Divorce can break/heal your heart

by Kristin on July 13, 2009

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by CarbonNYC

I was sitting on a bench on Main Street this morning, checking my email while waiting for the co-working space to open. Across the street a man talking on his phone began pacing. Then he began yelling. And swearing.

I busied myself by looking down at my phone, navigating to Twitter to see what was going on there. The furious yelling continued across the street, making me cringe. It became apparent the man was talking to his wife. They were either in the process of getting a divorce, or they were at that place where you threaten it—to get your spouse’s attention, or to gauge their reaction as well as your own.

While I initially felt protective of the woman on the other end of the line—partly because I’m a woman, partly because I could only hear his yelling and swearing, not hers—as the man stuffed his phone into his jeans pocket, I felt a surge of compassion for him. It was so strong, I almost rushed across the street to him.

Offering crumbs of hope in hard times

What would I say, I wondered?

Well, I would start by telling him that everything will be OK. Maybe not right away, but eventually. I would tell him that my ex-husband and I did a lot of yelling and exchanged a lot hatred, too, and that it’s normal but it doesn’t help—it’s the sort of thing you’ll regret, even if you don’t regret the actual divorce.

I would tell him that having a kind relationship with your ex down the road is the best thing you can do for your kids. And I would add that anger now doesn’t necessarily preclude a good relationship with your ex later. Allow time to heal, and be open to the right moments to extend kindness and forgiveness.

Finally, I would urge him to find someone he can talk to, whether it’s a friend, a counselor or a pastor (I recommend the non-judgmental sort). Even if he thinks he’s the kind of person who prefers to sort through hard times alone, saying out loud what you’re thinking can really help diffuse the anger and bring perspective. Trying to be a rock won’t do anyone any good.

But what can you really say to someone in the middle of that heartache, even if you’ve been there (or in the vicinity) before? All you can say is “My heart aches for you. Divorce sucks.”

Balancing stories of pain and hope

The pain doesn’t have to engulf the whole story, though. The book that my own divorce story was published in, Ask Me About My Divorce, offers a refreshingly positive book on the subject. Its main message is this: Divorce may not be what you ever imagined or hoped for, but it can be an “escape hatch into a better life.” The book pushes beyond the stigma and stereotypes. It offers hope. (I’ve referenced the book in several posts, including here.)

I love the message, but there is a tiny part of me that worries about over-romanticizing divorce, even a little. The women in the book all write frankly about their struggles and pain, but in the end, their lives have all improved. My own post-divorce life feels like a fairy tale sometimes, mostly because I met Jason. I know those happy endings are not the case for everyone who gets divorced.

So I guess that’s what really struck me this morning, as I listened to the man across the street arguing with his wife: Divorce is incredibly painful—not just for you, but for many people connected to you.

And although you can control your actions in the midst of the divorce, and positively adjust your attitude toward life after the divorce, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll find yourself in a picture-perfect life on the other side. I was pretty miserable for three years after my divorce (and several before it). Others don’t find their way out of the pain for a decade or more. It might always be a struggle—just a different kind of struggle than the one they dealt with daily in their marriage.

I’m not trying to be discouraging, or a downer. There’s more than enough of that perspective to go around, when it comes to divorce. I just felt the need to balance what might, at times, look like my “pro-divorce” stance, with a healthy dose of realism.

I also want to say this: If you’re struggling somewhere between hope and despair in your own marraige or divorce, my heart is aching—and filled with hope—for you too.

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  • http://hollyhouse.blogspot.com Jennifer

    Your perspective on this difficult situation has been, and I suspect will continue to be, incredibly important to me. On our visit to PA, I had a great opportunity to speak, or rather, to listen, to my sister talk about her proceeding divorce. No one would tell her it’s the wrong thing to do, but neither would we think she’s having the time of her life right now. Some days they find a way to work together. Other days, she calls crying and angry about some setback. Some days she feels like she can handle it all; other days, she feels it slipping through her fingers. Your thoughts give me a reference point, and a sense of discernment, to be able to listen to her and tell her it will, eventually, all be ok. Thanks.

  • http://www.cleverfoodblog.com Jason

    The only real perspective I have on divorce is that of my parents. I was young when it happened, and every once in a while I look back and realize that it affected me greatly. I would echo your point that “having a kind relationship with your ex down the road is the best thing you can do for your kids.” Unfortunately, mine did not (and still don’t). My parents have been divorced 20 years now, but because of their bad blood my father didn’t attend our baby’s first birthday party. Divorce is a sad thing. At this point, my parents are deciding for themselves how they want to handle it, and they’re still making mistakes that hurt many more people than they realize.

  • http://www.roseyposeyconfections.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    Thanks for this, as always, Kristin. I trust your honest, down-to-earth, unafraid but compassionate voice. I so appreciate it.

  • Trina

    Being a child of divorced parents who never figured out how to make it right for me, still sucks some 30 years later. As an adult I have compartmentalized it, and mostly look at it from an ‘it’s too bad for them’ perspective.

    Though my children do not know their Grandmother, based on past behaviour, they never will. If she has changed I would have to witness it long before there were introductions made…

    Yes, divorce can suck, and it seems like those more recently divorced have learned lessons on how to make it less sucky than those that paved the road before them – generally speaking of course :-)

    Posts such as yours, and books like the one you’re a part of will help charter a course in the direction of healing and whats best in the end.

    You are so compassionate Kristen, I would likely have overheard that same call, and thought ‘Shut up you clod, you’re making the situation worse’ :-)

  • steve

    Thanks for this post. As someone currently walking through the pain of a divorce I never saw coming, this is helpful. I’m fortunate to not have kids involved, and fortunate that mine is not a volatile, yelling-at-each-other, venomous experience. It’s horrible in other ways, to be sure, just not those ways. Damn, this stuff hurts. I feel myself trying to avoid getting my hopes up for an ending like yours, but it sure sounds lovely.

  • http://www.orangeshirtguy.com Dave Thurston

    Divorce is like watching someone else’s child fall off a bike, isn’t it? You want to go run over with a band-aid and say “You OK, Sweetie?” and just. plain. help.

    If you’ve ever received the hand-on-the-forearm touch from a wise, compassionate, bright-eyed older person – you know that you’ve just received the adults version of the “You OK, Sweetie?” and the same band-aid.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Jennifer, your description of what your sister is going through rings SO true. Small successes followed by frustrating setbacks, surges of hope followed by days in a row of despair. She is blessed to have a loving, listening, praying sister like you.

    Jason, my guess is that your awareness and acceptance of how your parents’ divorce has affected you (and still does) plays a huge part in your own well-being and your own family today. I know, though, that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with when someone you love isn’t there for an important event.

    Cheryl, thanks for saying that. It’s such a difficult topic to discuss, partly because it’s just not pretty or fun, but also because divorce encompasses so many variations and circumstances and realities. There’s no formula for deciding whether to proceed with divorce, and no universal antidote to dealing with the pain. Sharing compassion and being open to talking and listening is the best we can do.

    Trina, in all these months of knowing you on line, I don’t think I ever realized your parents are divorced. It’s hard for me to imagine how much stigma and social ostracism surrounded divorce 30 years ago, considering how much there still is today. There must be so many more resources, counseling, books, support groups and the like now, and much more openness to talking about the topic. Your parents had a lot working against them, and in spite of that you have so much goodness to share.

    Steve, I’m really sorry to hear about your divorce. Since I know at least a bit about your faith and beliefs, I will go out on a limb and add something I didn’t include in this post. I strayed quite far from God during those hardest years—I couldn’t even pray about any of my pain or aimlessness. Sometimes that’s just the way it is. Sometimes it’s even necessary. And even during that time, I believe God was working in me and around me, through it all. I believe you can have great hope in that, for whatever is next.

  • Trina

    For the purposes of discussion/understanding, looking back there was very little in the way of thinking about amicable divorce – or so it seemed. I hadnt a reason to bring it up before, this time your topic turned to talk of others divorce, so it felt appropriate. Thank you for acknowledging the goodness aspect, something I have been honing as I have journeyed through adult life – working on overcoming the negative, and ugly aspects of many parts of life. Still working on that as the path lays out ahead of me. :-) I am grateful there’s always room for improvement and a path ahead on which to practice self improvement. Of course there’s much we dont know about each other yet, looking forward to experiencing the unfolding of knowledge over time.
    [as an aside: I had a tough time adding this here, I deleted it, thought about connecting with you privately, deleted that, and came back here... I can have angst over issues too :-) Anyhow, I decided to leave it here, since you have developed a caring community here, and really decided I had very little to loose, possible much to gain in sharing]

  • http://www.orangeshirtguy.com Dave Thurston

    Hooray for Trina! Connecting with Kristin privately would have possible helped two people, but putting it out there for many of us has caused your helpfulness to increase to at least three (and I’d imagine many, many more). Thank you, I honor (and have been helped) by your decision.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Dave, that’s a great analogy, regarding our desire to “just plain help” and our ability to do so, even in subtle, small ways. Thanks for that, and for all the encouragement you offer here.

    Trina, whatever you’ve been doing to hone your kindness, genuineness and generosity, it’s working! Maybe you should package that, or at the very least become a Life Coach. :) Seriously, though, I am so grateful that you went out on a limb and shared more of your personal story than you have before. I agree with Dave—so many people can be encouraged and opened up by your openness (yet another testament to your others-centeredness). I also want to thank all of you who have made Halfway to Normal a caring, safe place.

    And a followup to Steve: I just wanted to acknowledge that you didn’t, in any way, communicate that you were having any “issues” with God as you walked through the pain of divorce. I completely projected, indirectly, and wanted to share my own experience with that and the ultimate hope. But I don’t want to presume. I’m sorry if it came across wrong in any way!

  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    Thought I’d throw my perspective into the ring:

    As an adult child of divorced parents who did make it work – often at the expense of their own feelings and emotions, I can say that no matter how “great” things might work out in the end, divorce still sucks, plain and simple.

    20+ years later, I would say my family is probably a lot happier now than we were before. And I’ve gotten siblings, extra parents and lots of family as a result. But while we all get along and can occupy space in the same room pleasantly (even willingly), I still don’t think divorce is what my parents would have chosen for our family when they first got married.

    (Note – I don’t think people plan to get divorced; I just think that even though life after divorce worked out for our family, it wasn’t fun getting to that place.)

  • steve

    Thanks for your kind words and sensitivity Kristin. It’s kind of odd – throughout this experience, I’ve not ever been angry at God or felt abandoned by God or had a desire to abandon God myself. Perhaps I should reserve the right to do so at some point in the future, though, eh? :)

  • Trina

    WOW, Kristen. Sometimes people see things in us that we do not see in ourselves… a Life Coach, eh? You know, that rings well. I have been thinking a lot lately about my role online as I have seen many connections that can be made. I have been thinking of it in terms of ‘match maker’ so to speak, though that term has it’s own connotation, and certainly not quite the right ring. Shall keep mulling that one around….Match Maker, Life Coach, hmmm.

  • http://www.orangeshirtguy.com Dave Thurston

    “An escape hatch to a better life.” Even (especially?) if that escape hatch leads you to being happy and satisfied in your own skin, with your own wits, and with finding the love that remains around you.

    I know of but only one of the many reasons that people get divorced. I know of many that have not walked in divorce-shoes and yet provide non-experience-gained words and (worse) judgement.

    It is a Journey: For the Travelers, Godspeed and learn well. For the Watchers, Listen and Love.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    (Sorry friends, for the delay in my response. I’m dropping the ball, here!)

    Meredith, I always appreciate your perspective on your parents’ divorce. This rings very true: “…even though life after divorce worked out for our family, it wasn’t fun getting to that place.” It’s just a refreshingly honest, balanced and realistic way to view a less-than-ideal life circumstance. Thanks.

    Steve, that’s wonderful that you haven’t felt like God has somehow let you down through all of this! And you’re right—it’s always good to reserve the right to feel a bit peeved with God down the road. He seems to take it pretty well. :)

    Trina, you are definitely good at seeing potential connections and finding organic, comfortable ways to nurture them into being. I like the “matchmaker” concept. So many possibilities!

    Dave, I love how you put this: “It is a Journey: For the Travelers, Godspeed and learn well. For the Watchers, Listen and Love.” As you can obviously tell, I’ve had some frustrating experiences with people who broadly share opinions without first getting any real information (let alone experience). Thanks for your sensitivity—always.

  • http://www.sarahealy.com Sara

    Kristen,

    I do a lot of blog reading and I haven’t across a blog post about divorce as good as this one. It’s honest and yet compassionate. I was married for almost 30 years when my husband and I broke up. I was lucky in that my breakup was peaceful for the most part.

    Life transitions happen; we grow and we change. Sometimes we do this with our partners and sometimes we have to leave so we can continue our path in life. I think the worst thing people can do is stay together and be unhappy.

    Also, it’s important for people to realize divorce or any breakup of a serious relationship is like dealing with a death. It’s important to accept that there will be a grief process. Thanks for this excellent post:~)

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Sara, that’s a wonderful thing to have someone say about my writing. Thank you. I am in awe of your groundedness and sense of perspective after a 30-year marriage! You’re absolutely right—there is a post-divorce grief process that must be allowed to run its course. It’s important to understand what’s happening within yourself or a friend or family member who’s going through it. Thanks for sharing some of your story and insight.