grow through dirt just as I know the experience I’ve been through will make me stronger and wiser (“The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of all” – Disney’s Mulan). Expectant buds unfold petal by petal until they fully blossom; I’m finally coming into my own by discovering the extent of who I am.

Flowers are awesome in that no matter where their vase is placed, they will tilt to seek out the sunshine. They remind me that leaning toward the light and focusing on gratitude is what heals my heart and nourishes my soul.

Happy Valentine’s Day. Be kind to yourself. 

A Matter of Trust

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Fragile ballplayers prone to recurring injury are said to have glass knees or glass shoulders. When I felt ready to get back into the dating game, it was with a glass heart. To avoid pain and the risk of someone new re-shattering what I’d been piecing back together, I held back my true self.

I have always been a very expressive and communicative person; for better or worse, it’s impossible for me to hide my feelings. If I like you and you are important to me, I am all-in on our relationship. That’s why keeping a safe emotional distance from other people sapped a great deal of energy. I wasn’t used to functioning with a protective wall around my heart.

“How do I let down my guard and learn to trust again?” I asked my counsellor.

“Trust a new partner, or learn to trust yourself?” she challenged.

Ugh, she was right. It wasn’t that I was distrustful of the opposite sex as much as I was distrustful of myself. I was still sore about being blindsided; that my intuition hadn’t warned me of impending danger in my marriage.

Or had it?

You know when your car starts making that weird engine noise and you tell yourself, “Aw, it’ll go away” and then turn up the radio to drown it out? Yep, that was me. After much soul searching, I faced the truth: all of the obvious, neon warning signs had been there, but I just had failed to pay attention in my marriage. 

Maybe deep down I knew something wasn’t quite right but I suppressed it, content to smooth out the rough edges as “normal ups and downs.” I was too busy fulfilling my role, too laser-focused on raising two kids, starting my own business and fluffing our home nest to see what was really going on. As with a weird engine noise, the things we don’t pay attention to always get us in the end.

I was mad at myself. I was mad at whatever little part of me didn’t pay attention, didn’t protect my heart and allowed me to settle for less, believing that certain behaviours were perfectly normal. If I didn’t trust my radar to detect the warning signs with the person I was married to for 20 years, how was I supposed to trust it around complete strangers?

First of all, my counsellor said, there was no use in beating myself up. I may be a nurturer, but I didn’t have to bear the weight of responsibility for another person’s decisions and actions… it had been a two-person marriage after all! Secondly, although my heart had survived this trauma, I couldn’t keep basing my decisions in fear if I was to move forward with a new relationship. Yes, I risked more heartbreak in the future, but if I didn’t let down my guard and open my heart, I risked closing myself off to love.

So I started to focus on trusting myself again. And that’s where the healing began.

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Violations of trust are painful lessons that we can turn into opportunities for profound personal growth. One good thing about what I’d been through, my counsellor assured, was that I could now trust myself to recognize those flashing warning signs when something was off. I was now in a brand new state of awareness.

I remember reading somewhere that when it comes to trust, “Life gives you the process through your experiences; people provide you the opportunity to practice.” In the dating world, people were going to do what they were going to do; there was little I could do to control it but that sure didn’t mean I’d have to put up with it.

I had to trust in my ability to acknowledge and call out unacceptable behaviour; to see things as they really were instead of blindly making excuses for it or brushing it off. If something didn’t quite add up or seemed like a flimsy story, I could assert myself by taking a closer look at the situation and if needed, ask for verification.

(And by the way, a woman who stands up for herself doesn’t have “trust issues,” she believes that she deserves honesty and is worthy of her own trust.)

My intuition has never failed me; my mistake was in choosing to ignore that inner voice. By checking in with it and asking it for confirmation, I regained trust in myself and, not surprisingly, those protective walls around my heart started coming down.

Part of my journey has been learning that by trusting others, I am actually fine-tuning my intuition. As I met new people socially and allowed myself to be vulnerable, I not only deepened my ability to trust my own instincts, I found a safe place to open myself up to love.

The Power of Three

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“Congratulations, you have a Million Dollar Family!” A well-meaning relative celebrated the news of our son’s birth in 1998 as if we’d won the gender lottery – one girl and one boy. Serendipitous symmetry afforded us the portrait of a perfect, happy, family: a mom, a dad, a daughter, a son.

Being a unit of four is certainly great in a lot of ways. Four chairs fit nicely around a square restaurant table. In the car, everyone has their own seat without anyone forced to sit on the hump. No one gets outnumbered in arguments. Hotel rooms with two beds are easy to book. Even pizza slices neatly into eights or twelves.

But then, quite suddenly, there was three of us.

While the kids continued to have a relationship with their father, there was just three of us living in a home built by four. Over the years, the kids and I had plenty of opportunities to hold down the fort just fine while my ex was away on business. I’ll admit I cherished those times. Instead of spending evenings apart in our own separate quarters, we would inexplicably gather together in one room to watch a video, share a snack, cuddle or talk. The three of us laughed more, it seems, because things felt more harmonious and relaxed. Or maybe it was just me.

But things were different now. With their father gone, I was hypervigilant about being the lone captain, keeping close watch on the bridge so that our ship stayed upright. I hoped the kids didn’t doubt that I could handle it on my own. If they did, they didn’t let on. I constantly assured them that we’d be fine and that we were still a family although dad didn’t live here anymore, but yet I worried they felt a void at home.

I grasped onto the Power of Three. After all, a three-legged stool is just as sturdy as a chair with four legs and I wanted to show the kids that our new home life could be just as good, if not better, than the one they grew up knowing.

For writers, the Power of Three is a principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying and easier to remember (“Veni, vidi, vici” or “Stop, look and listen”). Stage and screenplays are written in a three-act structure. In fact, a great deal of our cultural upbringing is made of triplets and trios: Three Musketeers, Three Little Pigs, Three Wise Men. Three is also a mystical number, if you are inclined to believe; in numerology, it denotes joy, inspiration and a moving forward of energy.

As quickly as I removed photos and mementos of the past from our home, I replaced them with subliminal reminders of the Power of Three. We have a curio shelf containing three miniature vases, three gold ornamental apples and three bamboo hedgehogs. Over our fireplace mantel is metal wall art featuring three tall trees, flourishing.

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At the time, my Mama Bear instinct used the Power of Three to protect, comfort and reassure, but looking back, I question if it was entirely the right thing to do. I wonder if it was actually my way of closing ranks; of not only proving myself as the steadfast parent but trying to shut out my ex by saying, “See? We didn’t need him anyway.” Perhaps, perhaps.

Fortunately, my daughter and son showed amazing resilience and coping skills as our household went from four to three and, since my new partner joined us, back to four again. Even if I made a few missteps in my parenting choices post-divorce, I am able to forgive myself because of the two extraordinary human beings who continue to live and thrive under this roof.

We may no longer be considered a Million Dollar Family by some people, but my kids are a reminder that I hit the jackpot.

Switching Off the Negative

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I first encountered my shadow late at night. It was shortly after my separation when I was at my most vulnerable, the best time for sinister shadows to slither out from their shady corners. It attached itself to me and from then on, followed me everywhere. It tried to drag me back down into the darkness by creating fear. The fear that I am not enough. That I am not lovable. That I am 40 and alone.

My shadow played an endless loop of negative, self-defeating and sometimes self-destructive thoughts in my head. It became a dangerously addictive soundtrack and that fear only perpetuated my anger. Sure, resentment and blame made me feel better, at least temporarily, as I rehashed my sob story (“I don’t deserve this. This is so unfair.”). But playing the victim and dredging up the misery of past events only fed into the fear; and my shadow loved every minute of it.

My shadow’s name? Ego.

“When you recognize that negative voice in your head as the ego, you also become aware that you are not that voice,” explains Mary Holloway, a speaker, writer and resilience coach. “You become aware that you have a higher self; and the higher self and the ego (lower self) cannot co-exist.”

Holloway says if the ego is the shadow, think of the higher self as the light switch. It comes from a place of love. Flick on the light and the shadow disappears.

“This awareness makes you realize that you no longer have to react to the fear because your thoughts are not you, they are from your ego,” she says. “When you come into awareness, you can move above these thoughts and shift your perspective from negative, fear-based thoughts to ones that serve you positively.”

Once I called out my ego, I took back my power by replacing the negativity with self-assured talk from my higher self. I even created my own mantra to drown out destructive thoughts that I am not worthy:

I want what I deserve, and I deserve what I want. 

I want what I deserve, and I deserve what I want.

It wasn’t instant nor as simple as deciding to turn my ego off, but getting to a place of awareness allowed me to see the shadow for what it was. It wasn’t reality and I didn’t have to react to it. Even when my shadow tries to play that loop of lies (and it still does) I just record a better track over it. I know that I am lovable. I know that I am surrounded by people who love me. I know that I am enough.

Today is Bell Let’s Talk Day, opening up the discussion about mental health. Emotional self-care during divorce is a valid part of that conversation. http://letstalk.bell.ca/en/

Thanks with an “Ex”

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“Gratitude: Mixed Media” by Isa Tyler

I carried around my hurt, anger and resentment for so long that the weight of it felt normal. Despite all I’d read about forgiveness being for the forgiver, I just couldn’t reach that point. I still struggle with it; even now, I’m not sure I will ever completely get there.

One day, I confided to my counsellor that I felt far too consumed by toxic thoughts. Of course I had every reason to be bitter; I had done what I was “supposed” to do and my marriage still fell apart. I had been fully committed to our home and family and yet, it wasn’t enough to hold it all together ‘til death do us part.

My counsellor suggested that I replace my hostility with gratitude, even going so far as to write an unsent thank-you note to my ex. Thank you? Thank you for what? My blood pressure spiked.

She reminded me how my nature as a nurturer meant that I would’ve never walked away from my marriage. It’s simply not in my DNA. To quote Audrey Hepburn, “If I get married, I want to be very married.” In my book, taking vows meant accepting a lifelong gig; it was not fathomable that we would divorce, let alone me instigating a split.

I had to reconcile my relationship values with knowing that my life is much closer to what I always wanted it to be on the other side of divorce. Okay, maybe my world did need to be shaken to the core so that I could grow and redefine myself. But even if my marriage had an expiry date, something cataclysmic still HAD to happen in order for me to admit it was over. And for that alone, my counsellor said, I should thank my ex.

She suggested that every time I feel my anger rising, I should say a quiet thank you instead because it will help me let go. So I do. And it’s opened me up enough to let the light of gratitude in. It’s only a start, but now I can say…

Thank you for revealing the truth about our marriage.

Thank you for teaching me that not all relationships are built to last.

Thank you for helping me to realize that it’s better to become who I want to be instead of trying to fix who I could’ve been, should’ve been or never really was.

Thank you for freeing me so that I could go out and find the love I was meant to have.

Thank you for presenting me with an opportunity to discover that I am so much stronger and resilient than I ever imagined.

The Head and The Heart

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“We are never fully prepared for the depth of emotions that losing a loved one brings. If the death is unexpected, it will be a huge shock.  The causes of unexpected deaths are wide and varied, but irrespective of the cause – the fact is that you will not be ready for it. Those that are left behind often feel stunned, and suddenly find themselves living in a surreal world without their loved one.

“At the other end of the spectrum, an expected death brings different emotions. Even though you are prepared for it and have said all that you can say, including your goodbyes, it doesn’t make it any easier. Often the lead up to death  can be excruciatingly painful and stressful to all those involved, so your loved one’s departure could result in an immense feeling of relief.”

(From “Dealing with Death, A Personal Perspective” by Donna Raynel)

If you substitute the word “divorce” for “death” in the above passage from Ms. Raynel’s website Not Alone, you may be able to see how the two life experiences are closely related. Like the newly bereaved, I went into survival mode upon the unexpected death of my marriage. Despite going through the motions and ensuring that our daily routine still continued, I lived on auto pilot those first few months. I did what I had to do so that the kids and I would get by. And to survive the pain.

It wasn’t until I went for a tarot card reading that I realized I may have been productive intellectually, but I was low functioning emotionally. The first card I pulled from the deck was the Three of Swords:

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That’s a scary looking card, and the powerful, piercing imagery is ominous. But the meaning, as it was described to me, is quite enlightening. In tarot, swords often have to do with our mental function. Translated, it’s about managing difficult emotional circumstances (like death or divorce) where we have to make tough, headstrong decisions. It signifies the interaction between the head and the heart energies.

My intrepid tarot card reader explained it this way: picture a cartoon brain and a cartoon heart about to depart on a road trip. The heart is a wailing, weepy mess, so the brain protectively says, “It’s okay. I know that you’re in no shape to drive. Hop in the backseat and I’ll steer us along until you’re up to the task.”

The cards didn’t lie: I was certainly in survival mode. I busied myself with mental tasks – dealing with lawyers, realtors, bankers and the like – so I didn’t have to feel too much. But seeing the Three of Swords revealed an undeniable truth. It was time to allow my heart to get back into the driver’s seat and start the grieving process, even though it was going to hurt like hell.

As in coping with death, there would be no short cuts on my personal divorce journey. I had to feel it to heal it.

Awakening From the Dream

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“A Perfect Vacuum” by Jeremy Geddes

The first week I slept in my marriage bed alone, I was afraid to dream. I only know this because in the wee hours between falling asleep and waking up, I saw and remembered nothing. In hindsight, of course, it was likely my subconscious shielding me. I was already going through enough turmoil in my waking hours that even my exhausted brain needed a break from its constant processing and reanalyzing of events.

Eventually, the first dream I had was a vivid one. My ex had packed a bag and left our home on a routine business trip. Shortly after, I turned on the TV and heard the news that his plane had crashed. Surprisingly, I was not shocked. I didn’t even feel all that sad. In that moment, the only thing was the realization that he was gone. He was not coming back and I would just have to deal with it.

My brain was catching up.

Dreams have played an important role in my grieving and healing process. Not coincidentally, the gentle but wise counsellor I sought out for guidance used the phrase “awakening from the dream” to describe the soul-wringing process I was going through. For the previous 20 years, I had been contentedly focussed on my responsibilities and roles on a daily basis. But in reality, I had been sleepwalking, playing the “good wife and mother” while assuming my partner was holding up his end of the deal. The image we projected and protected of having a good life, family and home was merely an illusion. Even I was fooled.

Take comfort in what has happened, my counsellor assured, because once your eyes have been opened, there is no going back. There is no more pretending and no more sleeping. You won’t let yourself be fooled again. Instead, the end of the dream had brought with it a brand new sense of awareness. My true self was waking up.

About This Too, Was a Gift

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Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.

This poem by Mary Oliver really captures how I feel about my divorce, especially all of the personal discoveries and life experiences that have come since. Even though my marriage is over, I gradually started to appreciate (yes, appreciate!) this ending as a new beginning. It’s true what they say: this is the part where you find out who you are.