What’s a “good” divorce?

Some might say it’s one that never happens. But it’s likely that, if you stay in your “best self,” even as you divorce, you and your children will benefit. 

Many of us get divorced. Sometimes the choice to divorce is mutual, and sometimes, it very much isn’t. Sometimes there’s emotional manipulation, and sometimes there’s physical violence. Sometimes one partner has involved someone else and sometimes the pain lies only between the two of you.

When there are children, divorce becomes even more complicated. Ideally both parents monitor, guide, and help the children deal with how their lives are changing. Often, that task is extremely difficult and the divorce becomes more contentious.

So how in the world are you supposed to be your best self? That can seem almost impossible.

When others have their own agendas…

And then, there are the onlookers — the people who love you, your children, and maybe even your ex. These people can be helpful, and stay out of things as much as possible, only offering what’s necessary to be supportive. Yet far too often, they can’t wait to jump into the fray. Parents, friends, whomever can have their own agendas — maybe being super-protective of you, only seeing your side of the coin, being mad at your soon-to-be ex — or maybe even mad at you. 

It can feel extremely validating at first for people to be “on your side.” But that can backfire. Your children will be coming and going — and they’ll have their own pain to deal with. Hearing, “Can you believe he did that?” or “You should’ve left her years ago,” can put your kids in a bad place — feeling as if they may need to stand up for one parent or the other — that they’re stuck in the middle.

Is there a way to predict what my divorce will be like?  

One truth I’ve learned over the years is that divorce imitates marriage.

Vulnerabilities that affected your marriage will be present, and even exaggerated, in your divorce — both your own vulnerabilities and your partner’s.

If he needed to control the money, finances and even hiding money will be a huge issue. If she was passive and indecisive, she’ll be petrified of making life-altering decisions. If either of you need to be seen as “right,” you’ll talk inappropriately about your soon-to-be ex and and paint  a one-sided version of reality. If there was an intense need for distraction and/or affirmation, he’ll get entangled in another relationship far too soon — “She says all the right things to me, things I haven’t heard in years.” If she held grudges, her anger may turn into intense bitterness, and entrench itself into her very being.

Social media doesn’t help anything either.

Sadly, all too often no one rises to the occasion to get divorced. Intense stress leads youl to use strategies to protect ourselves from hurt and pain. You can lash out or have trouble handling your impulses. 

That can affirm that there’s a reason you’re getting divorced, but it can also keep you very emotionally stuck.

Ways to avoid a horrible divorce…

It’s not all doom and gloom. Your strengths can be present as well.

If there was mutual respect in the marriage, that respect can peek through the sadness. If both people take their fair share of the responsibility, they can divorce painfully, but amicably. If both put the kids before themselves, even the most difficult of situations can be waded through.

Often, time helps.

How to be your best self… or at least try very hard…

1) Seek objective feedback.

I know I’m a therapist and believe it or not, I don’t think therapy is the answer to everything. But in this case, someone who doesn’t know you, your partner, your family, or your children, can be much more objective with you about your choices and behavior. A good therapist will support you, give understanding where they can, but gently confront if needed.

2) Get support from friends who don’t paint your ex as “all bad.” 

After my second divorce, people at times would tell me, “I never knew why you married him anyway.” I understood on one hand what they were doing — trying to give me support for making a tough decision, and one I struggled with a lot. But I had loved this person. We had no children, but he had been an important part of my life.

Look for people who can be supportive of you, can listen as you cry or get angry, yet don’t undercut what was, for you, an important choice in your life. Your ex may always be connected to you in some way, especially if you have children. It’s helpful to surround yourself with people who won’t smash them into little pieces.

In cases of domestic violence, this is different. If you’ve been abused, you may actually need the opposite — you may need affirmation that your situation was abusive, as you likely have discounted or blamed yourself for many months or years. And you may need frequent affirmation that you’re doing a frightening thing and one that takes a lot of courage.

3) Choose an attorney whose style fits the kind of divorce you want.

Different attorneys are known for different manners of dealing with divorce. Some can get pretty aggressive; others steer their clients toward a more moderate stance. Ask around.

One of the shocking things about divorce is having a new person in your life whose suddenly become someone you’re counting on, who knows intimate details about you, and whose decisions can alter your life, such as a judge or an attorney ad litem. You can feel very lost. The world of interrogatories and depositions can be fatiguing and can act to ramp up defensiveness– to stir your emotional pot when you’re dealing with all the emotions you can handle. Try to choose an attorney who’ll effectively and carefully guide you through, without creating unnecessary conflict.

4) Take divorce breaks.

This doesn’t mean to deny that your divorce is occurring. But it can become all you talk about with others. “How’s the divorce coming?” can get to be a tiring question, and one that only fuels your sense that you’re not moving through your feelings.

Tell friends and family that you need to take a break from focusing on the divorce. Do something you love to do. (There can be financial constraints on spending during a divorce, so often this has to be more simple things.) Visit friends you haven’t seen in a while. Go for hikes. Begin a meditation ritual. Get off the emotional roller coaster.

Start to become accustomed to not having a partner and begin creating your own life.

5) Realize and accept that you can learn from failure, and change for the better.

Divorce can feel like failure. That doesn’t feel good, it’s not warm and cuddly. It can hurt for a long time.

But if you learn from it, it can do you a world of good. Whatever vulnerability, immaturity, irrationality, jealousy, anger, need, over-functioning, under-functioning – whatever it was that was your part of a marriage ending — can be addressed honestly.

Divorces can look and feel very different. You learn to live with whatever you experienced within that marriage, whatever mess you might have helped to create, and the ending of a relationship that, at one time, you believed was very right for you. Your divorce doesn’t have to define you, unless you allow it.

If you don’t learn from it, you’re much more likely to pick another relationship that’s not going to work . As someone laughingly told me this week, she saw a bumper sticker that said, “Divorce — the end of an error.” You don’t want to make another one.

6) Know that often what’s hardest is watching your children cope. 

If you and your ex fought a lot, it’s very possible that your kids are ready and happy that a divorce is happening. But they’re still dealing with the consequences of living out the rest of their lives greatly influenced by a choice that was not theirs.

There are many factors that can cause them pain. If you take care of yourself, then you can better take care of them.

Here’s an invitation! If you’d like to join my closed Facebook group — if you want to give and receive support from others — if you’re willing to share your own bit of wisdom — then please click here. (Don’t forget to fill out the questions!)

If you’ve been supported and loved by someone and never even considered divorce, you might want to thank them in a small way. Click here for “Marriage Is Not For Chickens,” a gift book by Dr. Margaret!

You can hear more about relationships and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly blog posts and podcasts!