This week, we’re touching on the tender subject of divorce. I can’t speak for everyone, but I am fairly certain divorce is the unwanted outcome for many marriages. Still, when divorce enters the conversation, it brings many of its complicated friends for the ride. So we’re going to unpack some of the types of grief we might encounter in this situation and hopefully introduce a few practices to keep yourself feeling grounded and whole if this is ever a part of your story. For those of you who are already divorced, single, or maybe think this conversation isn’t for you, let’s listen as grief supporters learning more about the people you love who might be navigating this type of loss and how we can best support them.
Grieving an event on the horizon is known as anticipatory grief, but that is not the only type of grief we encounter when faced with the potentially messy life event of divorce. It doesn’t even look the same with divorce, because we’re not preparing for an end-of-life event. As a divorce is finalized and time begins to pass, those who’ve experienced divorce often encounter resistance to their grief stories. There are a lot of assumptions assigned to the people involved, leaving little room for compassion or curiosity. More likely, they receive judgment for their decisions throughout the entire experience – including whether or not there is someone to blame. Questions are asked with unkind subtext that someone is at fault. When a married person asks those questions, it can feel particularly hurtful as the impression of unspoken comparison lingers in the question, too. So if we find ourselves in this position, preparing to face down divorce, what do we need to know to stay healthy and grounded through the grief of it all?
Well first of all, we need some humility. We’re about to reckon with the fact that we have made mistakes – no matter what has happened in the relationship – and that means we are poised to learn something new about ourselves. Self-discovery is a huge reason couples consciously un-couple. Maybe one or both partners are learning they missed a crucial detail about themselves, and that current self cannot remain in the marriage and honest to who they are. As we begin exploring ourselves, we reconcile our missteps with grace for ourselves now and our younger selves from before. We did the best we could with what we had at the time, and now that we have new information, we’re doing the best we can do make positive decisions now, too.
Staying healthy and grounded in the grief around divorce is to remember that the anticipation of a loss creates very specific vacuums of support in our lives. This is a time when it feels like we’re either free to say whatever we’ve needed to get off our chest, or we are much more limited now in what we feel safe disclosing. The intimacy and trust in a relationship has shifted, and with it, the outlet of our partner while we process heavy things.
That does not mean you need to keep it all to yourself as you grieve. It does mean you need to choose carefully what you want to put your energy toward. Partners in conflict may feel justified in harsh condemnations while beginning a divorce; you do you, boo, but I would encourage you to protect that energy all day every day. Your partner, whether they are ready for the divorce conversation or not, may not be interested in change. They may dismiss your concerns as invalid which is totally their prerogative. With this type of grief around terminal illness, we tend to encourage the sense of “closure” by inviting loved ones to say their final goodbyes, resolve old wounds, forgive the hurts, and invite planning for end-of-life wishes. But this doesn’t apply in anticipatory grief – and yet you still have things you need to say!
In that case, we say things in a safe environment where we know we aren’t looking for resolution or repair because if our partner rejects what we say, that doesn’t mean it’s invalid. It just means that they don’t accept it, and again, that’s their prerogative – that’s their right, and it’s not our job at any point to try and change their mind. Expository journaling, where we unleash the emotions within, is a great place to start. Talk therapy, working with other mental health professionals, or even increasing our bodily self-care such as massage, acupuncture, or other methods of paying attention to your nervous system.
Other pieces of advice around anticipatory grief include learning what to expect before, during, and after a death, creating memories and rituals with your loved one, seeking support from others in similar situations, and honoring your own needs. Let’s unpack how these pieces of advice can apply to a potential divorce.
Learning what to expect is complicated, because while the legal process may have some basic consistencies, the truth is, each state or country has different laws to navigate. Any legal paperwork installed prior to the marriage contract or during will come into play, and anyone else with experience in this area is only sharing what was relevant to their own divorce proceedings. So simply put, how can you learn what to expect?
You can’t. But you can learn how to support your own internal world of peace while navigating the uncertainty of divorce. Here’s the thing: I would love to tell you that grief can be planned around and made simple to navigate, but that’s just not true. Uncertainty will always shift our external world when we least expect or feel prepared for it, so it is up to us to create security and grounded attunement in our internal worlds.
Practices you may enlist for internal grounding around the uncertainty of what to expect include movement – I’m a big fan of yoga, Pilates, and other slower movement routines like Tai Chi that allow for my own implementation and interpretation. Just because it feels really good to lift heavy things and throw medicine balls doesn’t mean I should do that every time I’m overwhelmed because the additional stress on an already stressed nervous system may be too much to recover quickly from right now. Incorporating slow, intentional practices can create an easier pacing that overflows into other areas of your life as well.
Another way to ground yourself is to resist replacing the loss, and this is how you can honor your own needs. It is tempting to start dating, start dreaming, or swear off romantic relationships altogether. You’re married to your cats now, and it’s fine because they’re mostly loyal! Listen. You were created for connection, and while pets are absolutely the best option for a trustworthy companion while we grieve, we’re talking about human connection here. You need other people just like you need yourself.
I know those connections don’t often last as long as we want them to. So what can you take into yourself to remember this truth and remain open to future connections? Just as your relationship to others is wholly unique, so to is your relationship to yourself. This is not the “date yourself” advice you might think it is, but it is “date yourself” adjacent.
What do you know of you? Perhaps it was your own self-discovery work that began this entire process, and if so, that’s okay. Every iota of growth comes at the cost of something keeping us stagnant, and while a marriage is no small cost, perhaps now is the time to visualize who you as an individual are becoming. What does a future look like for you as a human? Don’t focus on the romantic or partner aspect for now. Visualizing yourself as a fully formed, autonomous human allows you to live more fully into your own identity. I’ve always bristled at the idea that my partner is my “better half” or vice versa. Because neither of us is half of a person. We are coming to our partnership fully invested in ourselves and in one another, and while that wanes from time to time, it still doesn’t mean that without me, they’re incomplete. I don’t know that I even find that a romantic thought – I find it diminishing.
This isn’t a weird form of replacing the loss – and it’s more than falling in love with yourself. It’s the restructuring of our sense of self that comes with grief. It’s expected. This is where you can reach out to friends and ask what supported their internal world during divorce. The things that moved your friends may also resonate with you and if not, that’s okay – experiment and find what serves.
Grounding ourselves also comes in the form of honesty. While you do not owe your story to anyone, give yourself permission to be honest. There will be days that you are not okay, and you do not need to mask that discomfort for the sake of other people moving through life in a cloud of happy. Your emotions are always valid. We are not setting a goal for happiness every day – we are setting a goal for honesty. Emotional integrity. Character in our decisions that support the person we are becoming. We don’t need to feel like power dancing and shouting our joy from the rooftops to be doing the good work of grief. We need to be present with ourselves, and that means telling others like it is – what we need, what we don’t need, and what we want.
While building this episode, I reflected back on the grief clients I’ve worked with who’ve worked through divorce. I think I can safely say every single one of them – gender irrelevant – spent far more time than they wanted to trying to make sense of it all. Attempting to intellectualize or justify the divorce doesn’t change the way you’ll experience grief. You are grieving, and that is valid, for the loss of the partnership itself. That grief does not invalidate the way it came about – you’re not less eligible for grieving the change if you were served or you initiated the conversation.
How can we prevent rumination on the mental jumping jacks we can mindlessly do while we grieve? With a skill set called “Catch Check Change.” This is a simple exercise we’ve talked about on the show before where we use our own intelligence to notice when our thoughts are spiraling and give ourselves permission to change the thoughts.
The first part is just as it sounds – catching ourselves in the middle of a thought that doesn’t serve us. The next time you encounter a blame-laden or critical thought about your marriage, the divorce process, or your role in it all, catch yourself.
Next, you’ll decide if the thought needs to be changed. Some of these thoughts can be useful. Healthy self-reflection on how we showed up in our partnership is important, but spending hours flagellating ourselves over it is not. Most of the time, the thoughts we are checking in on are some form of cognitive distortion, or limiting thoughts that prevent us from seeing a larger picture of our situation.
You can learn more about cognitive distortions in episode 96, but for now, we’ll use black and white thinking as an example.
Let’s assume the thought you catch is “I was never good enough for them.” That is an example of a black and white perspective – either I was good enough, or I wasn’t. There’s no room here for the nuance and truth that sometimes, maybe the two of you weren’t treating each other in a way that resulted in the other’s flourishing. But the black and white distortion leads us to become hypercritical and unloving toward ourselves and bitter toward others.
Once we’ve checked in with the thought, we need to decide if we want to change it or not. In this case, I would say we definitely need to change the thought! Bringing our awareness to the black/white mindset let’s us bring that nuance to the table, too. “We may have been difficult at times, but so were they. Sometimes relationships run their course, and that doesn’t mean it was never good. That just means we grew apart and need different things in our lives now.”
See how the change can release the pressure? Your mental internal world needs you to notice when your thoughts are being too harsh or complex to slow it all down while you heal. If this is a little much, this is a great place to invite a trusted loved one into the process. Let them help you catch thoughts that do not serve your healing, and ask them to support you as you check and change the thoughts for more helpful versions.
I think the last thing I want to share about preparing for the divorce and going through the process is connected to creating memories and rituals around loss. It can be super painful to reflect on the “the good times” when you’re gearing up for loss. This is where we soften toward ourselves and invite the both/and of grief work to the table. Building and maintaining a loving connection to ourselves, others, and the world around us begins when we repeatedly bring ourselves back to these connections with open hands.
It’s easy to close off – even to ourselves – when our wounded hearts are so painful. These are moments we don’t want to mark, that we don’t want to traverse, and that we barely want to experience – let alone remember. But allowing ourselves to engage gently may be just the thing that lead us forward. When it comes to creating new memories and addressing/remembering the old, good times, we can enlist a practice called titration.
Titration is a process of wading into the painful or uncomfortable places in life, but only for a brief moment before returning to safety. So before trying this, bring a safe, lovely, beautiful place to mind. Try to engage all of your senses in the practice – listen for what it would sound like, see if you can smell any of the distinct smells, feel the ground beneath you and imagine it is this safe place you have in your mind. When the sensation of safety is really strong, you might be ready to try titration, because you can return to embodied sense of safety at any time.
The discomfort of a memory or perhaps, one of your special places, might be really unpleasant. Keeping your safe, happy place in mind, allow yourself to embrace the discomfort for a brief moment. Continue to increase the timeframe you spend engaging the discomfort and returning to the happy place as you see fit. This is not just about dealing with the difficult memories; this is about increasing your own window of tolerance so the next time you drive past you and your partner’s favorite restaurant, the pain lessens. Your tolerance increases and you can even get to a point where you’re ready to make new memories at that restaurant – or maybe you feel free enough to release it entirely and never return.
Titration is a gentle way of dipping our toes into the painful parts of this process, while keeping one foot firmly grounded in safety. As you practice, you are giving yourself permission to create new rituals and memories. You can bring someone safe along for the process; like when we ask someone to just sit with us as we cry. They’re a witness, a safe partner, and a buffer between you going so deeply into too much pain too soon.
The aftermath of divorce is different – there’s less anticipatory grief, and more of the restructuring. Maybe we feel as though we owe our stories to everyone – we don’t. We don’t need to justify our decisions to anyone – we’re wholly independent, fully formed individuals. There will be critical voices, asking questions you’re never obliged to answer. In the aftermath, you can continue to turn your attention inward. Protect your energy for the internal work of restructuring your sense of self, your confidence, and your worth. A marriage ending does not mean you failed. A marriage ending means the relationship was no longer serving both parties with health, connection, and honesty.
Which means the end of a marriage is the perfect time to offer all three of those characteristics to yourself.
Thank you for listening to episode 104 of Restorative Grief. This one hits home, because while I’ve not experienced divorce in my relationships, I am the child of divorce who witnessed so many additional divorces in my family, I’ve nearly lost count. There are so many moving pieces and lives to rebuild, but those are external factors that will be addressed in their own time. In the short, middle, and long term, your internal world will always need your willingness to be fully present and intentional with your holistic self – mind, heart, body, and spirit. Stay present with yourself. Your healing is not some far off thing to reach for – it’s with you in each moment.
If this is your first time listening to the show, thanks for picking such a complex topic to start! I hope you can pull a few nuggets for either your own life or as a grief supporter for someone else. Please subscribe to the show so you won’t miss any of our weekly episodes – you can also check the show notes for links to become a Patron for loads of bonus content and live Discord chats. Learn more about my work at MandyCapehart.com and be sure to share this episode if someone you know is navigating this type of loss.
And as always, one last thing before I go. Please remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Links + Resources for this episode:
- Learn more about Cognitive Distortions
- Work with Mandy – Visit MandyCapehart.com/coaching
- Become a Patron of the show! on Spotify Podcasts
- Join the Restorative Grief Project on Facebook
- Purchase my book, Restorative Grief, on Amazon
- Follow & chat with me on Twitter or Instagram @MandyCapehart