A Guide to Navigate Divorce & Create Dream Future

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I remember the day my ex-husband, father of my kids, told me he wanted a divorce. To say I was instantly devastated feels like the understatement of the century. We had two young children one was actually on the way at the time, and I was a teacher, so I remember immediately telling myself, 

“You cannot do this. You cannot survive with two little kids on a teacher’s salary. This is not how my fairytale life is supposed to be.”

We had our fair share of issues, tried therapy, but it wasn’t enough.  I remember wanting to be mad but at that moment we both agreed that because we had two kids, this wasn’t their fault, they deserved to have the best divorced parents scenario.  

I’m not going to pretend like it didn’t have it’s moments, because it absolutely did but we managed our entire divorce process without yelling, arguing, and had everything settled long before an attorney or judge was involved. 

Full disclosure I didn’t do it for him but for our kids and myself. I do not show up in this blog with some magic advice nor can what worked for me work for everyone. There was no abuse, violence, or anything like that on my end, and I realize not everyone is so lucky. 

What’s at stake…

 

There are different models of the biggest life stressors but all of them share divorce as one of the greatest stressors a person can go through in their lifetime. Multiple studies have shown that going through a divorce can increase rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, suicide, and parental stress especially in the first year during and after the divorce. 

Divorce can be varied and complex which can only exacerbate the stress. It can impact your sleep, self-esteem, physical health, increase financial stress, and increase children’s stress levels.  

Stress

Our bodies are naturally wired to use stress as a survival mechanism. Imagine you see a fire in your home. Your body is wired to turn on the alarm, a physiological response, to high-tail it out of the fire into safety. Your brain automatically shuts off all non-essential functions and goes into survival mode. After you are safe, your stress alarm turns off, your parasympathetic goes into restorative mode, and you go about your life. 

When we have chronic ongoing stress, that alarm never gets to go off, so your body continues to release stress hormones, namely cortisol. Over time, cortisol can wreak havoc on your body, increasing your likelihood of heart disease, cancer, digestive issues, memory problems, and substance abuse, just to name a few.  A more significant issue is the chronic stress you’re facing today isn’t just impacting you tomorrow. The impact on your body can be felt decades later when it’s too late to go back and reduce that stress to preserve your health. 

After working with hundreds of people over my career, divorce continues to be one of the most pervasive situations people coming to me for mentorship and learning are struggling to work through. My hope in this article is to bequeath a little holistic, evidence-based wisdom to you to minimize the impact stress will have on you now and in the future as a result of your divorce now.

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The brain has higher activation under stress. Photo from (Bruna Portes et al, 2019)

Words of Wisdom

 

I have some specific steps and exercises for you to work through to help get you on the path for healing, but first I thought I would share a few words of advice as someone that has been the child of a divorce, walked through a divorce myself, and worked with many people that are also struggling with a divorce. 

1. You get to feel what you feel. Part One.

No two divorces are exactly the same nor are the people going through them. As you proceed through a divorce sometimes people don’t know what to say or they say something that they think is helpful like, “You’ll be fine. Just start moving on. For the sake of your kids don’t show emotion.” While they may be well-intentioned at the end of the day you are the only person going through your divorce in your shoes, so you get to feel however the hell you want to feel. A divorce is a grieving experience for what you wanted to have and a significant life change to orchestrate.  You may find that one day you feel one emotion and the next you feel another.  However you feel is perfectly correct for you. 

2. You get to feel what you feel. Part Two.

A few months after we started our separation, I was at my obstetrician for my regular check up. He asked how I was and I started crying. I explained everything that was happening and that I couldn’t stop crying. He told me he was going to prescribe an anti-depressant because my emotions were making it hard for me to function successfully and the stress could impact not just my child inutero but both of my kids. 

I cried my way through a thank you and the next day started my new med. Within a few days, I stopped crying and was able to not only be functional but started to be hopeful and possibly excited for my own new chapter. 

I share this because you do not have to suffer through the pain. You do not win a medal if you “push through it” while being absolutely miserable. You absolutely get to feel whatever you feel, but you also deserve to be happy, healthy, and to start to heal and thrive.

Lean into your support system and do not be afraid to ask for help. If you feel like you are in a crisis, dial 988. They do not just support people fully suicidal, they support people at any stage along the way. So if you are thinking about harming yourself or anyone else definitely please call.

I also refer people to Psychology Today to look up therapists. Typically it shows a picture, their specialties and other background information to help you make a choice. If you are a parent there is not a better skill and strength to model to your children then asking for help when you need it. 

3. Make time for yourself.

I know this sounds cliché and like an impossible feat when you already have so many plates spinning on a good day but now with a divorce in the mix. Yet it’s really important and let me tell you why.  

Unfortunately, when we go through a divorce, most of us do not have the luxury of halting all of our previous obligations like our jobs, bills, if we have kids- raising them, and all of the other commitments relying on us.  That said, we are human and can only handle so much.  

Think of yourself as a bottle of soda (or pop depending on where you grew up) and then think of your stress as shaking the bottle. On most days we give that bottle a good shake at least a few times throughout the day. Some days we get lucky and there are fewer shakes. Adding a divorce into the mix is like putting that bottle of soda into the paint shaking machine at the paint store. Your bottle of soda is being constantly shaken with stress. 

Remember we talked earlier about the impact of stress on your body, so you are going to need to be very intentional in countering that stress impact to minimize damage to your body now and in the future.  If you do not actively try to reduce that stress your bottle will eventually hit its breaking point and explode. Trust me you do not want that.

One way to take your bottle of soda out of the paint  shaker is to be intentionally making time for yourself every. single. Day. I’m not asking you to carve out three hours a day but when you can I definitely would.  Even five minutes a day to do something that brings you joy is going to be imperative to allow your brain to decompress and work towards reregulating your nervous system. 

I recommend that you plan ahead of time when you are making this time and what you are doing because if your plan is to crash on the couch every night and drown yourself in sorrows with a six pack that actually will only shake your bottle of soda more.  The goal is that you are giving yourself time as an escape from your situation to pour into you. 

Incidentally, alcohol is a depressant so while you may feel numb at the moment the next day may feel worse which is why we start to see addictions take shape because in order to feel okay we self-medicate with substances regularly. 

Instead, I would recommend spending time with family and friends. They are not only an amazing uplifting distraction, laughing is excellent medicine for increasing serotonin.  Other suggestions are forcing yourself to go on a walk even if it’s just around the block, meditating, enjoy a hobby, put together a puzzle, read a book, journal, go on a road trip, go to a movie/theater/festival/concert, remember you’re choosing whatever brings you joy. Here are some resources.

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4. Mindfulness versus the UFC of Life

I think of divorce as the UFC of life sometimes. Two people in a ring with very few rules. I think if you want to see the worst of someone watch them during a divorce. It doesn’t mean that all people that go through divorces show their worst sides but sometimes these once in love people morph into someone they don’t even recognize.  

We have different parts of our brain that develop as we age starting from back working the way to the front.  Some of the last parts of our brains to fully develop are the prefrontal cortex typically in our mid-20s. 

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for rational decision making, good judgment, and other critical executive functioning. A divorce is traumatic so your brain automatically goes into survival mode using the back of your brain throwing some of your best judgment and decision-making out the window.  

The only way to get your prefrontal cortex out of survival mode is to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, the part that helps calm the body and allow your prefrontal cortex to activate again. 

Some of the best evidence-based ways to do that are through mindfulness such as deep breathing, meditation, or moving your body (yoga, running, a brisk walk). Mindfulness is being more aware of yourself, your emotions which ultimately helps you in regulating your whole self.

This holds true for your ex as well.  The more either of you goes into survival mode the less likely you will be able to execute rational judgment and decision making. Consider embedding these strategies in your routine and before any tough moments.

5. You are going to be okay.

Divorce is scary for a lot of reasons. You may be wondering how you will financially make it or feeling like at whatever age you are it will be hard to date again.  The reality is that you will adapt and make it work.  

The biggest secret to your success will be your support network. Make sure you carefully choose people to be in your closest circle that can listen non-judgmentally but are willing to support you unconditionally. 

They are the ones that you trust to say that you have no food in the house or you need someone to watch the kids and you know that they will be there for you every time. They don’t judge your situation, instead do everything they can to elevate you.

These are your people and your people will help you find the things you need and be ready to catch you when you fall. 

6. When kids are involved

I remember being positive that our divorce was going to destroy our children forever. Some of the best advice I ever received was:

“The kids will handle it as well as the parents so if you both co-parent and seek to do what’s best for your kids they will be fine. If you are committed to being angry, hating their other parent, talking bad about them to your child, your child will know and then you run the risk of destroying them and their ability to have a happy, healthy, and functional life.”

That one hit me hard, because it was a strong reminder of how critical it was that I was very mindful of how I proceeded.  Divorce is considered a trauma for all involved but how the adults behave impacts the extent of potential damage as well as opportunities for healing. 

I have seen too many divorced parents over the years still holding onto the anger, resentment, and continue to openly try to manipulate each other, even years later, with their child having a front row seat. 

That anger doesn’t bring your ex suffering it brings you suffering. Holding onto it weighs you down and limits your ability to open yourself to find joy and happiness again. Acknowledge and thank your emotions for trying to protect you but then also say goodbye to them because they are not serving you well. If it isn’t elevating your life, you don’t need it. 

As a teacher, I can say with 100% certainty that while you may not be able to see the damage physically you are doing to your child the emotional scars are long lasting. I see it in how they relate to each other, how they parrot what you’ve said to or about the other parent in their own social conversations, how they respond to stress, and how they address conflict resolution. 

The statistics on children with divorced parents isn’t rosy but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Children of divorced parents are 20-30% more likely to have mental health issues and have an increased likelihood for academic issues, aggression, and future relationship issues. The odds significantly rise with parents that have not dealt with their own emotions independently of their children and actively work to co-parent without the anger and negative emotions.

Start redesigning your life and creating your dream future

 

  1. Pay attention to how you’re feeling and what you need. You do not win a medal for trying to numb yourself or push through if you’re struggling. Consider what data you have access to that can paint an accurate picture of how you’re doing (your phone is a wealth of data like screen time, steps, or even doctor’s visits or comments from friends). Get help if you need it. 
  2. Let go of what isn’t serving you. Spend an evening with a journal and yourself and make a list of everything that isn’t serving you. If it isn’t helping you to thrive then add it to the list.  Then once you have your list decide which of those you can control. As much as we all wish we could control others thoughts and actions sometimes, you cannot so focus on the things you have control over.  Once you have that list I want you to write it on a sheet of paper and burn it.  You do not need it anymore so it’s time to get rid of it. 
  3. Reclaim your identity. While a divorce can be painful and stressful it is also an opportunity to start a new chapter where you get to be the main character again. Keep sight of who you are at your core and who you want to be.  Reflecting on your past and understanding how you’ve developed the habits and patterns you currently have will help you plan your next steps for living the life you deserve. If you do not already have a journal, I highly recommend getting one or using one on your phone. It’s a great opportunity to reflect, vent, and have gratitude for how amazing you are.
  4. Self-discovery with evidence-based practices. Take time and try new things you may have never done to see what works for you. Pay attention to evidence-based practices versus what someone told you to do on social media. Some strong starters are meditation, journaling, moving your body, gratitude, and deep breathing.
  5. Envision your ideal life. Remember how a few steps ago you reflected on your identity, your past, who you are, well now it’s time to really start to build your future. In your journal or use a vision board, and include as many details as you can think of for how you want your ideal life to look.  Who is in it? What are you doing? Hang this on your mirror as a daily reminder where you are headed. 
  6. Give yourself a lot of grace. One of the biggest things you need right now is to have a lot of grace with yourself. You are going through a lot right now so I want you to be intentionally gentle with yourself.  In your journal, make a list of everything you are so grateful for yourself for. I want you to keep this list handy so when you get frustrated or down on yourself you have this reminder that you’re actually pretty amazing. 
  7. Execute boundaries in every area of your life. This one is hard but important. In your journal (maybe using the list of things you need to let go of) decide which of these you can address with stronger boundaries. Before you go down a rabbit hole of worrying if it will offend your friend or family if you ask for time or your employer if you don’t work 80 hour weeks, remember this is your life and you only get one shot at it. Going through a divorce is a trauma similar to if your body was going through a large medical event. You need to make sure that you set up lanes of what you need and explicitly and unapologetically communicate them to others.
  8. Lean into your social support. Be very careful and wise with who you allow into your close circle of support. Make sure you choose those that consistently elevate you and are champions of all things you. It is a sign of strength to ask for help and get professional help when you need it. If you even remotely think you need it, talk to someone.
  9. Nourish yourself consistently. Your body is like a garden, so you cannot just plant the seed and walk away. Instead, you need to consistently show up for yourself to evaluate what you need and then make sure you give it to yourself.  Your body and mind need your vigilance. 

A divorce is undoubtedly one of the hardest things you will ever do but you have to remember that you were amazing before you were married and you will be amazing after. You have the strength, skills, and support to navigate tough times but make sure you ask for help when you need it. Be intentional in starting and celebrating your next chapter because the possibilities and opportunities are endless to actually create a life you have only dreamt about having. 

 

Interested in learning more about yourself and how to unlock the best parts of yourself again or know someone that would appreciate you sharing this? I’m ready to help.

Take the free “Which Emotion Do I Lead With?”quiz and get started with the Redesigning Your Life: How to Navigate Divorce and Create Your Dream Future Bootcamp!

Picture of Jennifer Ulie, Ph.D.

Jennifer Ulie, Ph.D.

2x Founder, CEO, Motivational Speaker, Author, Teacher, PhD, and Geek about holistic health and evidence-based practices to help people unlock the best parts of themselves again. Follow @mymensana.

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