I have recently become acquainted with more and more women whose hearts have been painfully shattered post-divorce.
However, what I find most interesting is that these strong, beautiful, accomplished and generally amazing women are not falling to pieces over the loss of their ex-husband. They are losing their hearts and minds over a relationship with “The One” who came after their ex.
I should know. I had one of those relationships. And for those who have been in this situation and are currently in a quagmire of despair post-relationship, I hope my story of recovery can ease your pain and give you hope that things can get better. In fact, things can become amazing.
If you’re newly divorced, you might even be able to bypass the pain of “the post-divorce relationship” that is supposed to work and head straight into the healthy relationship that actually works.
I met the man I thought was “The One” two years after consciously uncoupling from my husband and getting into a rhythm of effective co-parenting. (FYI: This was years before Gwyneth Paltrow made conscious uncoupling the cool thing to do.)
After two years of dating ever so slightly, I felt ready to fully give my heart to someone. I didn’t feel like I would be carrying baggage from my marriage into a new relationship. But let’s be honest, who actually admits to their baggage when a relationship prospect presents themselves?
Despite the lack of drama in my divorce, I now realize how unprepared I was to hand over my heart and soul to someone who turned out to be even less prepared to handle a committed relationship than I was.
I spent four years with the post-divorce man—four years riddled with pain. There were, of course, good moments that kept me committed and hopeful, but those were inevitably canceled out by all the bad moments. To reference John Gottman’s Emotional Bank Account theory, our relationship bank account balance was consistently at zero or overdrawn.
The pain was amplified by the fact that I overlooked the numerous red flags that pointed to him having Narcissistic Personality Disorder, including this hard-to-miss red flag—in the first two months of our relationship, he said, “I’m a narcissist.”
Those who have been there understand that trying to have a relationship with a narcissist is like playing with a propane-filled balloon near a fire. You may feel an illusion of safety for a while, but eventually it blows up in your face. And it will hurt, badly.
(The Internet has virtual reams of information on NPD, including these articles on elephant journal, so I won’t rehash this dynamic further.)
Eventually, we reached the blowing up point, but by that time I had already been burned so much that it didn’t even hurt. After one particularly sorrowful night, I decided that rather than invest a minute more into this less-than relationship, rather than spending any more time trying to figure what he was (or wasn’t) doing or saying, I was finally going to invest my energy into my children and, most importantly, me—the person I had forgotten about all these years.
And so I asked him to leave. He never returned and unlike the past two times, I didn’t go back to him. I drew a line in the sand and told myself this was never happening to me again.
That’s when the most painful relationship of my life became the game-changer that would lead me to the best relationship of my life.
I’m talking about the relationship with myself.
It wasn’t until I left the relationship for the last time that I had the courage to take a good look at why I failed to both see and walk away from all the red flags that presented themselves from the start; as well as why I allowed myself to endure so much emotional suffering and abuse for so many years.
I may not have had conscious baggage from my marriage, but I had trunk-loads of old beliefs about love and relationships from my childhood that I hadn’t ever unpacked. And issues I didn’t even know I had.
And so I started unpacking, found more trunks and unpacked some more. I got dirty. I got upset. But I also got clear on why I attracted this particular man, as well as clear on how I “did” relationships with men, my parents and people in general. The discoveries weren’t pretty.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
I learned that I so desperately wanted to feel loved post-divorce that I compromised my true desire for a healthy relationship in order to have any relationship.
I learned that I felt unworthy of the relationship of my dreams, as well as many other good things and feelings in life. I was busy helping others fulfill their dreams and ignoring my own.
I learned that I had longed to feel unconditionally loved and worthy since childhood. Not having received this feeling from my parents, the adult me looked to men to do the job. Of course, it didn’t work before, during or after my marriage. Each relationship got more and more painful until I finally got the hint that other people couldn’t make me feel loved and worthy.
I learned that I had learned precious little about healthy love and relationships, and much about dysfunctional relationships, from my parents’ more than 45 year marriage. I unconsciously followed their example in both my marriage and post-divorce relationship, with less-than stellar results.
But wait, there’s more! And this is where it got real for me:
I accused my ex-partner of not loving himself. I think we’ve established the irony of that remark.
I accused him of wanting a mother. In truth, I wanted someone to mother so that I could feel needed. It was how I interacted with many people in my life.
I accused him of being emotionally cut off. But I was deathly afraid of the pain of failing at a relationship again.
I realized that no man or other person, substance, animal, vegetable or mineral can ever love me better than I can love myself (although a pet’s love can come close).
I realized that I am the solution. Giving myself the love I crave is the key to satisfying what I was previously trying to get out of relationships.
No matter how many months or years post-divorce, it’s important for us to take focused, solitary time—outside of a relationship with another person—for self-examination, specifically in regards to conscious and unconscious relationship patters. Preparing for the healthy and loving relationship we want involves accepting that nobody is going to absolve us of the responsibility of making ourselves feel loved and worthy of love.
A year after the breakup, and lots more emotional unpacking, I can honestly say that my painful relationship experience was a reflection of how I felt about myself post-divorce. As a 40-year-old mother who isn’t getting any younger, I was scared that there would be nobody left for me.
So I clung, until I let go. And I learned that I am still here for me. And this relationship with myself isn’t just supposed to work, it actually can work.
Like my past relationships, my next relationship will reflect the level of love I have for myself. Right now, that level is higher than it has ever been in my life, and getting infinitely higher.
Love heals. Self-love really heals.
Author: Belinda Kan
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Image: Yağmur Adam/Flickr