Clients come to see me for therapy because they’re having trouble moving on after divorce. They’re frustrated with their ex, worried about their children, and so scared about the future that they can’t enjoy the present. They often believe that I need to know as many details as possible so that I’ll understand how to help them, and are eager to share the latest woes in their divorce saga.
While the circumstances are unique to each person, I don’t need to know them all to see why someone’s stuck. That’s because the foundational problem is always the same: people focus on the things they can’t control and don’t focus on the things they can. My job, as their therapist, is to tell them how to do that.
And that starts with identifying the most common behaviors that keep you from moving on after divorce.
Do you find yourself muttering in the shower – or the car, the kitchen, and in line at Starbucks — about all the ways your ex has wronged you? Continually replaying the tape of your problems will just make them seem bigger than they are. So why do you indulge in this exercise in masochism? When your mind wraps around something tangible – say, your ex’s latest hostile email – you feel more focused. It may seem easier to dwell on what you know than to tolerate the ambiguity of the present. Yet there is absolutely nothing to be gained by ruminating. It won’t change the past and it will just sap the energy required to move forward after divorce. Moving on after divorce takes focus and commitment. Healthy habit: the next time you catch yourself binge-thinking about your problems, shift your energy to something constructive: a crossword puzzle, a yoga class, or doing a good deed.
2. Venting in therapy
People often go to therapy believing that if they “vent,” they’ll exorcise their pain. Actually, the opposite is true. Venting doesn’t heal — it only leads to more venting. It reinforces your problem narrative, making you feel even more victimized. And venting wastes money; if you spend the entire 50 minutes laying out the timeline of your ex’s wrongdoings, you won’t create space for healing. Your therapist needs only a brief recap of recent events to assess your mood and how to help you. Healthy habit: Use your therapy hour productively. Acknowledge your feelings, learn tools to manage your emotional reactivity, and figure out how to live with integrity and purpose.
3. Toxic hope
Do you hold out hope that you can give your ex an epiphany — by crafting the perfectly-worded email or comeback line — so they will realize the error of their ways and transform their entire personality? Let me disabuse you of that notion! If you couldn’t change your ex when you were married, you will certainly not be able to do so now that you’re divorced. Don’t invite more misery by waiting for your former spouse to be anything other than who they are. Healthy habit: practice “radical acceptance.” Acknowledge that your ex behaves in ways you don’t like, recognize how this makes you feel, and identify things you can actually control (your own behaviors).
No matter how many crappy things your ex has done, blaming him for your unhappiness won’t fix anything. But here’s what it will do: ratchet up your anger and increase the odds that you will behave in ways that fuel conflict – for instance, firing off a snide email, delivering an unsolicited parenting lecture, or refusing to accommodate a reasonable request. Marinating in blame also keeps you from getting honest about your part in problems. You may prefer the righteousness of blame to the vulnerability of self-examination, but taking personal accountability is essential if you want to empower yourself. Healthy habit: when you catch yourself playing the blame game, ask yourself if there is anything you can do to improve your situation. Just sitting for a few moments of quiet reflection can help you learn to tolerate difficult feelings so you can bypass knee jerk reactions.
5. Email wars
Does your blood pressure spike when you open a nasty email from your ex? Do you often respond with a mini-dissertation on why he’s wrong? If so, you’ve probably noticed this tactic hasn’t elicited the “aha” moment you’re hoping for. (See “toxic hope,” above). Engaging in email battles hijacks your nervous system so that you stay in fight or flight mode. You cannot communicate effectively when you’re responding out of fear or anger. If you want to defuse conflict, stop taking your ex’s bait and practice managing your reactions. Healthy habit: Never fire off an email when you’re upset. Draft a response that’s brief, informative (no opinions or feelings), neutral in tone, and firm. Wait 24 hours, review, and edit out anything unnecessary or inflammatory before sending.
6. Trying to control your co-parent
I see many clients getting verklempt because they don’t like the way their ex handles routine parenting decisions involving homework, bedtime, and TV viewing. They lecture, e-mail unwelcome advice, and sometimes take legal action to change the way their co-parent parents. Rarely are these efforts successful. Trying to control your ex will create ill will and deepen power struggles. Before you confront your former spouse about his choice, ask yourself how important it really is. A later bedtime may not be ideal, but it’s not going to ruin your child’s chances of getting into Harvard. Part of moving on after divorce is accepting that your ex is not going to parent exactly the way you do, and – unless there is a legitimate threat to your child’s well-being – learning to be okay with that. Healthy habit: respect your co-parent’s boundaries and their right to run their own home. Instead of focusing on their perceived parenting shortcomings, be grateful for the positive things they offer your child – and consider thanking them!
“If nothing changes, nothing changes” should be every divorced person’s mantra. You will never feel better if you continue to indulge the same bad habits. So, stop dwelling on the past, on your ex, and on the life you thought you were going to have. Start learning new skills and practicing them on a daily basis so you can – finally – start moving on after divorce.
Virginia Gilbert, LMFT, is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles who specializes in divorce. She is also the author of the book, Transcending High-Conflict Divorce: How To Disengage From Your Ex And Find Your Power
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