Divorce is the second most stressful life event, preceded only by the death of a spouse. And what is stress is capable of? Expediting a severe bout of depression and anxiety to your limbic system (the brain’s emotional center) if you’re not careful. Acute and chronic stress, especially, undermine both emotional and physical health. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior suggests that divorced or widowed people have 20 percent more chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer than married people.
Another study in Psychological Science claimed that a person’s happiness level drops as she approaches divorce, although there is rebounding over time if the person works at it. That what these 12 tips are: suggestions for preventing the devastating depression that often accompanies divorce, and techniques that you can use to keep your happiness level steady or maybe even higher!
1. Lose yourself in a book (or an afghan).
I think the one thing that kept my mom sane the years after she and my dad split were the 75 afghans she knitted for me, my sisters, and anyone who got married during between 1982 to 1985. The mundane, repetitive gesture, she told me later, kept her brain on the loop that she was making with her big plastic needles, away from all the sadness in her heart. Swimming is the same type of activity for me. I count each lap, so if I start to ruminate too much, I lose track. For an OCD gal who needs to burn calories, it’s a tragedy when that happens. A friend of mine who divorced last year said that losing herself in a juicy novel was a helpful diversion. Or I guess you could also watch reality TV, although I’d hate for you to sink that low.
2. Change your routine.
The year after my dad left, a counselor recommended to my mom that she go back to work. So she took a part-time job as a hostess at a nice restaurant downtown, working lunch hour. The job forced her to smile, meet new people, and be part of a fresh environment–all of which helped her to get out of her head for several hours of the day and gave her hope that there was new life out there, that just because her marriage had ended, didn’t mean her life was over.
3. Plan, plan, and plan some more.
In her book “Solace: Finding Your Way Through Grief and Learning to Live Again,” psychotherapist Roberta Temes suggests a few activities that are therapeutic during bereavement (and divorce is a kind of bereavement). One of them is planning. That is, planning everything. I know this works because I did it during the really low months of my severe depression. I planned when I would eat my bagel, when I would shower, and when I would relieve my bladder. I planned when I’d write my distorted thoughts into a journal, and when I would try to count my blessings. All the planning cut down on my ruminations. You think I’m crazy? Temes writes:
Use a calendar to make your plans. Plan when you will go somewhere new. Plan when you will buy yourself a new outfit. Plan to learn to knit and decide when you’ll go to the yarn store. Plan to go fishing and call a buddy who likes to fish. Or, learn how to frame a favorite photo and plan when you will venture to a craft shop or to an art supply store. Plan to repair something in your house and plan to go to Home Depot or to Lowe’s or to your local hardware store. Planning activities for your future will help you reach that future.
4. Clean out and organize.
A productive way to grieve the end of a relationship is to clean out the drawers, closets, and other corners of your house that may still contain your spouse’s possessions, and replace them with new stuff. Your stuff. You don’t have to do it all at once, of course. As I said in the last point, you can plan each stage of the excavation. By manually picking up each item, recalling certain memories, and ever so tidily boxing them up for either him, Goodwill, or bulk pickup, you are acknowledging and bidding adieu to the marriage, while creating a space in your life for something new.
5. Preserve your energy.
In her book, “Ready to Heal,” Kelly McDaniel urges people who have just ended a relationship to preserve their energy, to avoid cluttering their days with too much activity. She writes, “The energy it takes to endure withdrawal [of a relationship] is equivalent to working a fulltime job. Truthfully, this may be the hardest work you’ve ever done. In addition to support from people who understand your undertaking, you must keep the rest of your life simple. You need rest and solution.” You feel tired? You’re working two jobs … that’s why!
6. Defy the stereotype.
Mary Jo Eustace will make any reader, but especially those who have lived through divorce, laugh out loud with her memoir, “Divorce Sucks.” I loved the part where she challenges the divorcee to debunk the hurtful stereotypes of divorced people. Writes Eustace: “Our marriages didn’t work, so people assume we don’t quite work. And this is why it’s very important for those of us who have survived the hell of divorce to start redefining what the landscape of the divorced woman [or man] can look like. People can have us over for dinner, even a couple’s dinner party, and we promise we won’t seduce anyone’s husband or dance on the table, expressing ourselves through modern movement and our ability to do the splits.”
7. Take the high road.
My friend and mentor Mike constantly reminds me that it’s better to be happy or at peace than it is to be right. So, as I’m loaded and ready to fire off a nasty email to some jerk who could potentially make my life hell, I will stop and consider Mike’s pearl of advice. Then I drag the email over to the cute trashcan on my monitor.
I have no doubt your ex-spouse is responsible for a mother load of terrible things, legal pad after legal pad of inexcusable grievances you could report to your attorney. And you would be absolutely entitled to seek revenge (or even justice) for his all of his misjudgments. But is it worth it? That’s the question you might need to stick to your bathroom mirror on a sticky note. A friendly divorce isn’t necessarily a fair divorce. Which one do you want?
8. Make your own community.
One of the reasons married people win the happy contest, at least according to social experiments and polls, is that marriage (and families) become small communities. And human beings thrive in communities. In his book “Bowling Alone,” Harvard professor Robert Putman writes about the deterioration in American culture today of social connections–civic groups, bridge clubs, bowling leagues–and sites a variety of different studies that underscore the emotional and physical health benefits gained by hanging out in groups and participating in a community.
So when a family breaks up, it’s important that you replace the family with another community. If you’re not a support group kind of person, then invest your energy in a few friendships that can give you the feedback, comfort, and companionship that you need at this difficult time. And consider this: even if you don’t become a permanent member, support groups can help you connect with people on important topics like how to talk to your children about the divorce, coping with unsupportive family members, accessing when it’s time to start dating, making the right financial decisions, and learning about divorce laws and your rights. There are divorce groups here at Beliefnet’s Community, or you can start the conversation in Group Beyond Blue.
9. Make a self-esteem file.
You are definitely going to need a self-esteem file, because my guess is that at some point in the divorce process, you will blame yourself, look into the mirror, and say, “You’re a failure.” That’s not the truth, of course. But if you are like me, you won’t be able to convince yourself otherwise, and may need to collect the evidence from some really good friends, to whom you will give the assignment of listing ten of your positive qualities. If they don’t come through, ask another three friends, or maybe your mailman. He’s objective, right? Place the nice letters in a manila folder and label it “My Self-Esteem File.” Keep it handy, because every time someone complements you in the slightest (“Blue is a pretty color on you. It matches your eyes.”), you should jot the warm fuzzy down on a post-it, and stick it into the file. Before long, that baby is going to be so fat that you can no longer carry it up and down stairs. Oh, and be sure to read it!
10. Give advice … and lots of it!
You don’t have to look too far to find all kinds of folks in troubled relationships. And whether you like it or not, you now have some experience that could be very helpful to them. My mom used to call up friends who were having marital problems and implore them to work harder at their marriage … to be more forgiving … to try their best to make it work … so that they might be spared the pain that she endured. On the other hand, maybe your divorce has freed you to become the person you were meant to be, and you want to inspire a friend who is stuck in an abusive relationship to get out, NOW, because divorce isn’t the death sentence that people think it is. Whatever your story is, you have wisdom tucked inside. Share it!
11. Ignore the horror stories.
Now that I’ve told you to dispense unsolicited advice to the hurting person, I am going to tell you to ignore the unsolicited advice you get from everyone else. I qualify that. You know which voices are full of insight and wisdom and care. You can listen to them without shaking. And you’re getting better at identifying which persons are bitter and full of anger, and would love to spend an afternoon venting about their Satanic ex-spouse … am I right? My humble advice would be to guard yourself from the latter. Because you have enough worries on your plate. No need to load up on more courtesy of the “he’s a son of a bitch” chick.
12. Don’t rush the process.
In her book, “101 Little Instructions for Surviving Your Divorce,” Barbara Walton, a practicing divorce lawyer, offers some helpful tips and sound advice for the person navigating through the messy terrain of divorce. One is to treat the grieving process of a divorce just as you would a death … so you predict the same four phases: denial, anger, grief, and acceptance. But I interject one important difference: a person grieving the loss of her spouse from a death most likely will get more support from the community than the woman or man going through a divorce, which is even more reason you should be gentle with yourself and take your time to heal, really heal, from this traumatic event.