When you hear the word divorce, even if you aren't divorced yourself, I would bet that almost instantly you conjure up images of pain and tears, of yelling and courtrooms, of kids with backpacks, of lawyers and paperwork, of anger and sadness.
And you would be right. And yet, there is so much more.
Divorce is messy and anti-climactic. It's devastating and a relief. It's life-upending and life-changing.
It's also surprising. Because, though one might expect it to, divorce does not kill you. It can take you out at the knees, yes. But it is not life-ending. That I can guarantee.
In the aftermath of a divorce, every man and woman needs to decide how he or she will start over. But what does starting over after divorce look like?
On one hand, it's scary beyond belief. You cannot see the forest for the trees; you cannot see around the bend. For some of us, we had no idea what it was like to live on our own. We perhaps never paid our own bills or worked outside the home. We more than likely never dreamed we'd be on our own, so we never bothered to prepare for that circumstance. And yet, here we are, on our own.
Or, if the marriage was extraordinarily difficult, we may find ourselves resisting feelings of relief and excitement, emotions that seem wrong and that invoke guilt. Who feels relief that their marriage has fallen apart? Who is excited at the prospect of starting over? (Those who were living in pain for a very long time, that's who.)
So starting over looks different for every person, especially depending on what your marriage looked like in the day-to-day, who initiated the divorce, and how long you were married.
But despite those differences, there are some similarities across the board.
What to expect as you start over
Grieving the marriage and the dreams you had for it
Feeling as if something or someone has died takes most divorcees by surprise, especially if their marriages were difficult. But a divorce is the death of a marriage and the death of your dream for it. Statistics tell us that divorce is the second highest stressor after the death of a spouse. It's another kind of death. The only difference, which can make it more unnerving to walk through, is that the spouse is still alive and well in the world, and you must continue at times to interact with him. You cannot move fully on into your future without first grieving this huge loss.
Coming to terms with your part in the ending of your marriage.
No one wants to admit that he or she was wrong, especially in a marriage where things ended because of the other spouse's infidelity, addiction, or abuse. It's easier and simpler to point the finger at our mate, but it's not realistic to believe that we were blameless. Don't get me wrong: if your spouse was unfaithful, had an addiction, or was abusive to you, you did not cause it, you cannot control it, and you cannot cure it, to borrow wisdom from recovery programs. However, there were things you could have done differently or better, even if it's painful to admit. You can expect your healing to flourish once you've owned your part in the demise of your marriage.
Readjusting to singleness
You may need to learn to cook or balance a budget or shop for groceries. You may need to find someone to change your oil or do your taxes. You may need to find a new church on your own, or try going to the movies by yourself, or simply learn to withstand the quietness of a home with fewer people in it. There is no magic formula for this. This will just have to take time.
Living with your loneliness
Loneliness is in my top three least favorite human emotions. I would rather be almost anything than lonely. And yet, when looking back at my marriage, I was very lonely then as well. Loneliness comes with the territory of walking this Earth, regardless of your marital status. You can try to numb it or ignore it, but then it will come out as a different emotion at an inappropriate time. So, I find simply sitting with it is best. Acknowledge that's what you're feeling. Ask God to meet you in it. And either just sit in it quietly, choose to do something to occupy your mind, or get together with a friend. But know that it's part of the package. It will not kill you, and it will sweep right back out just as it swept in.
Parenting on your own
If you have children, you will need to learn the dance of either co-parenting or, when partners cannot be amicable, parallel parenting, which simply means you do your best to parent, and you let your ex-spouse do his best to parent when the kids are with him. To navigate single parenting, I would recommend gathering with other single parents to offer support and ideas.
What God taught me through my divorce
It's okay to be sad and angry and scared.
There is no getting around that a divorce brings out just about every human emotion, and sometimes, several of them every single day or every single hour. But since God created us and our emotions, we are allowed to feel every single feeling we've got. It's what you do with all of it that matters. Feel them, express them appropriately, journal about them, talk about them with a counselor or friend, but do not hold them in because they'll just come out in weird places and at weird times.
Being authentic is both scary and freeing.
I had been hiding our difficult marriage problems for so long that I forgot what it meant to be real. Fortunately, what I found is that you can hide a hard marriage all you want, but you can't hide that your husband no longer lives with you. My separation forced me out into the light. It was the scariest thing that I've ever done, and yet now, I'm free and content that I have nothing left to hide.
Not everyone in your life can handle walking you through this kind of pain.
But at the end, the ones who are still there will be even stronger support. This was a tough pill to swallow. I was under the impression that everyone who loved and supported me when I was married was going to love and support me through my divorce. I was wrong. People I loved and trusted said horrible things to me. However, though my circle is now smaller, it's stronger and I know who I can count on.
The more grace I've been shown by God and the more grace that's been withheld from me, the more grace I now have to offer others.
This was my biggest surprise and my greatest blessing. I thought that the more grace that was withheld from me, the harder my heart would become, but the opposite divinely happened. I now understand firsthand how it feels to have someone disapprove of me, and because of that, I never want to be the bearer of that judgment on anyone else. I am more often now, gratefully, a grace dispenser, and I have my divorce to thank for that.
Advice for those walking through a divorce
Stay (or get) connected in community.
Pull support around you. Find a mentor, go through DivorceCare, or get in a small group Bible study. Do not–I repeat–do not try to soldier through your divorce on your own. Fight the urge to isolate. This is the time to be surrounded with people who love you.
Remain single for at least a year.
You need this time to heal. Your loneliness will be shouting otherwise, but your heart will not be ready for a new love so soon post-divorce.
Cut yourself lots and lots of slack.
Show yourself the same kind of grace you would show a good friend. Your divorce will take a long time to get through, to heal from and move past. You will feel fine one day and awful the next. Allow God to do his healing work in you, even if it takes longer than you expect.
God is not just a God of creating new things; he is also a God of making all things new. And that includes your heart and your life, if you let him. You never expected this would be your fate. But that doesn't mean God cannot do something beautiful in you.
Elisabeth Klein is a single mom to two teenagers. She loves spending time with her kids, her friends, reading and writing. She is the author of eight books, and you can visit Elisabeth at www.ElisabethKlein.com.