The holidays can be an absolute miserable time for anyone struggling with a loss, and we should think about coming to terms with a divorce like other grieving processes. What are some of the key steps for navigating this difficult period? Here are three examples.
First, seek emotional balance. There is no right or wrong way to experience your emotions, but research shows that avoiding our emotions and/or becoming over-involved (ruminating, obsessing, pining non-stop) can be equally bad. A key step is to feel your emotions—to experience them, to notice them, to observe them—without letting your emotions drive your behaviors. For example, if you feel very jealous of your ex, what do you do? Should you text her to see what's up? Just to keep a little connection going... Just so she won't forget you? If you do, you need to recognize that the emotion (jealousy) is driving the behavior (texting an ex), and this will serve to maintain the negative emotion.
A better tact is to experience the jealousy... let it pass... experience it again... let it pass... so on and so forth. Eventually, the emotions will diminish in intensity and the waves of emotion will come less frequently.
Second, don't become isolated. Being alone can be very good for us, and if you're someone who "can never be alone" it's an important skill to cultivate. However, in the face of divorce, we want to avoid becoming isolated. In a divorce, friends and family change; the social fabric of our lives often disintegrates.
One approach for protecting against the negative impact of these changes is to re-kindle relationships with your family and old friends. For some, this is easier than for others, but the essential issue here is turning to older "attachment relationships" to help provide some of what was lost when your relationship ended. It is important to seek out this kind of support and not wait for it to arrive at your door. Support can be logistical (for example, getting kids to sports; watching kids so you can go out) or it can emotional (for example, coffee with a dear friend; a walk with a close parent).
The key idea here is that isolation and loneliness are gateways into depression. An important goal in reaching out to others is to find a way to grieve the end of your relationship without becoming clinically depressed.
Third, how does contact with your ex maintain your grief? In some divorces, contact is inevitable due to joint child custody. In other instances, contact persists even without kids. When we think about contact and the grieving process, we need to monitor two key emotions: anger and love. First, in acrimonious divorces, it's very easy to get stuck on anger, and unchecked anger is an absolute challenge for finding emotional balance. It's OK to feel angry; in fact, anger may motivate defensive behaviors if you've been seriously wronged by an ex. But, it's important to see that anger can come with a host of fellow travelers: rumination, high blood pressure, distractibility and tunnel vision.
When angry, it's essential to find ways to let the intensity of your emotions subside. Rather than being a fixture of post-divorce life, anger should be an important emotion that is available for you but that does not inhabit you all the time. Using the techniques to cultivate emotional balance, find a way to put anger to rest.
When I speak of loving an ex, this is a quintessential grief response. We pine, we yearn, we desperately hope to be reunited. These are all natural emotions to experience, and that's important to remember. One way in which they're intensified is when you have sex with your ex. About 20 percent of people sleep with their former spouses after they stop living together. Sex serves the primary function of building an attachment relationship.
The “biology of sex” doesn't care if you're married or separated from your ex-partner; one of its functions is to create an attachment bond between two people. You need to be aware that if you sleep with your ex, this can slow your recovery. In many ways, it's like getting off a drug. You think "one more try" would be easy enough to do, but often this results in pulling you right back in to the mess you were hoping to avoid. So, think carefully about sex with an ex.
The end of marriage can be incredibly difficult, especially as far as the holidays are concerned. It’s often beneficial to ask ourselves if we’re managing a difficult situation as well as possible. Am I doing anything to make this situation worse (for my well-being) than it has to be?
We often cannot control painful events in our lives, but we have complete control over how we think, feel and behave in response to these events. If you’re struggling with some of the issue I described above, I’d love to hear from you and, especially, what you’re trying to do to survive the holidays.
Copyright David A. Sbarra, Ph.D., November 28, 2011
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