If you’re going through a divorce, it’s wise to remind yourself regularly that you are going through what is one of the most stressful times in your life. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert described it as “having a car accident every day for two years” – and two years is the minimum amount of time that you should accept as being a grieving process as well as a person transformation. All transformation begins with loss, and divorce is a series of losses. Loss of a partner, loss of a lifestyle, a home, material possessions, wealth, a family unit leading, very often, to a loss of identity. But like the caterpillar in the cocoon, we must complete dissolve in order to become the butterfly. In this post, I am focusing on the experience of grief associated with divorce.
The grief from a divorce or break-up can be an overwhelming experience. The loss is made more complicated because the person you’re grieving hasn’t passed away – they are alive and kicking and now pursuing a life without you. In a divorce or break-up, we are not only grieving the losses mentioned above, we are grieving the loss of our dream of what we thought the relationship was going to be, and whether we are the “leaver” or the “left”, we are likely to go through a significant amount of grief.
It’s a commonly held myth that those who leave relationships don’t grieve, particularly if there is someone else involved. In my own experience as a counsellor as well as in my own life, I have learned this: the only people who do not grieve the end of a relationship are the ones without a conscience, ie the sociopath, who will move on with their life as though nothing happened. The narcissist, who is also an emotionally dangerous character, may grieve the end of a relationship, but the grief will be all about them and their hurt feelings and will either be acted out with anger and vindictiveness or passive-aggression, cutting the ex-partner off “dead”.
If someone has left you, you may be struggling with feelings of rejection, abandonment and betrayal. There is a positive side however. You don’t have to carry the burden of having destroyed the relationship. This was done “to you”, not “by you”. Those who leave may have feelings of guilt, and will forever carry the responsibility for the ending. Both the “left” and the “leaver” will struggle with grief in different ways.
If there are children involved, the grief is extended to the family. Never again will the family be fully together. Children’s lives on a day-to-day level as well as on a deeper level are always affected by divorce. Children grieve and act out. The knowledge that things will never be the same again, even if things weren’t great when you were together, is a painful realisation. Children can, however, learn amazing resilience through divorce, if their grief is acknowledged and their emotional needs are heard and given the highest priority.
In the scenario where someone leaves for another person, the person who is left will feel an even stronger sense of betrayal and rejection, but again, there are positives. They are more likely to receive support from those around them. The person leaving for another can often be demonised, and little support is given by friends and family. They also run the risk that this may not work out, and that they may end up alone in the long run anyway.
Here’s another truth I have learned: when we leave a marriage or a relationship for someone else, that “someone else” is just a symptom of a relationship or marriage that is already ailing. Leaving a relationship for someone else is a common scenario, and in most cases it doesn’t work out. Why? Because the “someone else” provided the very thing that was missing in the original marriage/relationship – be it intimacy, sex, fun, connectedness – but the other necessary ingredients may not be there.
Another factor to consider about a new relationship when leaving a marriage is that the person who’s left the marriage will find themselves in a confusing duality of emotions – grieving their previous relationship, while flying high on newly found infatuation. Infatuation is an incredibly potent feeling, especially when a person has been in a troubled relationship for years. So potent, that they may convince themselves that they are in love and it’s “meant to be”. When the infatuation begins to wear off and they look at their new partner more realistically, they may realise that they have simply exchanged one set of problems for another, or are re-enacting their old relationship. Why? Because they haven’t healed the part of themselves that helped create the first situation, so they’ve re-created it again. The Universe will keep sending us the same challenges until we learn the lesson! Whatever wasn’t resolved in your last relationship must be resolved if you don’t wish to repeat it!
I believe that on a spiritual level, the Universe can send in a third party to break up a relationship that is already over (ie. there is no more growth to be had). We are not necessarily meant to stay with the person who “broke up” the marriage. They may be the catalyst that wakes us up. In some cases, the new relationship does last because both are ready for commitment and growth.
If the person who’s been left chooses to remain feeling victimised and doesn’t take responsibility for their part in the demise of the relationship, they are doomed to repeat the same old same old. Because the partner’s affair has “muddied the waters” and blinded them to the underlying issues. When someone leaves us and we take on a “victim mentality”, we will see the leaver as the “wrongdoer” – the one who “destroyed the family”, and we can make it all about the other person and the betrayal, as opposed to being willing to look at the state of the marriage/relationship that contributed to the situation in the first place. I know a lot of people won’t agree with me on this. That’s because we live in a society that wants to label “right” and “wrong”, “victim” and “wrongdoer”, “good” and “evil”. This is our egos at work – our egos are fearful and love to judge. We find it difficult to apportion responsibility to both in a divorce. Notice I didn’t say “blame”, I said “responsibility”.
By the same token, the person who leaves for someone else must take responsibility for why they left the marriage. If things weren’t working, why didn’t they leave sooner, for a clear reason?
In every relationship, each partner must own their 50 percent. Don’t believe me? Let me share this with you. A woman who is, say, married to an alcoholic – perhaps she turned a blind eye to the problem, stayed and put up with abuse when she should have left, was willing to walk on eggshells every time he drank and became abusive, and didn’t own her true worth. She must own the part of herself that kept quiet and told no one, the part of herself that lied to herself that he’d change, the part of herself that was willing to allow her kids to grow up in hell and the part of herself that would rather live like this than be alone.
I’m always amazed when I hear how “he never treated me well and now he’s left me”. Why didn’t YOU leave ? It’s time to own the part of you that would rather be in a dysfunctional relationship than be alone. Have you been hoping he’ll change for all those years? What a waste of time. Do not convince yourself that this is love – it’s not. Love is a two-way thing. This is neediness and low self-worth and there is nothing noble nor loving about it.
It’s not unusual to get stuck in the cycle of blaming the other (“She did this”), or blaming yourself (“If only I hadn’t …”). Blame is neither constructive nor helpful. Re-hashing the past won’t get you anywhere. Remember the Serenity Prayer:
“God, give me the strength to change the things I can change, to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference”.
One of the worst things about going through a break-up is missing the companionship and the intimacy that only comes from being together and knowing each other for many years. Even the worst marriages have their good times, and it’s not unusual to find yourself reminiscing the good stuff and forgetting about the painful times. Often the very person you would like to lean on and be comforted by Is the one who has left you, or you have left.
So how do you get through the grief of someone leaving you, or leaving another? First and foremost, own your part in it. If you balk at this idea, you are still in the victim mentality, and you are doomed to stay angry and never move on. Own your part. Everything that is happening in our lives is simply a mirror of what we need to learn about ourselves and heal. If you feel wronged or betrayed, in what ways have you wronged and betrayed yourself? If you feel that you were never fully loved, in what ways didn’t you love yourself? If you felt you were unsupported, in what ways did you not support yourself? Once you’ve owned your part and fully taken in the lesson, forgive yourself. You are a faulty human, like 99.999% of us. By owning your own humanness, not judging yourself, but forgiving yourself, be willing to forgive your ex. They’re also a faulty human being. You’ve both taught each other something. Look for the gifts. This doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily choose to be friends, or that they will forgive you. it just means you will be free from toxic emotions that will sabotage your future. And there is a future, and it is as bright and exciting as you choose for it to be.