By Susan J. Zonnebelt-Smeenge, R.N., Ed.D. and Robert C. DeVries, D.Min., Ph.D.
You’re standing on the courthouse steps, the sound of the gavel still ringing in your ears. You knew this day was coming – perhaps even looking forward to it, but now the divorce is a reality. The heavy gray clouds hanging overhead mirror your sense of uncertainty for the future. The forecast is unknown, but you surely want to find some ray of sunshine in your life to hold on to.
Every divorce is unique, reflecting the particular type of relationship you had in your marriage and the nature of the difficulties that arose between the two of you. No custom made universal formula for starting over is possible, but we would like to suggest six significant things to act on now that your divorce is final.
Grieve Your Loss. Even if you were grieving your marriage for some time because it was in trouble, you need to now accept emotionally what your head already knows – the marriage is over. Your earlier dreams for the two of you growing old together have vanished. The good aspects of the marriage (for surely there were some) are now gone. Grieving the loss involves an expression of all the emotions you may be feeling. Keeping them bottled up will only create havoc in your life. Find healthy and appropriate ways to express your sadness, anger, relief, guilt, and any other emotion you may be experiencing.
Forgive Yourself. Playing the blame game doesn’t help you heal. Instead of only looking at what the other person has done wrong, look inside yourself as well. One of the first steps in healing is to identify, accept, and then forgive all those factors that were under your control or influence that led to the breakdown of the marriage. Of course, it takes two people to make a marriage healthy, so rarely is the breakdown caused only by one of the parties. Once you have identified the negatives you contributed, write a letter to yourself naming them and specifically forgiving yourself for them.
Accept God’s Grace. Forgiving yourself comes easier if you have some sense that God (in whatever religious or spiritual framework you function) has been gracious and forgiving to you. Spiritual confession and acceptance of God’s grace empowers you to forgive yourself and move on toward your new life as a single individual.
Redefine Yourself. Now the question is: “Who in the world am I?” If you haven’t already, begin to journal and identify how you would describe yourself before and during your marriage. Ask yourself what are your strengths, interests, and goals. List what you see for yourself to be both the advantages and disadvantages of being single. For some people, being single is a conscious decision of a permanent status as it frees one from being accountable to another person, gives more time for self-care and pursuing one’s own interests, and simplifies both the ownership of your assets and your relationship with your children as you now can parent in your own style without interference. It also frees you from having to deal with your partner’s family of origin. A bonus may be the realization you won’t become widowed or divorced again. Redefining yourself also means embracing the reality that you are a whole person in your own right. One is a whole number you know – not half of anything, and you don’t need another person in your life. That doesn’t eliminate the thought and desire that some people may want to eventually get into another relationship.
Redefine Your Relationship With Others. Divorce doesn’t affect only the married couple who are now ending their relationship, other family members and friends are also impacted by this decision. Some may align themselves with you over against your former spouse, but others may support only your ex-spouse. Still others might attempt to balance their allegiance between the two of you, at least for a while. Losing friends and family over a divorce hurts. Grieve those losses, but then also realize you now have an opportunity to discover a number of new friends. Engage in the activities you most enjoy. Learn to be comfortable with yourself, which means that you can dine at a nice restaurant alone, travel by yourself, and enjoy other leisure time activities. In the process of doing these things, you will undoubtedly meet others who share your same interests. You should know that in the U.S., fifty percent of adults over the age of 21 are single – there is a whole new world out there to be explored.
Set Your Direction. Be intentional about your future by learning from your past. Do a thorough assessment of who you were before you were married, what you were while you were married, what you have learned from those phases of your life, and now maximize your strong points and look down the road setting goals for the next year or even the next five years. What qualities or characteristics do you want to enhance in your life? Do you want more education, better job training, different friends, and deeper spiritual life? Once you have identified your goals (and written them in your journal), think about specific things you can begin to do right now that will lead you in the direction of those goals. Doing that, you have then embarked on a journey toward establishing a “new normal.”
As you begin walking down the steps of the courthouse – you are taking your first steps toward a new life. The journey may be long and sometimes difficult. But with time and work you can make it through your present sense of grief and confusion, push the gray clouds away, and begin to enjoy the rays of sunlight appearing in your new life.
Susan J. Zonnebelt-Smeenge is a licensed clinical psychologist who recently retired from the outpatient therapy department at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. Robert C. DeVries served as Professor of Church Education at Calvin Theological Seminary for twenty-eight years until his retirement. Bob and Susan met following the death of their respective spouses and became professional colleagues. They eventually married each other and now travel extensively and speak widely on dying, grief and bereavement.
They are the authors of From We to Me: Embracing Life Again After the Death or Divorce of a Spouse (2010 Baker Books, Grand Rapids) that deals with both the mental health and spiritual issues of re-building one=s life following the end of a marriage by either the death or divorce of a spouse.
They have also written three books on grief and bereavement (Getting to the Other Side of Grief: Overcoming the Loss of a Spouse, The Empty Chair: Handling Grief on Holidays and Special Occasions, and Traveling Through Grief: Learning to Live Again After the Death of a Loved One. They have also written one book on the process of dying, Living Fully in the Shadow of Death: Assurance and Guidance to Finish Well.
You are invited to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss this article or to inquire about their speaking, training, and consultation services.
CC Photo by fantabandfrugal on Flickr