The immediate period of separation and divorce can resemble a hurricane hitting your house—winds are surging, water is leaking under the doors, and you have no idea where you put the extra towels. As with a natural disaster, an emergency-preparedness kit or a “tool kit,” can help you weather the storm. My "Principle of Parting #4 is Build a Tool Kit for the Transition."
A tool kit for divorce doesn't include bottled water or franks 'n beans. Instead it has tools to help you get through this tough transition.
The 3 Parts of a Good Divorce Tool Kit
1. New routines for daily chores.
In marriage, we tend to divvy up the duties. One cooks; the other does the books. The stronger partner lifts the carry-ons into the overhead compartment; the more fastidious one swipes the tray tables with disinfectant wipes. Now you have to do it all yourself—or line up others to help.
Two logistical details worried me in the months before my husband moved out: (1) How would I have the energy to make my morning coffee before my first cup of coffee? (2) Who would take out the trash? I worried that I’d forget, week after week. Trash would overflow from under the sink, spill out into the hallway, mount the stairs. My son and I would eventually have to move to escape the trash.
A year later, I couldn't believe I'd worried about such trivial details, but we buy into negative caricatures of ourselves that get drawn in a troubled marriage. We also gain comfort from routine, and contemplating ending it can stir an inner tornado of anxiety.
I wound up asking my older sister to buy me a single-cup Keurig machine. I put it in my bedroom, and discovered I could push the start button while still basically asleep. I left little sticky notes around the house to remind me about the trash. This mostly worked, but also, if you forget the trash one day, nothing bad happens. I didn't have to be Super Responsible Trash Women. I could handle the new routine just fine.
2. Plans for dousing your own emotional flare-ups.
Connection with others helps us regulate our emotions. This is one reason your former spouse might act “crazy”; he’s missing out on the salutary connection he had with you. In divorce, our emotions can ricochet wildly, and we no longer have another adult in the house to catch them—or talk us down.
When we feel bad, the natural reaction can be to lash out. Picking a fight is a common response to an inner whorl of negativity; you want to shove that feeling out of you and onto someone else. But strong, seemingly uncontrollable emotions come in waves; they rise and then recede. Riding out moments of anger rather than acting on them can prevent a decent divorce from devolving into a disaster.
“It’s always the emotions that complicate the case,” says attorney Regina deMeo. “It doesn’t matter if you have a billion dollars or ten dollars. The complicating factor is never the money. The complicating piece is when people haven’t reined in their emotions.”
For most of us, sharing feelings with a close friend or family member acts as a pressure-release valve. In divorce, we may need to identify a new verbal support partner or team. Many people turn to a professional counselor, coach, or spiritual guide. Some find help from cognitive-behavioral therapy, a form of talk therapy based on the premise that our worst feelings often arise from twisted thinking and can be argued down by marshaling real evidence against it. Emotions are feelings, not facts. They feel like facts, but they aren’t.
We probably also have to expand our repertoire of self-soothing techniques, physical and mental activities that reliably shift our mood. Different things work for each of us—reading, running, listening to music, napping, or seeing art.
3. An emergency responder.
Who will take you to the ER at 2 a.m., or stay with one child while you take the other? In marriage, it’s usually that live-in emergency responder, our spouse. For many, myself included, our ex remains our emergency responder, at least in the immediate aftermath of separation.
A year later, I could see that it would be empowering to write a name other than my ex-husband’s on the “in case of emergency” line on standardized forms. But “being responsible” was one of his top-five signature strengths; should I not utilize this, even theoretically, just because we were divorcing? In general, though, we need to plan ahead who will come to our aid, should we need help.
Some people easily turn to a spouse for help but cringe at the thought of asking others. Hollie, a 30-year-old mother of three in Colorado, said that the media decrying single mothers made her feel like a burden to society. She didn’t want to ask anyone for anything.
She was spending days watching her young children, nights pursuing her bachelor’s degree online. I felt awed, and somewhat exhausted, just listening to her 18-hour days. But reaching out to other adults for help would have benefited her children, and made her more responsible, not less.
For all of us, expanding our support system is a boon to our families, and to the people we ask to help. We might swap babysitting hours with another mother, or take turns cooking meals for the week. This gives others a chance to feel valuable, and let's us have time to refresh ourselves and return to our various jobs with more creativity, responsiveness, and joy.
Read here about the other Seven Principles of Parting.
Check out Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well to find out other ways to ditch destructive, damaging habits in the aftermath of separation.