What If You’re The One Being Left?

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

E.M. Forster

One day, you’re enjoying an ordinary, comfortable, married life. The next, you hear the words “I want a divorce.” 

Maybe you saw it coming. Maybe you thought your marriage was solid. Maybe you’ve been working on it, believing things can change. And maybe you’re totally blindsided. You’re in shock. In two seconds, you go from comfortably married to living in a nightmare. 

How do you cope? How do you even survive? 

First, you breathe. In fact, you breathe deeply, signaling to your nervous system to calm down, telling it that everything will be alright. Because it will be. Then you take it one day – sometimes one minute – at a time. 

You give yourself permission to feel every emotion you experience: rage, hurt, confusion, powerlessness, humiliation, despair, and even numbness to the world. For many people, the end of a marriage is more than the end of a relationship. It’s also the end of an identity. This loss can feel disorienting and sometimes even terrifying.

Now, some good news

No feeling lasts forever. “Time heals all wounds” is a familiar expression for good reason: because it’s true. You will move forward one step at a time. And you won’t be alone.

You’ll move into a new way of living in the world, evolving your identity as you have your entire life. You’ll discover new ways of showing up for yourself and others. 

Even if divorce is far from what you wanted, you can remain in control of your life. You can continue to make healthy decisions for yourself and your family.

Go easy on yourself

In the first few months after a spouse leaves, you may feel incredibly vulnerable. It can help to imagine yourself as a small child. Give yourself the same unconditional love, kindness, support, and infinite compassion you would give to that child.

Get practical

It can help to set clear boundaries with your ex, their families, and mutual friends. They can drain your energy during this difficult time. Turn off phone notifications for these contacts and set aside a 30-minute window each day to respond to them as needed. Communicate on your terms – when you’re ready.

You may feel depleted from grief. That’s natural. Allow yourself time to rest. If you’re not up for going to family functions, work parties, or other social events, don’t go. Some people find comfort in going out dancing or casually dating. Some people don’t. Listen to yourself. 

Find your power people

It’s important not to isolate yourself. Identify the people in your life who lift you up and seek them out! These are people who give you power, who give you positive energy, and who are always there for you. They will continue to be.

And just as they are kind to you, be kind to yourself. Decide what feels energizing and life-giving to yourself in this moment, and do it. It’s okay to binge-watch a mindless show on Netflix. It’s okay to sit in the bathtub and cry (we promise, you won’t stay there forever). It’s okay to go rock climbing with your friends from college. It’s okay to get on a dating app and meet a new person for coffee.

Treat yourself

Find one thing each day that makes you feel better. It may be taking a long walk with the dog, watching a movie with your kids, reading a novel, grabbing coffee with an old friend, or going dancing. Try to do one nice thing for yourself every day. And forgive yourself when you can’t. Have patience. Show yourself the same compassion you would a dear friend. It’s a new reality. Doing your best is all you can do.

Ride the roller coaster

Yesterday you felt okay. Today you can barely hold back your tears. Grief isn’t linear. Try to accept the natural unpredictability of your emotions. Welcome them like a roller coaster that you know will rise and fall. Or an afternoon thunderstorm that rolls in and then out. Notice what you’re feeling, embrace it and know that it will go just as it came.

Therapy works

When your body is injured or in pain, you see a doctor. Emotional pain should be treated no differently. Therapists help us deal with our feelings. In fact, deciding to see a therapist is often the most healthy, mature and wise choice you can make. The end of a marriage, especially if it is sudden, can feel as traumatic as a death. Don’t navigate it alone. 

Reconnect with yourself 

When your identity is tied to another person like a spouse, it can be difficult to remember that you are a whole, worthy person on your own. Single life can be bewildering, but it’s also a starting point for self-growth and discovery. It’s common for divorcing people to feel at once terrified and excitedly free. Fritz Perls, MD, psychiatrist, and founder of Gestalt Therapy believes “fear is just excitement without the breath.” When you reframe your misfortune as an opportunity to recreate your life exactly how you want it, you empower yourself to take control of your life. Use this time to rediscover old interests, hobbies, and friends you may have lost along the way. Spend your free time doing something that you love. 

Reframe your divorce story

Although it’s changing, society too often equates divorce with failure. We challenge this outdated idea. Why measure the success of a marriage in longevity alone? What about the quality of the time you spent together? Think of your marriage not as a failure but as a success that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. What was successful about it? What wasn’t? How can you build on that moving forward? Frame your divorce story in a way that is both truthful and healthy for you. Don’t let your ex or others dictate it. 

Story

“When my husband told me he wanted a divorce, I was in shock. Soon after that came a deep sense of humiliation and shame. I’d been dumped. The levels of rejection would ripple across not only me personally but through my community and work. This label of “failure” was thrust upon me. I felt powerless, scared and angry. Over time, I learned to channel this energy into a way to approach this new life as an opportunity, one that I subconsciously desired but had always compromised while married. In that way, a scenario that made me feel like a victim at first became a way to empower myself and give me the strength to go after what I wanted out of life."

-Rachel

The 90-second rule

It can come on suddenly. Heart racing, sinking sensation in your stomach, a tightening in your chest. You’re overcome by a powerful emotion. Follow the 90-second rule. First, take deep, cleansing breaths for at least 90 seconds. A million different feelings or fears may arise from financial to social to parental. This is a time to repeat a powerful mantra to yourself, such as “Every day, I’m learning how to take care of myself” or “I’m going to be OK.” Replace negative self-talk with positive. The more you practice, the easier it becomes. 

Look forward

As much as you want to understand all the reasons your spouse left you, you may never feel satisfied by the answers. Digging into the past and replaying every argument will not bring your spouse back, nor will blaming yourself. One thing that can feel especially difficult when a marriage ends is the “how and why” the divorce happened at all. Whereas you and your ex might have shared a common narrative about how your relationship began and the course of your shared lives, it may feel especially disorienting to disagree on how you got to the point of divorce. Part of accepting the divorce is accepting that you will likely never agree about exactly what happened. And that’s okay. There can be more than one truth in a divorce, and more than one truth about how each of you experienced your marriage. Spend your energy building yourself up. Look forward instead of reliving the past. 

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