But surprisingly, the number-one question I get is not any of those above. Rather, the most common divorce question I receive is: “What did I do wrong in my marriage to find myself here?” And it comes from everyone—men and women, those who’ve initiated the divorce process and those who were shocked by their spouse’s desire to split. I even hear it from those who’ve taken months or years to gather the courage and resources necessary to leave an unhealthy partnership.
It’s extraordinarily rare that one person is ever solely responsible for the demise of any relationship. When viewed through that lens, the question can be informative and important for self-awareness, growth, and the success of future relationships. However, it’s more common that I hear a sense of shame in the question. A feeling of failure is a totally normal response to divorce or separation. After all, marriage is “supposed” to be forever, and taking it apart is often complicated, expensive, and emotionally draining.
With divorce rates in the U.S. hovering between 40 and 50 percent there are very few people whose lives haven’t been impacted by divorce, even if it’s not their own. And yet, divorce is consistently described as brutally lonely. And like so many other life challenges (such as chronic or debilitating illness, mental health, and infertility), it can be very hard to discuss.
One client told me she was desperate to travel home to her parents for comfort but hadn’t found the strength to tell them what was happening. “I’m afraid of their reaction,” she said. “My marriage was important to them, and I know how disappointed they’ll be. This isn’t supposed to happen in our family.” Another wanted her spouse to pretend everything was fine in front of their friends for a holiday party. Many people change their routines or stay home to avoid being seen struggling. Others have a different problem: Their friends and family disparage the spouse/ex so zealously that there’s no room for discussion or nuance. Some even report feeling embarrassed they ever chose that person.
I’m not suggesting that everyone in our lives should receive the same amount of detail and information. But when people find themselves willing to trade support they want from someone they love, to preserve the appearance of success, that’s worth revisiting.
Much like the other life challenges, we can lessen the trauma of divorce through honest discussions about what it involves. This starts by creating an accepting environment that suspends judgement about the choice to seek a divorce. Instead, each person deserves to be trusted to make the decisions that are best for their life, supported as they manage their pain and grief, and recognized for their bravery as they navigate a challenging new course.
For those who find themselves embarrassed and avoiding people and situations they otherwise enjoy, these strategies may help
1. Focus on your big picture goals and future plans
Ask yourself, what if you were able to see your future, and it looked amazing? Get specific about things you want to do and accomplish and allow yourself to dream big! Write these down and post them somewhere you’ll see them regularly. Revisit them when you’re feeling stuck and challenge yourself to take even one step toward that dream. What action will you take, and when? What will success look like?
2. Create messaging for the people in your life including yourself
Decide how you want to talk with family and friends, and importantly, how you will talk to yourself! Messages will make it easier to have conversations you might otherwise avoid. For those with kids, messages such as these can help set the tone:
- “Our marriage is ending but we will always be connected by our children. We are both committed to helping them through this with love and consistency. We will not badmouth the other parent.”
- “Please support me in treating my ex with compassion. We are both sad and overwhelmed.”
For yourself, practice self-love, kindness, compassion, and acceptance.
- “I am strong and resilient. I have done hard things before and I can do this, too.”
- “I am worthy of love and belonging.”
- “My unique, amazing, next-best-me is out there, even if I’m not there today.”
3. Engage support
You will likely need at least one professional and one personal support person to help you through your divorce. On the personal side, the hardest part is asking for what you need from the right person. Who will have your back 100 percent? Can they help you share information with others? Can they listen without inflaming the situation, and provide honest feedback? Choose someone you trust.
Professionally, there are many options. Lawyers, coaches, and mediators offer different services, and it’s worth investigating to find the best fit for your unique situation.
These tools and many others are available to help make the divorce process more manageable and less isolating. Although it may feel far away now, divorce can be the catalyst for a positive transformation into the amazing future you deserve.