3 Transformational Effects of Divorce


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.

Happily Ever After Marriage: Q&A with Author Sarah Hampson (Part 1)

Happily Ever After

I wasn’t looking for a self-help book (ugh) as I wandered aimlessly through the bookstore that day, but somehow ended up perusing paperbacks about surviving and thriving after divorce. That’s when I found Happily Ever After Marriage: A Reinvention in Mid-Life by Sarah Hampson, creator of The Globe and Mail’s hugely popular divorce column Generation Ex.

The book immediately appealed to me – the author telling her own story of being a bride in her twenties and divorced with children in her forties, along with a balance of storytelling and reporting on the realities of what Hampson called “a new rite of passage in mid-life.” A few pages in and I realized this was no self-help book; it was a find-yourself book.

Sarah Hampson’s insightfulness meant the world when mine had fallen apart. I related so much to what she candidly, warmly, humorously and wisely wrote about embracing the traditions and the transitions of life. Happily Ever After was my go-to read the summer my marriage ended and the inspiration, comfort and camaraderie I received within its pages will always be with me. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I was thrilled to interview Sarah (@hampsonwrites) about her column, her book, and about how embracing change at mid-life, no matter how difficult, can lead to inspired reinvention and all exciting new pathways to emerge.

Where did the idea for the Generation Ex column come from?

Sarah Hampson: I had been writing interview profiles for the Globe a long time. A new life section was starting and I remember sitting at my kitchen table thinking I should write about divorce because it seemed everyone around me was going through the same thing. That was in 2007, so six years had passed since I left my marriage and five years since the divorce was finalized.

I pitched the idea for Generation Ex, a column that would explore the social phenomenon of divorce and how it’s changed from being taboo to being a contemporary rite of passage to maturity for women. I wanted to use my own experience and the experiences of others to write about divorce in a way that I thought would be helpful. The column was initially supposed to run every two weeks, but it immediately became so popular with readers that we did it weekly.

And Happily Ever After Marriage came out of that?

The book deal arrived one year after Generation Ex debuted. Because the column went through the roof, literary agents came out of the woodwork saying I should write a book since the topic obviously resonated with so many. Although it was a different creative exercise than knocking off a column every week, the research I’d previously done very much helped in terms of putting the book together.

Was it difficult to put your personal experience out there for so many people to read?

When I started writing the column, people would say, “How can you write about your personal life in such a public forum?” I mean, gee, it was only Canada’s leading national newspaper. At first, I received quite a bit of criticism in the online comments along the lines of “What’s wrong with this woman?” and “Thank God she’s not MY ex!”

I felt that I’d already worked through a lot of my feelings about being divorced by the time I pitched that column in 2007. I’d gotten through it, survived it, and taken the time to explore my own emotions – and I think that this served me well in trying to be graceful and fair about it. I never thought that I was writing the column to be vengeful; that would’ve been too easy. I was simply writing out of the knowledge that I’d gained with the purpose of trying to better understand the emotional archaeology of what underlies our decisions to marry, to divorce and then to survive the divorce.

 It’s interesting that you use the term “survive” – as if some don’t make it out alive.

In the immediate aftermath of my divorce, there were some crazy difficult years where things were up and down. My ex-husband was not terribly helpful financially or in his parental responsibilities for our three boys. But I refused to let an unhappy marriage – and of course, not all 18 years were unhappy – dictate how I would go forward with the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be poisoned by my own difficult experience. I think it was an innate survivor tactic. It didn’t make sense to go forward for the next part of my life always feeling resentful or angry or disappointed. In a way, I think that saved me and allowed me to transcend that difficult period, to make sense of it by writing about it.

What role has your now-grown sons had in helping you to move forward?

When I think back to the decision-making process that went on in terms of leaving that marriage, I remember feeling that I didn’t want my boys to think that’s what marriage was. Not to suggest there was anything horrible going on, but it certainly wasn’t harmonious. There was a lot of controlling, a lot of emotional manipulation in the marriage and it wasn’t what I wanted them to think it was supposed to be like. I didn’t want them to think that a mother who was slightly depressed or upset was normal.

Now my boys say they learned a great deal from watching me, seeing how strong I became as a single parent, stabilizing our lives and my career. In a way that’s a good thing. But I also wanted them to them to believe in marriage and see how family matters. One of them is married and one of them is engaged to be married in the fall so I’m pleased about that.

How do you feel toward your ex-husband now?

There are times I get upset when he doesn’t do things you’d expect a father to do for his sons, but I no longer feel anger at him. If anything, it’s revisited upset. It’s doesn’t last long, because it really doesn’t have much to do with anything anymore. The boys are doing well and getting on with their lives.

Sometimes, I feel a little badly that my ex made the precipitous decisions that he did. He’s had a tumultuous life; he remarried someone 23 years younger, started another family and now he’s divorced for a third time. I feel a degree of sadness for him. He hasn’t taken the time to know what great kids he has and doesn’t benefit from having good relationships with them. That’s unfortunate. It’s hard to look at someone who was once your whole world and see that they haven’t made a success of their life.

I hadn’t seen him in years until he came to my son’s wedding last year. It was cordial. My son had asked if I would be okay with him being invited and I said of course it is, he’s your father. Their relationship really has nothing to do with me anymore.

What did you learn most from your divorce? 

I married young. I’d always worked outside the home and was a working mom, so it wasn’t like I depended solely on my husband but still, I had to come to terms with my worries, my ambitions and my ability as a parent. Those are the things I had to learn about myself and focus on in the aftermath of the divorce. It’s made me who I am, it’s made me so much stronger and it’s made me a more interesting person – even to myself. I think that if you want to be happy, you have to be willing to make difficult decisions like getting divorced. But then you need to learn to live with your decisions and learn how to survive them too.

Your book helped set the tone for me post-divorce, especially the importance of being gracious and taking the high road when it comes to your ex. How did you manage it?    

Choosing to take the “high road” is partially about being a parent and wanting to protect your kids from the harsh reality about their dad. There have been times I may have crossed that line, and I think it came from the hostility I felt towards him for not stepping up and doing what he was supposed to do. But I think generally, I’m the type of person who’d rather be thoughtful about relationships than vengeful.

There’s a part of me that wanted to view my marriage and divorce on a higher level. That comes from a place of knowing that life is such a beautiful thing and you can choose to see the beauty in life or focus on the hard things. I don’t want to be on the lowest common denominator. I don’t want to be angry. I don’t want to be confrontational. I want the motif of my life to be generosity of spirit.

We all know people who were divorced in mid-life and just never got over it. The truth is, we only sabotage ourselves by holding on to that anger and we risk missing out on the good things that are around the corner. Just as there are unexpected bad things that make you think “how the hell did this happen to me?” so too are there unexpected good things. You just have to remain open to that possibility.

NEXT: “Life has a way of offering surprises you could never have predicted.” Sarah Hampson talks about finding love over 40 and giving marriage another try. 


Stranger Things Have Happened


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.