It’s been said that how you’re married is how you’ll divorce. In my experience, the right ingredients and cooking methods can make a tough time a little easier.
Gather the Ingredients
Typically, couples start the slow decline into marital entropy for about two years leading up to the main entree. Difficult to stop once the inertia kicks in, each partner collects evidence of purposeful wounds, thoughtlessness, and incompatibility. The other grass starts to look very green. But don’t fall for this lush illusion. Life after divorce is bumpy for a long time. Many are convinced they know how it will go. Proclamations of, “I’ll file for full custody of my kids!” and, “I will be so cold towards him; he’ll finally see that I made his life easier!” resound in my private practice office.
After my own divorce, one of the best pieces of advice I received came from a supportive friend. After once again lamenting about how I wanted to call my ex-wife and tell her how much she’d hurt me with some careless action she’d done, my friend said, “She won’t care. She didn’t care when you were married and she has even less incentive to care now.” It was then that the lightning bolt hit me; I was at a dry well. We return, over and over, to the ‘dry well’ hoping maybe this time, there will be some water, a healing experience. This phenomena is not unique to divorce; it happens in all types of relationships. It can also take the form of hitting your head against the brick wall. You know it’s there, it hurts, and you’re bloodied. But you can’t stop until you do.
Crazy Side Dish Pairings!
Fresh on the dating scene, the divorceé may throw herself into self improvement. Upgraded hair style and clothes reflect a vigor for redesigning life. For some, online dating and bars bring about a second adolescence. After a breakup, if you can’t hold the crazy in, you might as well let it socialize with others. Bemoaning my best friend, my crazy said I was going to be alone for the rest of my life – just like my grandmother and mother. As I was a mere 40, he advised me to hold off worrying about that for a few more years.
I preferred the benefits of coupledom to singlehood. And so my shaky exploration of love began. At first, seeking all that I believed I’d been missing, I made a list of opposites of my ex as a guide. My rebound relationship fit the bill. Filling in the hollowed bits of me, my hope renewed. I had forgotten one item on my grocery list of characteristics: Did Not Abuse Alcohol. Unfortunately, missing this ingredient ruins the final product. You’d think a clinical psychologist with an expertise in addictions would know better. Alas, after a few tries, the recipe was filed away. Another divorce lesson learned.
Let It Simmer
Between my personal and professional lives, I’ve had a front seat to a lot of marriages on the brink. After the final split, individuals tend to fall into two categories: managers and processors. Managers keep their head above water, riding the trade winds of emotional denial eyes peeled for a suitable replacement for the former spouse. They tend to pair up with another person quickly, seemingly unaffected by the divorce and happily moving on. Processors, on the other hand, are devastated. They dive deep into the grief of their lost lives, crawling on their hands and knees through the pain. Friends worry about the profound changes evident in their harrowed faces.
For the two to five years following a breakup, the trajectory of managers and processors is quite different. Managers are very happy for a time, finding a renewed lust for life as they are finally getting everything they had to suppress during the marriage. Around the two year mark, things start to change. What was once new and shiny about their lives takes on the same dull tinge. Efforts to avoid this, with purchases, moves, and job changes, only delay the inevitable. Life eventually puts them roughly where the processors begin – leaving a big lump of grief in their laps.
Processors start chipping away at grief from the start. They can’t help it. Like a roadside bomb, divorce sneaks in and blows up all the safe places. Some pieces are lost forever and familiar fragments of your life are out of order. Almost every element is tossed up like a stir fry, unseating your place at the table. Day by day, processors stumble through, studying each piece anew and spackling the cracks. Grief makes both managers and processors feel lost, deep underwater and this pain makes the legs kick. Processors start sooner and by the two year mark, they start breathing air. Between three to five years, the sun comes out. This is when the grief is settling in for managers.
In the first two years after my own split, I “tried a lot of new recipes,” so to speak. Nibbling new cuisines is exhilarating then exhausting. Presenting my own dish with a fresh sprig of rosemary, only to be consumed in one bite left jagged tooth marks on my psyche. My private cooking course was coming to a natural end. I was tired, disillusioned, and becoming ready to sit with my own solitude. But I had one more go in me. Rallying my sous chef, I stepped into the kitchen for one last, complicated dish. This time, I caught the glean of the blade before it cut my finger but I still bled all over the cutting board. Lucky girl.
For my final dish in this course, my challenge was to bring my whole self. In this particular recipe, I’d found an echo from my marriage because frankly, wherever you go, there you are. The person I’d become involved with was fascinated with my mind and personality while turning my body against me. ‘Who I was’ was attractive but how I appeared was unappealing. He wanted the whole meal and the meat was rotten; the problem was me.
I recognized this setup. Letting this continue, I would have tacitly agreed that I owed him one for tolerating my body. We all have choices in what we create. Feeling through grief refines priorities and the product of pain is a greater perspective. If nothing else, it says, “I don’t want to go through it that way again.” I didn’t yet know how to be loved for my full self but I knew I couldn’t be split again. I held on to myself. I held on tight.
All of my exploits and experiments had been fostering revolution in me. But I was weary of this fight or flight and ready to surrender. One night, I set down my spoons and spatulas, cleaned up the whisk, and set the pots and pans out to dry. I couldn’t keep cooking but I didn’t know what was next. Wisdom says when one is lost, consult a map for clues. During transitions, I turn to research to find my way. That night, I was too washed out to think. I made it easy on myself and created a Pinterest board to collect my thoughts. You can see it here: Evolution.
Without censor, I found my center by collecting what I was feeling. Searching words that resonated, I saved quotes, pictures, and the like that spoke to me. I worked backwards from what I wanted to feel and plotted a course. Brick walls my head had once hit lined the new route, reminding me of paths already taken. One of my favorite quotes from this time comes from the book, “Fall with Me”:
I paired this line with hope that I was walking towards something exceptional. Peripheral vision slowly turned my tunnel vision wobble to a confident ramble. I became protective of the peaceful state inside my head, a touchstone forged in badlands. Reading more, finding pleasurable solitary activities and enjoying my own company, I connected with myself. I spent quality time with friends talking about philosophy and meaning. I let new things be possible by fostering curiosity. My surrender that night turned into a new resolve and set a high romantic standard. To give up my hard-won solitude, I must decidedly prefer another’s company over my own. No longer would I bend out of recognition to myself. I was ready to be with myself.