5 Things You Don’t Understand About Divorce Until You’ve Lived Through It

By Lisa Arends

I thought I knew about divorce. When I was in elementary school, I weathered my own parents’ divorce, observing their reactions from the sidelines. I felt the loss, the change in family structure. I experienced the strange vacancies of a split – the blank spots on the walls where my dad’s pictures once hung and the empty seat in the family camping van.

I thought I knew about divorce. I read my mom’s seemingly endless supply of self-help books, important resources for her career as a marriage and family therapist. I digested countless case studies and thumbed through endless nuggets of wisdom and advice for an enduring marriage.

I thought I knew about divorce. So I chose a husband that showed me copious amounts of affection and seemed at ease communicating about emotional matters. After we weathered various storms, I was convinced that divorce was something that could never happen to us. Until it did.

I thought I knew about divorce. Until it happened to me. And I realized how little I knew. Because there are some things you only learn about divorce once you’ve lived through it.

  1. Divorce Leaves No Stone Unturned

Before living it, I had always viewed divorce as analogous to a friend moving away – there’s the initial loss, the lingering loneliness and the need to fill the newly-formed void. What I neglected to understand is the sheer vastness of the impact of divorce.

It touches everything.

It’s the friend moving away, the home being destroyed by a rogue forest fire and the loss of health and sanity. A stranger jettisoned in a strange land, unable to speak the language. All while you’re losing your closest confidant and doubting your own decisions. And that’s not even addressing the shame of failure and the judgment of others.

Your family is fractured, perhaps alliances formed and relationships severed. Children are unsure and needy or defiant and acting out. Divorce changes your body as the signs of stress show on your face and your appetite is affected by the strain. Your routines alter as they reform around the missing person and even something as innocuous as an evening Netflix show takes on a greater meaning. Your job is impacted as your mind wanders and you have to spend your lunch break emailing your attorney. Your home, if you’re still in it, is at once sanctuary and mausoleum.

Divorce is far more than simply a change in family structure. It’s a reorganization of your entire life. Your entire self. It’s a massive transformation. A time when everything is called into question and nothing is certain.

It’s also an opportunity. A crack in the bedrock allowing a change in course, an alteration of spirit. You can stay at rock bottom. Or you can choose to build.

  1. Your Emotions Will Be in Conflict

Your spouse cheats, you’re angry. They leave, you’re sad. They move on with somebody else, you’re jealous. It all seemed so straightforward until I experienced it myself.

When I received the text that ended my first marriage, my first response was disbelief. Then shock. Then concern for him. Followed by blind rage. Then pragmatism took hold. Until the uncontrollable sobbing started.

And that was only the first ten minutes.

The reality of the emotional onslaught is much messier and much less predicable than anyone can imagine. Overwhelming loss enters the ring against an unspoken sense of relief. Blinding rage battles with compassion and a memory of love once shared. Moments of sheer joy rise unexpectedly like the opening of a shaken soda only to be trailed by a sudden jolt of reality.

The reality is that there is no one way you’re supposed to feel. All of these strong and conflicting emotions are normal when enduring divorce. And they’re all valid. It’s possible to hate someone and still miss them. We’re capable of feeling anger and empathy. It’s okay to have moments of bliss even while the tears are still drying on your face.

  1. You Cannot Prepare For or Control Everything

If you had asked me prior to my divorce how one should approach the process, I would have been full of pragmatic (and naïve) advice. It seemed pretty clear cut – talk things out with your ex and make decisions that are fair to both, limit the legal counsel sought and seek to be friendly throughout the entire ordeal.

Which is not how things happened.

Throughout the entire divorce process, I felt like a tennis shoe thrown into the washing machine, being tossed about at will and completely submerged in the process. I was accustomed to being in control of my life and my surroundings and the divorce was a rude awakening to how little influence I really had.

You can try to anticipate how you, your ex or your children will respond. You can make plans for how you think the process will proceed. You can spend months researching your options and making informed decisions.

But at the end of the day, you have no control over the outcome and limited skills in predicting the future. And that can be a difficult – yet freeing – truth to accept.

  1. Some Days You Will Feel Like a Failure

Even though my rational brain does not interpret divorce as a failure, my emotional self still experiences shame around the end of my own marriage. I find that I am quick to offer the extenuating circumstances that made divorce the only logical solution and absolve me of the bulk of the responsibility.

When I hear people claim that “divorce is not an option,” I feel both angry and foolish that I allowed myself to be put into a situation where it became the only option. Even though it became the best thing that ever happened to me.

No matter your circumstances and your larger feelings surrounding your divorce, there will be days where you feel like a failure, like you’ve been branded as someone who gives up too easily or perhaps doesn’t know how to compromise. Sometimes these feelings spontaneously arise from within and sometimes they’re compounded by external judgment.

Instead of allowing the guilt and shame to tell you you’re a failure, funnel them into learning how you can do better going forward. You’re not a failure for getting divorce; you’re only defeated if you allow it to get the better of you.

  1. It Will Be All-Consuming….Until It Isn’t

I kind of feel like I need to send an apology note to everyone I came in contact with during my divorce –

“I’m sorry that I told you way too much of my personal business and probably made you uncomfortable in the process.”

But at the same time, I’m not sorry. It was a brief period where all sense of political correctness and social niceties were shed and real, although brief, connections were formed over my shared intimacies.

For months, my divorce – and my ex’s shenanigans – were my defining characteristics. It was the first thing friends inquired about and the first thing on my mind when I awoke. Everything reminded me of him or what I had lost in the process.

And then a day came where I didn’t think about the divorce, my ex or my losses. And then another day followed shortly after. Instead of being the most important feature in my life, it became simply part of my backstory.

When you’re in the midst of it, divorce feels never ending. Yet eventually, its omnipresence wears thin as it overstays its welcome. New experiences and new people begin to layer new memories atop the old and the pain fades into the distance. Divorce will always be a part of your story, but it will no longer be your defining feature.

By Lisa Arends, Lessons from the End of the Marriage.com