Unfortunately, the legal change noted on your divorce papers does not usher in this change in identity. You do. Divorce doesn't happen in the courts, although the public record is what makes it official. It happens in the psychological changes that occur over time in both you and your ex-partner. Most of the changes occur gradually, with the result that you wake up one morning and realize that you're a different person. You no longer cry yourself to sleep, wake up angry, berate yourself for your poor judgment, obsess all night about whether you made the right decision, or feel like screaming much of the time. After weeks or months, indeed sometimes years, of feeling shaky and bewildered, there will come one psychological moment when you become this new person.
How can you tell? You'll know that you've begun to acquire this important new identity when you finally excise your partner's voice somewhere inside your head berating you, accusing you, pleading with you, or hounding you. You are a new person when you finally stop feeling like a failure who says, "I tried so hard but my best was not enough," when you feel free, even hopeful, and can make decisions without trembling inside. In taking these new steps toward a new identity, reward yourself with something real that makes you feel good. Try a massage, a night out, a new hairdo, or go for broke and get a whole new outfit or set of golf clubs. As it is after any shock, you may start out walking a bit unsteadily but then you will gather strength as you go forward.
To begin the healing process, you might try this simple exercise. In your mind, go back over the years and try to recapture who you were before you got married. Are there earlier self-images that you can substitute for the sad ones linked to your failed marriage? Were you hopeful as a young man or woman? What happened to that hope? Did you have other choices when you chose your husband or wife? One woman told me, "I was a very attractive and popular girl. I had several men vying for my attention. I'd already enrolled in law school but gave it all up when Jim came along and swept me off my feet with promises of everlasting love that turned out to be false from the honeymoon on. I look at myself in the mirror and can't believe the worn, out image with dark circles under her eyes that looks back at me. Even my hair has lost its curl. What happened to the real me?"
A man told me, "She was the prettiest girl at school and the mayor's daughter to boot. I was from the wrong side of the tracks. I thought that with her at my side we would reach the moon together, have a wonderful gracious home, and create the family I always longed for. But the marriage drained my self-confidence and my drive. For years I almost suffocated in boredom."
So try to find your earlier self-images and use them to rekindle the hopes and strengths that you need to move ahead with your life.
At some point every man and woman, whether left or leaving, has to face up to the hurt and disappointment that go with a failed marriage and the continuing tensions of the divorce. Resolving grief means letting go. In divorce, it's letting go of the memories collected over many years of being together. It means letting go of the hopes and dreams that led you to marry this person in the first place. You need to pull up the memories of your courtship and all the good times you had together, to mourn each recollection individually and put them to rest. Many people find that therapy helps them in this process. A sensitive therapist can provide support as well as understanding that can break into your loneliness and restore your perspective. One man credited his therapist with restoring his sense of humor. "I was beginning to bore myself with self-pity," he said. "Thank God she helped me snap out of it."
Copyright © 2003 Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee
Excerpted from: What about the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During, and After Divorce By Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee (Published by Hyperion; ISBN: 0786868651; US$23.95; hardcover)
Judith S. Wallerstein is the founder and executive director of the Center for the Family in Transition. She is senior lecturer emerita at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California at Berkeley, where she has taught for twenty-six years. She has spoken with more divorced families than anyone in the nation, and lectured to thousands of family court judges, attorneys, mental health professionals, mediators, and educators. She has appeared on Oprah, the Today show, and Good Morning America, among others. She is the author, with Sandra Blakeslee, of the national bestsellers The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts and Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce; with Blakeslee and Julia M. Lewis of the bestseller The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, and, with Dr. Joan Berlin Kelly, of Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce.
Sandra Blakeslee is an award-winning science writer who contributes regularly to the New York Times. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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