Healing Our Way Through Divorce

Last month's feature article by Richie Begin gave some good advice to parents going through a divorce. He asked us to prioritize the needs of out children over the impulse to keep fighting with an ex-spouse. Since reading it I have been reflecting on the many feelings I have heard expressed by divorcing parents. While anger is often what comes out toward each other, more vulnerable feelings often surface in the safety of a therapy session. Identifying these underlying feelings is important in the process of healing the pain of a divorce.

To start with, divorce is really scary. Here are some of the fears divorcing parents have expressed:

  • I'm afraid people will judge me as having failed in my relationship.
  • I'm afraid to tell my family.
  • I'm afraid my friends will side with my ex-spouse.
  • I'm afraid other families will back away from me and my children.
  • I'm afraid my divorce will traumatize my children.
  • I'm afraid my children will get divorced when they grow up, since that is what I'm modeling for them.
  • I'm afraid my children will miss me terribly when I'm not around.
  • I'm afraid my children will be mad at me for divorcing.
  • I'm afraid my children will stop caring about me.
  • I'm afraid to surrender my children to the care of my ex-spouse without me around to help them.
  • I'm afraid my ex-spouse will spoil my children.
  • I'm afraid my ex-spouse will neglect or abuse my children.
  • I'm afraid my ex-spouse will try to stop me from seeing my children.
  • I'm afraid my ex-spouse will try to turn my children against me.
  • I'm afraid my ex-spouse will desert us.
  • I'm afraid a step parent might get closer to my children than I am.
  • I'm afraid I won't be able to parent well on my own.
  •  I'm afraid no one else will want to be with me since I: already have children,
  • am older now, can't seem to be able to make a marriage work.
  • I'm afraid of dating.
  • I'm afraid of sexually transmitted diseases.
  • I'm afraid of not having enough money.
  • I'm afraid of having to get a job.
  • I'm afraid my ex-spouse won't pay the child support I need to raise these kids.
  • I'm afraid of having to work all the time to pay for a family I don't even live with.
  • I'm afraid of lawyer bills.
  • I'm afraid I'm not asserting myself enough to get what I really deserve in our settlement.
  • I'm afraid I have to either fight or get shafted
  • I'm afraid of judges having control over my life.
  • I'm afraid of having my gender determine what role I play in my family.

If you are divorced perhaps you can add to this list. Identifying which fears are most pertinent to you can help you begin to deal with them directly. Each of these potential problems can be faced and overcome. Some of them take a lot of courage, though. I guess that's true of life in general.

Under the fears lie even more vulnerable feelings, those of grief. Divorcing parents face the loss of whatever their dreams for their family were. This may involve grieving the loss of: our marriage, the promise of love for a lifetime. someone to sleep with.someone to make a home with. the vision of ourselves as old people looking back on our life together. the pride we felt about our marriage before we knew it would end. the respect others might have offered us had we stayed together. the chance to share the love we still feel for each other, even if we know it wouldn't work to get back together.

  • the picture of mom, dad, and children, all living together happily. the illusion that we might just be the perfect family. 
  • daily contact with our children.
  • knowing what our child's week or weekend away was really like for them.
  • talking about what we see in our children with someone we know is just as
  • interested in them as we are.
  • the house we all lived in.
  • the nest egg we were building.
  • the friends we had together.
  • someone who could step in if we really needed help.

Grieving isn't easy. You have to breathe deeply. You have to think about what it is you cherish that you are losing. You have to feel the energy in your belly, your chest, and your throat. You may have to cry or yawn. Maybe a lot. But grieving is not as hard as not grieving. Life gets too stuck and joyless when grieving is put off. The anger that covers our grief can consume us for years. It actually hurts more to hold the grief at bay, than to let it out. But sometimes it is hard to get started. I never cry at the low point of a movie, when everything is getting worse.

It is when something beautiful happens that my tears begin to flow, when there is some triumph of human spirit in the face of adversity. There is a reason for every divorce. And while the process may bring on a lot of fear and pain, there is also the hope that something better will arise. In every divorce there is some vision of life being better somehow than this marriage has been. Perhaps the vision is of freedom, or passion, or compassion, or respect. Perhaps the choice to divorce was not yours, and you have been rudely awakened without a plan for the new day. Still, as Joni Mitchell sang to me when I was a teenager, "Something's lost, but something's gained, in living every day." It seems to me the gain comes when I have the courage to feel my fear and grief, and find myself anew.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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