Moving Ahead After Divorce as an Adult

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Divorce can affect every aspect of a person's life, which can make the period of adjustment that follows very painful and overwhelming. This article discusses how individuals can take a positive approach to adjustment and provides practical ideas on how to heal from the pain and move on after divorce.

Marriage is ordained of God, and a happy marriage is what everyone hopes for. But there are times when a marriage is so damaging to one or both spouses and their children that divorce is justified. This is especially true in cases of abuse, infidelity, or addictions.

Divorce affects every aspect of a person's life - where you live, the friends you spend time with, your health, your career or education decisions, finances, and future life plans. Divorce also affects the people around you. If you have children, the adjustment will involve them and will be more complex.

Almost no one plans for divorce, so when it happens they find themselves caught off guard and unprepared. The changes after divorce are so pervasive and so profound that most people find the adjustment very challenging.

Choosing a Positive Approaching to Adjustment

With so many changes at once, it's normal to have a period of adjustment that will likely be painful and disorienting. As with any other trial in life, people either can become bitter and angry or they can learn from the experience and continue with a positive outlook on life.

E. Mavis Hetherington, a researcher from the University of Virginia who studied the impact of divorce on people over a span of forty years, describes different ways of dealing with divorce. She found that some people flourish because of the things that happened to them during and after the divorce, not despite them. Other people succumb to depression and feel a sense of purposelessness.

The way a person deals with a divorce is up to him or her. Although a person may not have brought the situation on himself, he can decide how to handle it. Hetherington states that "the direction of change is never predetermined. After a divorce, to a great extent individuals influence their own destiny"3 (p. 8).

Chella, of State University of New York at Buffalo, studied people who had experienced a divorce that wasn't their choice.1 She found that although they could not control many events in their lives, they could choose how they dealt with those events.

Practical Strategies for Adjustment

Two ways you can deal with divorce positively are (1) to heal and (2) to move on.

Healing from the Pain of Divorce

  • Give yourself time. For most adults divorce is a very stressful and painful experience, according to Dr. Steve Duncan2 of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Deep wounds accompany divorce, and you need to give those wounds time to heal. Unlike death, divorce does not provide a sense of closure. Unresolved issues often retain their emotional sting, especially if you still have contact with the other person.3 During the first year of divorce, it's normal to experience mood swings, vulnerability to psychological disorders, and increased physical illness. All are usually temporary and subside with time (Hetherington). Recognize what you have been through and give yourself time to grieve and heal. Be patient with yourself. You don't have to be completely fine right away.
  • Surround yourself with supportive people. Duncan2 suggests talking with others about your feelings, especially people who have been in your situation. Family members, friends, and other acquaintances can be a great source of strength. If your social ties change after divorce, which is often the case, don't dwell on the loneliness of losing some friends but make an extra effort to get to know new people.

Moving on After Divorce

  • Take care of yourself. During and after divorce can be a time of great stress. Your body is much more susceptible to getting sick. Duncan suggests taking better care of yourself than you normally do: exercise regularly, eat nutritious meals and get enough rest.
  • Get involved. Find activities that you enjoy doing and do them. Choose things that give meaning to your life. Learning to do something new is always an exhilarating and positive experience.
  • Help others. Hetherington reports that many people she studied described an emotional lift when they helped others.3 Giving of yourself takes the focus off you and gives you a break from thinking about your problems.
  • Build new relationships. After getting divorced, many people isolate themselves. With the feelings of rejection that often accompanies divorce, some find it hard to seek new relationships. After you've taken the time to heal and to evaluate what didn't work the first time, it's important to move on. You might want only casual acquaintances for awhile or you might seek serious romantic relationships. As you re-enter a full social life, don't seek a marriage to fulfill your emotional wounds. And don't rush into another marriage just because you feel you're in love with someone. Hetherington says, "Romantic love is a temporary glue. Marriages that last are marriages built on a fund of respect, liking, support, and mutual interests"3 (p. 41).
  • Make the most of change. During the "window of change" period after a divorce, many dramatic changes take place in a person's life. If you're open to change and embrace new opportunities, you might find many wonderful things ahead of you in your life. Many people find talents they never knew they had or try things they never dreamed of trying.

Summary

Although divorce can completely change a person's life, the changes do not all have to be negative. Hetherington states that "until a crisis like divorce suddenly makes just getting through the day a tremendous challenge, most men and women don't know how deep their emotional and intellectual reserves go or what talents and skills lie hidden in them" 3 (p. 71).

If a person consciously tries to make the best of the situation, many positive things can come from divorce. As you take time to heal and then move on, you will find you can live a happy and fulfilling life, even though it has taken a path different than you imagined. Your life might even turn out better, as described by author Sara Lewis:

Life is like writing a novel: you set off in a certain direction and then end up somewhere else altogether. Upon arrival at the surprise destination, you think, "If only I'd known then what I know now, this is where I would have been going in the first place. This is where I belong."

Written by Sarah Taylor, Research Assistant, edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

References

  1. Chella, C. R. (2000). Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities & Social Sciences, Vol. 60 (12-A), (pp. 4376). United States: University Microfilms International.
  2. Duncan, S. F. (1999). Families facing divorce. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University Extension Service. 
  3. Hetherington, E. M. (2002). For better of for worse: Divorce reconsidered. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  4. Yang, S. Y. (2000). Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities & Social Sciences, Vol. 60 (9-A), (pp. 3531). United States: University Microfilms International.