Navigating Divorce: The Bad, the Good, and Some Critical Advice
Updated: Mar 19, 2020
As I lay in my bed, computer in lap, pondering the topics I might choose to write about for my blog in its infancy stages, I’m compelled to reflect upon the 3-day weekend I just finished with my children, ages 4 and 7.
I am tired from the 3 hour car ride. In total darkness. In the cold. Over two mountains. No cell service if something were to go wrong. Tonight was a good night because the roads were clear of snow and rain. It is winter, so each and every weekend I’m scheduled to see my kids, I wince in anticipation of the weather report that may force me to drive in questionable conditions or cancel my weekend altogether. Three weekends a month, my ex-husband and I each do a 3 hour round trip trek to meet at a half-way point to exchange the kids. It is all the more exhausting week after week, knowing the hardship these drives put on them. They are so good but I know the travels take a toll. My kids live in New Hampshire with their dad during the school week, and with me in Vermont on weekends and vacations.
When I divorced, I expected it was going to be difficult in many ways, both for me and my children. I was a child of divorce. I am a counselor for kids who tell me about their parents’ divorces. I’ve seen it from many angles, so when making the ultimate decision to end my marriage, I was not naive to the challenges I would be facing. Knowing what I would be putting myself and my family through made the decision incredibly painful and grueling. Now, two and a half years later, I can share my first hand experience of what this has been like.
If you are someone contemplating divorce and wondering what to expect, I am candidly sharing my experiences in hopes that it might help you reach greater clarity. If you are going through a divorce, perhaps you can find solace in reading about my experience; the good, the bad, and the ugly. I also will offer some words of wisdom or advice that I have gleaned from my journey, including some positives that have come out of it. Yes, there can be positives! I recognize that my experience may be very different than yours, so take that into account as you read. Some of what I dealt with caught me by surprise, and some I expected.
I knew I would need to find a whole new sense of normalcy as I adjusted from being a wife and mother centered around the family unit to something new and uncharted. I had been single before, of course. But never a single, divorced, mom of two. Although the divorce was something I chose, it is not something I wanted. It is not how I envisioned my life to be.
For me, the identity shift could have been much more difficult. Leading up to the divorce, I had already spent some time grappling with this identity shift. Out of self-protection, I also believe I was never fully able to lose myself in another person. I grew up with the mentality that one should not depend on a man, so I always worked throughout my marriage to maintain my independence. Perhaps this was part of the problem, but nevertheless, this identity shift for me was not so radical.
If you experience difficulty in this area, I recommend trying to find those pieces of yourself you may have lost through the course of your marriage. We sometimes lose ourselves in our relationships; in becoming a mother. Spend some time thinking about who you are and what you want in life. Maybe go on an adventure. Take a trip just for you. Reconnect with old friends. Get involved in things you’ve missed doing or try something you’ve never done before. Begin to make inroads at forging your own path.
Grief and Loss:
I’m not sure why this one came as such a surprise. I think I expected to feel the identify shift, but hadn’t contemplated what a loss I would feel. It comes and goes in waves, even to this day. It was especially challenging in the beginning; less so now. While I have never regretted the decision to divorce, it is still a loss. There are times that I miss him; I miss our family. I miss all of what we had. There is the added layer of feeling the loss for my children. I am deeply saddened by what they are missing by not having us together; that they were so young they won’t have memories of "us."
Thankfully, for me, regret is not tied in with my grief. Regret complicates loss immensely, so my suggestion is to do everything in your power to make decisions without regret. The decision to stay or leave a marriage is one of the biggest decisions you will make in your life. My suggestion is to seek professional guidance through counseling. A counselor can help you sort through your feelings to make peace with your decision, however terrifying and painful it might be. My counselor never gave me any advice. She just gave me the space to process all that I was experiencing, and helped me realize for myself, what I needed to do. For me, I needed to pursue couples counseling to work on the marriage. It was only through that process that I was able to come to my final conclusion to leave.
Hand in hand with the loss, comes the guilt. When I think of how this has altered my children’s worlds forever, I feel a tremendous amount of guilt. I ask myself, “How could you have been so selfish? Why couldn’t you just find a way to be happy in your marriage, and stay for your children?” I have to remind myself that my needs are important too. It’s important to take care of myself in order to be the best person and mother that I can be. If I had stayed, would I have deprived my children of the best mother they could have? Most likely. Could the marriage have exploded into an ending that was more traumatic had I waited? Possibly. I try to channel my guilt by figuring out what I have learned from the experience in order to be better next time. I try to be kind to myself and forgive myself, and hope that my children forgive me too.
I knew this one was going to be rough. I have a fear of being broke, probably because I was witness to the hardship my mother endured when she left my dad. It was a scary and uncertain time, and I didn’t want to put myself or my kids through that. I knew divorce was going to be a huge financial blow, but I had no idea it would hit me as hard as it did. I make decent money working in a school, but having to live on my own AND pay the hefty child support, makes it impossible for me to support myself alone. I live with my mother and I’m not sure if I see a future where I can support myself without the help of a roommate or partner. My only hope right now is to move closer to my children so I can have them more. Even then, I’m not so sure that will work. But my goal is to be closer to my kids regardless. So I will forge on, find employment in a new state, and hope it pays the bills.
In many ways, divorce is a luxury that not everyone can afford. Many people stay in dead marriages simply for this reason. I am a full-time working woman with a decent-paying job and I’m struggling. That being said, there are always ways to make it work. Consult a financial advisor or a divorce mediator. Get some solid advice about the money side of things and what it might look like if you were to separate. Depending on your spouse’s income, child support could be substantial enough to support you. Or you may have to support the other person. Realize that financial strain can cause divorce to turn extremely ugly. Custody battles aren’t always just about the children. It’s often about one spouse not wanting to pay the other child support, and children become pawns. Do your due diligence before taking the leap. While I think this is the smart thing to do, I will admit I did not do that because I didn’t want the pragmatics of the money to influence the decision I needed to make in my heart.
You’re probably wondering why I see my children less than their father. The truth is that my ex wanted to move closer to his family to be more supported in his difficult time. He really wanted the kids and was worried I was too prone to moving jobs, possibly making their lives more unstable. I agreed to allow him that because I didn’t have the level of family support that he did back in New Hampshire. His parents, being retired, are able to help a lot more with childcare and after-school care. I, on the other hand have all the school vacations that their father does not. It made more sense for him to have them during the school week and for me to have them on most weekends and vacations.
I knew it would be difficult having the kids three hours away, and I had no idea how long that might last. For 10 months after we separated, we continued to live together for financial reasons. That was interesting! This also helped cushion the blow for the kids. But now, after a year and a half of the three hour distance, I can’t take it anymore. I miss my kids too much. They are too far away. I cannot stand the drive. As they get older, they will be more involved in things happening at school and with their friends; they will grow less interested in coming to see me. I have decided that I will do everything in my power to move close to them after this school year is over.
Judgement and Double Standards:
I’ve been surprised by some of the disapproval I received from family members I thought would be supportive. I also experience the judgement that comes along with people who unwittingly assume something must be wrong with me that my kids are with their dad most of the time. It’s a double standard that people don’t realize they are applying. I am very lucky that my kids have an amazing dad, and they are lucky to spend so much time with him. I agreed to our custody arrangement because it made the most sense for our circumstances. At the time, my son had voiced he would rather spend more time with daddy, even though he couldn’t possibly know at age 5, what that all meant. Although I didn’t take it personally, this did sting a bit.
Don’t let judgemental family members make you doubt the decisions you were thoughtful and calculated in making. Recognize that some of them will need time to let things sink in, and their initial reactions may be harsh. Those close to you are experiencing a loss on some level themselves. Be patient with them. In time they may come around.
Loss of Friends:
Some friendships get lost in the wake of divorce. I maintained the friends I had before we were together. He maintained his friends. I lost his friends who I liked very much. Expect that relationships you made as a couple may not last a break up.
Giving Up on Dreams:
I had had dreams of us doing things as a family that will not be possible now. I had hoped we might move abroad as a family for a time, or perhaps someday move to a warmer climate. It was going to be hard enough to convince a husband to come along with these dreams of mine. Now that he in ex-husband, that will be impossible. There’s no moving anywhere now.
Because I can’t pursue certain dreams that would only be possible as a family unit, I have to get creative. I now make it a point to travel more, both for myself and with my kids. I am determined to get every deal and discover every hack I can to make this possible. Taking small trips here and there scratches the itch to get out of chilly Vermont just enough to make it feel manageable to stay.
I hope my story can equip you with the knowledge of what you can expect should you choose to divorce. My ex and I had a relatively peaceful separation, so I am lucky. I’ve heard a lot of horrible stories of messy divorces, so I know it can get more complicated than what I have laid out for you. Now to the good stuff. After all, we wouldn’t choose divorce if we didn’t think there was some better life on the other side. Here are a few things I’ve gained:
Independence and Freedom:
In some ways, I am more stuck than before, but ultimately, I make my own decisions without needing approval from someone else. I am the maker of my life and do not need to answer to anyone about how I spend my money or my time, unless of course it involves decisions related to the kids. This is very liberating.
I get to explore a whole new world of possibilities, and have a chance to find someone more in line with who I am. I have more opportunities to find love again. While this can be a stressful and unnerving reality, it’s also exciting. I can keep the hope alive again, like I did when I was a teenager and young adult daydreaming of who I might end up with someday. Because I’ve had my kids, I’m also not looking to find someone to father my children. Although the person I find must be good with my kids, I’m not on a tight timeline anymore.
Quality Time With Kids:
Because the time with my kids is limited, it is that much more sacred. When I’m with them, I can be more present, more patient, and really make the most of our time together. I think we have more fun because we don’t take this for granted.
Since my kids are with their dad during the week, this allows me more time for myself. I can workout in the morning without being interrupted. I can prepare meals and grocery shop during the week without hassle. I can spend time with my boyfriend, watch adult t.v. shows, and tend to my hobbies. Although I have a full-time job, I can recharge after work with some quality me-time. No more guilt trying to negotiate this time with another person.
Because I have a lot of time to myself in the evenings and don’t have to worry about childcare during the week, I’ve really tried to take advantage. Knowing it’s not forever, I’ve done a ton of professional development to potentially broaden my career path. I’ve also been able to spend time figuring out how to start this blog. I never would have found the time to do this if I still had my kids full time.
Although I talked about unsupportive people, the vast majority of my friends and family have been supportive. They don’t judge me, they understand my situation, and they are there for me. I feel stronger in some of my relationships as a result.
My kids are thriving.
It’s a beautiful thing to see my kids so happy, and so well-adjusted. I’m not in denial that this divorce is affecting them, and perhaps some of the effects will not be felt for years down the road, but it’s hard to imagine them doing any better than they are doing right now. I’ll be writing more on what we’ve done to help our kids to thrive in another post. I don’t believe kids need to have married parents to be happy and healthy.
If you are potentially facing divorce, I have some general advice to consider.
Counseling, counseling, counseling!
If you are on the fence about whether to stay or leave your marriage, get some counseling to sort out your feelings and weigh out the possible consequences (positive and negative). We are all in different situations and our heads can be a very cloudy and confusing place to be. A counselor can help sort through all of the madness going on in your brain.
I think counseling is a good thing to do for yourself long before you see issues in your marriage. If you are an honest person and looking to grow and work through some of your trouble spots that you bring into your marriage, I think it’s an excellent idea. There is a stigma in this country around mental health treatment. Anyone can benefit. You don’t have to be “crazy” or have a diagnosis. I think we all need help and guidance from time to time, and our friends and online forums are not always the right place to get it. If you absolutely can’t see a counselor (which I think should be a priority if you’re going through this), just make sure you ARE talking to someone. Don’t suffer alone. But don’t blindly follow potentially bad advice either. If you struggle to communicate in your marriage or you’re wanting to try to save your damaged relationship, couples counseling can be critical to that process.
We put off couples counseling in our marriage, even though we were seeing the signs of trouble. We thought we were communicating well but we really weren’t. By the time we finally went, it was too late for us. I know couples who do counseling as a proactive approach to keeping their marriage healthy long before there are signs of real trouble. If you can’t convince your partner to go, go to individual counseling and see what you can accomplish there. If your marriage is in peril and you see a glimmer of hope in the possibility of fixing it, try couples counseling to help you sort through feelings together. If you think counseling is too expensive; trust me, divorce costs more. If you don’t like your counselor, there’s plenty more in the sea. Find a different one. The connection you have with your counselor is an important part of it being successful for you.
If you decide to divorce, mediation is a lot cheaper than getting lawyers involved. If you and your partner get along well enough to communicate in a civilized way, and you largely agree on things but need help navigating the process of divorce, mediation may be the approach for you to try first. I’m not a lawyer, so this is not intended to be legal advice, but mediation worked beautifully for us. It was still expensive, but much cheaper than the alternative. We were able to figure things out amicably.
Your Children Come First:
No matter what, you have to put your own issues aside for what is best for your kids, regardless of whether you stay in the marriage or leave. I do not prescribe to the belief that staying in a marriage is always best for your kids. I think an unhealthy marriage can do a lot more damage to kids than a divorce done thoughtfully. Never ever lose sight of this. The decisions you and your partner make will have lasting effect on your children. No matter how much your buttons are being pushed, no matter how stressful the situation becomes, they are watching. Even when you think they aren’t, they are always, always watching.