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.

Life Outside the Cocoon

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When my marriage capsized, I felt a wide range of emotion. Shock that it ended abruptly and so heartlessly. Anger at the hand I had been unfairly dealt. Humiliation that I had no control over what was happening, why it happened and that it had been happening for so long. And there was sadness, great sadness – not over losing him, but over losing the dream.

Yet, along with the darkness, there was an undeniable sense of relief. It sounds weird to say, but part of me was actually glad it was over.

In fact, I wanted to rush through the five stages of grief as quickly as possible. Why devote my energy to mourning (heaven knows he wasn’t grief-stricken so why should I have to be) when it could instead be used to hurry up and get on with rebuilding my life? My heart would surely repair itself with time. I had much better things to do.

I told my counselor that I resented needing to take the time to heal. I just wanted to rip off the emotional Band-Aid and move on.

“You remind me of a butterfly,” she said. “Have you ever really stopped to watch a butterfly?” Well, of course I had, suppressing the urge to roll my eyes as I awaited the follow-up cliché about personal transformation.

“Butterflies move very quickly and don’t stay in one spot for very long. They are always on the go. But every once in a while, they need to land in a safe spot where they can rest their wings and renew their energy.”

Okay I get it, I thought as I prepared for a reprimand to slow down. It didn’t come. Fortunately, my counselor was never one to lay on a guilt trip.

“Did you also realize that if a butterfly doesn’t break out of its cocoon, it will die?” she asked. “Perhaps on some deeper level this is how you felt in your marriage – trapped, holding your breath, unable to leave for any number of reasons. And maybe this explains the sense of relief you now feel.”

That was a breakthrough moment for me. I had never even considered that the reason I was now so eager to move forward was because I’d felt restricted over the years. My 20-year relationship had become a cocoon that prevented me from growing into my true self even as I’d continued to evolve from within it. My ex, on the other hand, had not changed. He was still the self-seeking man child he had always been. I was exhausted from trying to grow for the both of us.

And now that I was free, I wanted to shake out my new wings and get on with flight. (“O exquisite relief! She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.”)

My homework that week was to be aware of and to watch for butterflies as they appeared around me. I was to think about everything they went through to transform themselves from caterpillar to a winged creature. How they risk everything to become butterflies. How amazing it must feel to discover their destiny – that they have the power to fly.

Coming to terms with my own transformation was liberating. It also released me from a great deal of hurt. Knowing that I had been ready to undergo a metamorphosis for years but that I needed to shed my marriage if I was ever going to fly helped me to find gratitude in reaching the end of that relationship.

Now when I catch a glimpse of a fluttering butterfly, it is a reminder of my own wings. A symbol of change, yes, but also unfettered joy.

“Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you.

You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think.

You were born worthy of love and belonging.

Courage and daring are coursing through you.

You were made to live and love with your whole heart.

It’s time to show up and be seen.”   

(Brené Brown)