My husband and I split up in January, 2014, and finalized our divorce about a year and a half later. Perhaps because we were relatively young when it happened—still in our thirties with two very small children—I had no close friends or family members going through the same thing. My own parents had met in college and been happily married for more than fifty years. All of my siblings had followed a similar path. The divorces I’d seen up close were not ones I wanted to emulate. And so, without role models, I plunged ahead, DIY-style.
When a very close friend of mine went through the breakup of her marriage a year later, I wrote her an email with some admittedly unasked-for advice. I wanted to give her the tips I wish someone had given me. Here they are.
Advice to a Friend on the Eve of Her Divorce:
1. Focus on your future.
It may seem hard to imagine a future when facing the end of a marriage you’d believed would nurture your forever. But the future will come, and there are four questions to ask yourself to help you believe in that future, and shape it:
· What would your life ideally look like six months from now?
· Where do you want to be living?
· How do you want to be interacting with your ex?
· What do you want your kids, parents, and siblings to understand about your situation?
Start setting goals to make this vision a reality. Write the goals down. Every time you have to make a consequential decision, ask yourself, “Am I advancing these goals?” If the answer is no, you are probably not making a decision that will lead toward the future you’re seeing.
2. Remember that you only have one life. By getting a divorce, you are choosing to live it.
There are two ways to think about your situation:
(1) My life is over.
(2) I GET to start my life over.
At different times during any given day you will feel (1) and (2). But in the early days, you may feel almost all (1). That is when you tell yourself—because it is true—that as time passes, you will feel almost all (2). Why? Because you’ve been unhappy with life as you’ve known it for a long time. Remember how you felt when you pulled the trigger, or when the triggered was pulled? Sadness, even despair. But also freedom. Freedom from guilt, frustration, shame, inertia, indecision. This is a new chapter. It is a kind of reincarnation. So, it’s scary but also amazingly cool.
3. Remind yourself that the basics ARE covered.
You have beautiful children who need you to be strong and provide you with a compelling incentive to get through this crisis without drowning in sadness and self-pity. You have loving friends and a community. You have—or likely have the wherewithal to get—a job that pays decently and is stable. You don’t have to worry about money or a place to live. (This isn’t the same as, “People are starving in North Korea so eat your damn peas already,” but it is a similar theme. It could be a LOT worse—think homeless shelter, bedbugs, etc.).
4. Develop a game face.
As a lawyer, I think of the outside world as the jury; they shouldn’t have a clue about what is happening in your personal life. If they sense weakness or get a whiff of desperation, your case is in trouble. When you are any place that matters professionally or on a surface social level, develop a basic story that you can say in 90 seconds, sounds bland, and can be easily repeated, “T and I have decided to separate. It’s amicable. The kids are doing great.” Then stick to it. Don't let anyone pry anything out of you.
5. Know you have nothing to be ashamed of.
You tried everything you could think of and more. You did your best, and your best was not enough. Not because you are not enough, but because the relationship you tried to save had become so toxic and unsatisfying that it was unsalvageable. Making a break is an act of courage, not a sign of failure. It means you have the hard-earned wisdom to know that you deserve better.
6. Get help telling the kids.
Go talk to a therapist with a notepad and pen. Explain the situation honestly. When she recommends what to say when telling the kids write it down, word for word. Then memorize it. When you tell kids, don’t add information. This is a stressful high-stakes conversation that is ill-served by ad-libbing. Stay on message, sounding firm and in control. When in doubt about how to answer a question, deflect. Remind them that you and their dad will always love them. Keep their daily lives an unchanged as possible.
7. Make time to lose your shit.
Allow yourself a private place every day to be as sad, mean-spirited, angry, miserable, and pathetic as you want to be. You can lock yourself in the bathroom, run the shower (I know, bad for the environment, but its important), and wail. You can fantasize about acts of extreme violence. You can allow your face to become twisted and contorted. Tourette like words can pour out of you. Then put on your game face and make dinner/teach class/congratulate friend on adorable baby.
8. Indulge, within reason.
Be good to yourself, just don’t be stupid about it. You want that leather jacket even though you have nowhere to wear it? Buy it. (Don't buy ten). You want to cut your hair? Great, just don’t dye it pink and purple (you are somebody’s mother). You want to go to Burning Man? Go. (Just don’t decide you need to live there or be on their steering committee).
9. Gather information calmly.
You are not in a rush. This is not an emergency (even though it feels like one). Find a reputable lawyer—not a litigious bloodsucker—and listen to her advice. Maybe get a second opinion (I didn’t, but you might want to). If there is money, custody, and property in dispute then mediate. Do not go to court. There is nothing, I repeat nothing, worth litigating. You will spend ten times the money in the process and cast a toxic cloud over your life and the lives of your children. Be prepared to compromise. You are not going to get everything you want, and neither is he.
10. Rise above the allure of bad behavior and catastrophe thinking.
Be judicious and merciful. You will never regret being gracious, even when extending that grace to those who have done nothing to deserve it.
Lara Bazelon is a writer and attorney living in San Francisco. Her book: The Last Shackle: Harm, Healing and Redemption in Cases of Wrongful Conviction, will be published by Beacon Press in 2018. She is divorced with two small children.