This article is a guest post written by Harriet Pappenheim, founding therapist of Park Avenue Relationship Consultants in New York City. We’re very proud to have Harriet contributing to the Stitch blog. If you’d like to hear more from Harriet you can find out more about her here.
Divorce! It’s the one thing you probably never anticipated at this point in life. No-one walks down the aisle expecting to get divorced 20, 30 or 40 years later. However, while divorce rates in general have stabilized, the number of us aged over 50 getting a divorce (dubbed “gray divorce”) has almost doubled since the 1990s.
There are numerous reasons behind this upswing in people deciding to call it a day long before “till death do us part”. Increased longevity and improvements in healthcare means we may face many more years trapped in an unsatisfying marriage once children have flown the nest and retirement approaches. Without the buffer of work and family life, underlying problems eventually surface and can no longer be ignored. And divorce no longer carries the stigma it once did.
Whatever the reason, no-one makes the decision to get divorced at this stage lightly. In most cases, the decision has been a lengthy process, not a single event. The practicalities in themselves are daunting – issues around healthcare and retirement are much more pressing, assets become harder to split. Still, it may come as a terrible shock to the person being divorced – and for the initiator, there may be guilt, along with an element of sadness.
If you’re recently divorced (or just about to sign the papers), then here’s how to get through the adjustment period with your strength and sanity (mostly!) intact.
1. Let blame and bitterness go
No matter who initiated the split, it’s important to recognize the futility of blame. It doesn’t change anything. And by holding on to anger or bitterness, the only person you are damaging is yourself. If you find yourself consumed by bitter thoughts – or grief, if you were the one left – you must recognize that it is happening. These negative thoughts won’t just disappear, but over time they can be alleviated.
Some people find putting everything they’re feeling and experiencing into writing can be helpful. For others, just talking it through with close friends is enough. Otherwise, it’s best to turn to a professional. An experienced therapist can give you coping tactics and help find a path ahead if you’re deeply hurt and unable to move forwards with your life.
2. Connect with your adult children
In our experience as marriage and family therapists, many people underestimate the impact of their divorce on their adult children. It can affect them just as much as young children, at times even more so. They may question their upbringing, their very sense of identity, wondering if it were all a lie. They may feel overwhelmed, especially if they have families of their own. Perhaps they feel compelled to be mediators, or a shoulder to cry on. There may be anger, confusion and grief.
If you are the one who initiated the divorce, you may feel guilty for your children, and be tempted to assuage that guilt by justifying your decision to them at length. It’s not necessary. Don’t burden them with your own emotions, or ask them to take sides. Be sensitive to their needs. Retain the parent-child relationship. They must never be caught in the middle or made to feel responsible for your own mental well-being.
Give them the time they need to come to terms with the divorce. Don’t try to force their hand. Just be present when, or if, they need you.
3. Accept what you can and cannot control
There are always going to be things out of your control, and any attempt on your part to change that will inevitably result in further frustration and unhappiness. Many initiators of late-life divorce are taken aback by the sudden animosity of their former in-laws, or other extended family. They may find themselves ostracized at key events (their children’s weddings, etc).
Recognize that this is out of your hands. You cannot control what your ex-spouse or anyone else says, thinks or does – but you can control your reactions. Remind yourself that if they decide to be bitter, or angry, that’s their decision. It needn’t stop you from moving on with your life. If you are the one who was left, accept that you can’t change what’s past – but the future is entirely in your hands.
4. Reframe your thinking
It’s easy to see your past marriage through a negative lens. Words such as “failure” or “waste” may be cropping up in your mind over and over. Thinking like this is not only pointless, it’s harmful for your mental health! It will only prevent you from moving on and making the most of your future.
Your marriage was a huge, important time of your life, and a valuable experience. Just because it didn’t last forever does not, in any way, make it a failure.
5. Get to know yourself again
For many years you have been part of a couple – a unit of two. It’s easy to end up suppressing certain elements of oneself when in a long-term relationship, even subconsciously. It’s not “I”, but “we”. Now you are once more a unit of one, an “I”, and that will take some getting used to!
Try this exercise. In a list, write out all the things you’d have liked to do whilst married, but couldn’t, or wouldn’t. Next to that, list all the things you will never, ever do again, now that you’re single after all these years. Looking at these lists side by side will give you a clearer picture of who you are now and where you might be going. It’s a simple exercise, but effective.
6. Take stock of your health
Fact – your physical health is the basis for everything else, so don’t ignore it. And as we get older, we can no longer take our health for granted. Tempting as it may be to give in to comfort eating, excess drinking etc. to get through the stress of a divorce, resist!
Regular exercise, good eating habits and plenty of rest will improve your mood and overall outlook. Plus, if you intend to plunge back into the dating pool, you’ll have the confidence boost of knowing you look your best, no matter what your age or how long it’s been since you last had a date!
7. Climb “The Fear Ladder”
Keen to get out there and start again, but finding yourself intimidated or overwhelmed? “The Fear Ladder” is a popular approach in cognitive behavioral therapy. Quite simply, it means overcoming any anxieties that you may have in small, manageable steps.
If you’d like to reach out and make new friends, for example, but are uncomfortable in social situations, then take it slowly. Read about events you would like to attend online, and look at pictures. Then go along with a friend, just yourselves. Go again with a friend, and this time let them introduce you to others. Finally, go alone and introduce yourself.
8. Seek out adventure
This is the best part. Now you are (most probably) more free than you have been in a good many years. It’s time to have some adventures! Adventure doesn’t have to mean abseiling on Mount St Helen, or hiking the Inca Trail (although it can do!)
Just be sure to try something new every day. Whether that’s taking a new route home, booking a cruise or attending a salsa class, it will keep your outlook fresh and your mind open to new experiences – maybe even new relationships, if that’s what you want. Dating sites are great, but shared interests and passions are what truly make a relationship at any age!
Think of it as rejuvenating your spirit. If you lead an interesting, active life, filled with doing things you enjoy and learning something new all the time, you’ll naturally feel and become more attractive to kindred souls. Recapturing your sense of independence and adventure is key to leaving the past behind – and making the most of whatever lies ahead.
Harriet Pappenheim, LCSW, BCD, has over 30 years’ experience in relationship and couple therapy, helping couples and individuals find a deeper content and personal fulfilment in their relationships. She is a founding therapist of Park Avenue Relationship Consultants (PARC), a group of expertly trained clinicians based in NYC, specializing in couples therapy, family therapy and marriage counseling: http://parkavenuerelationshiptherapy.com/.
Harriet is the author of For Richer For Poorer: Keeping Your Marriage Happy When She’s Making More Money . She has also been featured on national radio, Good Morning America and the Today Show. Harriet can be reached by calling 212.289.0295 or through the PARC website at http://parkavenuerelationshiptherapy.com/contact-us/.