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Getting divorced? A good divorce may not necessarily make you happy (right away), or feel peaceful or amicable. But here are the stages you’ll go through, don’t worry: it’s healthy.
First, having a good divorce is absolutely and entirely possible. Second, it is unilateral—meaning that you might have a good one and your partner may not. And third, a good divorce almost never looks the way you think it will. It will likely be much harder than you imagine and also far better than you could ever have possibly dreamed.
A good divorce, in this sense, is like a good summit to Mount Everest. It’s not going to be easy but, when done well, divorce will change your life forever.
When we move into separation and divorce we are confronted with stages, which actually most closely mirror the stages of death and re-birth. That might sound morbid or pessimistic, but the reality is that, of course, divorce is a death. It is the death of not just our close relationship (which probably died a while ago or you wouldn’t be getting a divorce in the first place) but also of the dreams, hopes, plans, expectations, image, friendships, financial realities, home, security, resources, life-style, as well as having an impact on our children, family, friends and community.
When we leave a long-term relationship we step into the unknown, and it can be helpful to see a map before we set out on that journey—even as the journey itself is always unique, adventurous and surprising.
A good divorce is not necessarily one that makes you happy, is peaceful or even amicable. It is not necessarily one that people in your life will understand or approve of. It’s not even one that ensures that your children will have better lives, as much as we bring care to all of these things.
Instead, a good divorce is one that transforms you into a person who is greater, kinder, wiser, softer and more able to stand in your own unique integrity. It is one that becomes a catalyst for you to become more than you have ever known yourself to be.
I remember my now ex-husband asking me, “Why do you think that leaving me will make you happier?” and my replying with clarity and certainty, “I don’t. I just know that this is what I need to do.” There is no way that even I, myself, could argue with it because it wasn’t about seeking a new or better outcome. It was about acknowledging and living into my own being, my own truth, and that is simply non-negotiable.
Everyone has a different experience, but here are the stages that I consistently see people go through and how to turn a difficult, painful or scary divorce into a good one.
Stage One: Agonizing Over Whether or Not to Leave Your Partner.
Typically the first stage is the longest. It is the period of deciding whether or not to leave, or perhaps your partner is doing the agonizing for both of you.
I call it “agonizing,” because if you are in this stage then you know that you need to at least consider leaving, and you are probably looking for any way to save the relationship. You work on yourself, you get into therapy, you wonder whether it is somehow your fault, you try harder, you set boundaries, you have a trial separation, you make suggestions to your partner, you put up with things that don’t feel right to you—you do everything that you can think of.
A good divorce at this stage is acknowledging that you are willing to do whatever it takes to make this work. This process highlights that you are, quite simply, a good person. I have had many clients who gave every chance to their relationships, even when infidelity, addiction, or abuse was in the mix. Their integrity dictated that they do everything possible, and they did. The point is not that you have to turn over every stone, but rather that you find, listen to and follow your own integrity in this agonizing stage. Some people need to know that they did everything they possibly could. Some need to know they got out the moment they saw the smoking gun. There is no right or wrong way to do it.
This stage can take on a variety of forms. It might look like reducing conflict, or even increasing it (if you have been conflict-avoidant), giving your partner more space, becoming more attentive, becoming more confrontational, seeking therapy, doing workshops, researching, being bolder, or even allowing outside relationships.
The point at this stage is to move into being of service to our actual relationship rather than our idealized one, and we are giving it everything we’ve got. We can learn a tremendous amount about ourselves here, and it is a stage that can last from months to decades.
There is a huge amount of generosity and integrity possible here. Whether we stay or we don’t, we know that we have done everything we can and in the process we also begin to find our own moral compass, one that includes ourselves along with others, and can also face some hard truths.
Stage Two: Committing to Leaving Your Partner.
This stage is often precipitous, sudden and deadly clear. Something happens, and for whatever reason there is a definitive moment. We just know that it is over.
This is what my moment looked like: my husband got stressed one night driving home and put our two young children out on an unlit road that was miles from our house and drove away. Once I rescued them and consoled my hysterical daughters, my thought was crystal clear: “It’s not whether to leave now, but how.”
Maybe your partner has told one too many lies, or had one too many infidelities. Maybe you get shocking news. Maybe you are just done with feeling dead, unseen, unfulfilled and unappreciated and something just pops. Maybe your partner hurts someone else in a way that shows you just what you have been ignoring. Maybe you meet someone who shows you what a positive relationship could be like. Maybe your partner utters the words first, “I want a divorce,” and you know inside that you agree. Maybe it’s a light bulb that turns on for no reason at all and you don’t even know how you know, but it’s over.
At some point that moment comes and it’s usually all at once. It may even surprise you.
How is this part of a good divorce? This is the point where we have the opportunity to recognize who we are and who our partner is, very separately. We can look beyond judgment and just love that they are who they are while at the same time recognizing that it is not right for us.
The temptation at this stage is to search for blame. The temptation is to believe that either we did something terribly wrong or they did. We know now that we need to leave for good so, we reason, someone must be at fault.
For me this stage of my good divorce was actually a very quiet one. Something settled in me that, without judgment, I suddenly accepted the reality of the situation and stopped trying to make it be different, even as I realized that that was the kiss of death. From here, I could care about him and also care about our kids and myself. From here, it was clear that it was time to leave. Done.
There is what I might call a “knowing quality” to this stage that is actually quite peaceful. We trust ourselves and then we step fully into our own lives, and also into the unknown.
Perhaps your relationship has gone as far as it can, and you feel grateful for how much it has given you. Perhaps your partner has lied to and manipulated you, and you are grateful to finally face a bleak truth and turn toward causing less harm to yourself and them by ending a destructive relationship. Perhaps you realize that there is nothing wrong at all—you just have different value systems or desires, and you wish them well on their new journey as you embrace your own.
Stage Three: Confusion, Loss and Grief When You’re Going through a Divorce.
This period is usually intermittent, lasting longer than we would have thought, but also interspersed with tremendous vibrancy and delight—like we are coming back to life.
I wish I could skip this one, but I would be negligent if I did. When we divorce we lose our primary relationship. We are often blamed for it as well (or at least fear that we will be judged and also sometimes blame ourselves). We lose our vision, dreams and investment, and also face the grief visited upon our children, family and friends that our separation causes. Our friendships and connections often change dramatically or drop off altogether. We feel cast out of our own lives.
So what is good about confusion, loss and grief?
It brings up all the other losses of our lives that have been waiting to be met. Our divorce is inadvertently going to connect us to our mother’s depression, our father’s rage, our own parents’ divorce, or the death of someone we loved, along with any other period in our lives where we lost something that we held dear, or felt cast out, hurt or unmet.
These are feelings long wanting to be felt and cared for. Maybe you know the relief and abandon of having a long, good, honest cry. It’s like that.
My own experience surprised me when it surfaced at a workshop with African teacher, Malidoma Somé. He invited us to have a traditional group ceremony where anything that needed to be grieved could come forth and through us. I remember that we actively invited it in, and he warned us that if we chose to ask for it then we had to be prepared for the spirit to move through us.
I felt clear about my recent separation and did not expect anything to happen. As I followed his instruction, however—inviting in any grief wanting to be felt—I was overcome with thoughts, images, memories and feelings of everything that I had loved and appreciated about my partner, everything I had wanted, imagined, experienced and worked for: traveling together, the birth of our two babies; our first fixer-upper home; building his business; thousands of meals, experiences and inside jokes; and the list just went on and on.
With each memory, I grieved and sobbed uncontrollably. Then I felt hands gently touching my back holding me, supporting me as I became a conduit of not just my own grief but that of our whole tribe. After perhaps an hour it was done, and when it was done it was simply finished. I was all cried out and the long forgotten feelings—some mine, some ancestral, some just the human condition—were finally met.
This period of grief is almost always longer than we expect but, again, it is also intermittent. We are fine for a long while, even free and ecstatic, and then it ambushes us all at once and we are lost at sea. I would give this stage at least 5 to 10 years, seriously. In the process you will meet and heal so much of yourself and likely come to see that your marriage was, in part, an outpost of hiding from that very thing.
Stage Four: Magic and A New Life after Divorce.
This stage is ongoing. It’s like being born into a whole new universe and a whole new self.
Here is your rebirth, and if you knew how good it was you would never have agonized for so long.
I remember saying to a friend many years ago, “If you decide to leave, you will be protected.” I hardly knew myself what I meant at the time, but when we step into new territory miraculous things start happening.
People show up whom we haven’t noticed before. Those who have gone through separation and divorce welcome us like midwives and dear friends into our new life. Coincidences happen that seem to make no sense but lead us into new ways of being. We reengage and find aspects of ourselves that we love but had forgotten—art, music, sports, philosophy, friends, food, travel, and the list goes on. We come to know ourselves again, in a way that we had lost for so long.
Our life starts to come back to us, and sometimes we just grieve and delight, grieve and delight, because we simply didn’t realize how much we had given up and how longingly the world has been waiting for us.
On a practical level, having a good divorce is about taking yourself on. It’s holding your own hand and saying, “Yes, this is a new adventure, and I am going to do it well and honestly and as kindly as I can—and I am going to let it change me.” You will also meet new friends, new ideas and new experiences that will give you more love and support than you even knew was possible.
Your partner may take a different route, or perhaps choose a good divorce as well. That is up to them. This is your new life, and their choices are their own—just as they always have been.
Your fulfillment depends on just two things: your burgeoning authenticity, together with embracing the entire, new world that you are about to enter.
Get the book that talks about Love: Things I would like to do with You.