How to Survive a High-Conflict Divorce with Yourself Intact
Letting yourself heal is the first step
Some time ago I asked a prominent divorce attorney, who had the reputation of being a terrorist, to tell me the top piece of advice she gave to clients undergoing high-conflict divorces. I thought she would respond with something about forensic accountants, or how to get sole custody, or the ever-popular “document, document, document.” But what she said surprised me.
She told me she advised her clients to “maintain your spiritual practice.”
After years of working with people going through high-conflict divorce, I would have to agree. Rarely does anyone get the grand slam settlement they want. You hand your wallet over to your attorney, split assets with your ex, downsize your life, and lose time with your kids. Friends you thought were lifers drift away. Your social station changes. You no longer have a “plus one,” and are flummoxed by the new dating landscape. Your children struggle to adjust to the divorce and guilt weighs on you like an albatross.
Everyone told you things would be so much better once you were out of your terrible marriage, but things don’t feel better. You’re exhausted, lonely, and overwhelmed. You’re lost in the foreign country of Post-Divorce without a map, and you’re bitter that things didn’t turn out according to your plan.
When divorced people are unable to accept life as it is, they tend to react in the following ways:
1. They blame their ex for all their problems and anything that goes wrong with the kids
2. They descend into a pit of shame and withdraw from life
3. They defend against their pain with various high-conflict tactics, such as endless litigation, barraging their ex with nasty e-mails and texts, and using their kids as pawns to get back at their co-parent.
None of these behaviors will change your circumstances or your ex. The only way to move on from divorce is to accept life as it is today. Accepting your situation doesn’t mean you’re a victim. And it doesn’t mean that you won’t feel angry or sad. It means that you stop trying to change things you can’t control and focus on changing the things you can.
How A Spiritual Practice Can Help You Thrive After Divorce
Even if you roll your eyes at the word “spiritual,” you can still develop a practice that works for you. Maintaining a spiritual practice is about developing a skill set so that you stop fighting with life and start using your energy to manifest positive change.
1. Mindful awareness
When emotions hijack our brains, we react unskillfully to situations: we yell, cry, criticize, and find all sorts of ways to invite negative reactions from others, and then, whammo! Your ugly divorce has gotten even uglier. In order to make choices that will decrease conflict, you first must be aware of how you feel, and name it: “Oh, there’s worry;” “I’m feeling sad and lonely;” “I’m angry because my ex won’t do the right thing.”
Don’t judge or resist your thoughts. Instead, pause and reflect on the situation so you can respond in a productive way: wait 24 hours before replying to your ex’s condescending e-mail; work through your anger by going for a jog; reach out to a friend when you’re feeling disconnected. As you practice mindful awareness, you’ll feel more in control because you are less likely to create drama.
2. Grounding Exercises
Divorce is traumatic, and traumatized people have heightened responses to even benign events. If you’re trapped in fight-or-flight mode, you need to regulate yourself so that you calm down and analyze your situation with a clear head.
There are many grounding exercises, but one of my favorite tools is the grounding stone. Take a smooth pebble or small rock and squeeze it. Turn it over. Notice the texture with your eyes and fingers. Is there anyone who’s been a “rock” in your life? Write their name on the stone with a marker to remind you that you are loved, valued, and supported.
3. Keep a Gratitude Journal
Divorce misery lies. It convinces you that everything sucks, and you have the worst life of anyone you know. But no matter how bad you think things are, you actually have a lot going for you. Every morning, write down one thing you’re grateful for in a journal. Start small: food in your refrigerator, a roof over your head, a mattress to sleep on, indoor plumbing. There are plenty of people on the planet who would love to have what you have. Write about how these seemingly inconsequential things actually have an enormous benefit to your life.
Then reflect on your blessings in a silent meditation — even if you can stay still for only a few minutes. If done consistently, practicing gratitude will shift the way you think and feel. Once you stop telling yourself everything sucks, you will make room for bringing positive change into your life.
4. Get Physical
Moving your body helps anchor you to the present. It doesn’t matter what you do: yoga, biking, swimming, walking. Any kind of physical exercise boosts endorphins (feel-good chemicals in your brain), releases tension, and gets you out of your head and into your body.
If you find yourself ruminating in Down Dog, try to shift your focus to your feet pressing into the floor. Pushing yourself outside your comfort zone — say, scaling new heights at a rock-climbing gym — will force you to concentrate on the present instead of the past and future, neither of which are here.
5. Practice Compassion
The next time you catch yourself mentally beating up your ex or yourself, observe your feelings and try to soften them. No matter how much you despise your former spouse, he or she is doing the best they can. And so are you. If you can be kinder to yourself, you will be kinder to others, and invite more positivity into your life.
(This post originally appeared on VirginiaGilbertMFT.com)
Of Writing, Divorce, and A Dream (TheCovey, March 2018 issue)
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