I wish I'd read this blog post years ago.
I don't have any expertise whatsoever to be guiding others through this process so please don't look at this as a "how to". But what I do have is an audience, and I've found that each time I've opened up about the more personal aspects of my life and where I've struggled (such as my post a few years ago on dealing with stress), I've had a huge amount of feedback from people that have been helped by it.
Just read this. Hugely helpful to me going through the never ending stress of divorce. It had given me hope and focus. Thank you 🙏— Ruth Cornish (@RuthACornish) March 16, 2022
Perhaps my willingness to talk openly about it has led to others coming to terms with their own similar circumstances, and that's my hope in writing this. Not to guide you through divorce, but to help you understand it.
Here's what I've learned.
This title is deliberately blunt, and I chose to run with it because it's one of the most important things I've learned throughout this process. Let me explain:
Nobody goes into a marriage expecting it to fail. You're marrying for life and when the day comes that you realise it's not going to happen, you feel like a failure. You also feel stigmatised; "I've not been able to deliver on the promise of my marriage, what will people think of me? What will my family think? My kids?" Now, I'm not religious in any way whatsoever but I'm conscious of the social expectation of marriage. I found it extremely difficult early on to talk to people about it outside my closest circle of friends, partly because I had difficulty simply finding the words to explain it and partly because to be honest, I was worried about being judged for having a failed marriage.
It took time to realise that people don't care or more specifically, they don't care about stigmatisation or judgement or most of the other emotional baggage you get caught up with. Friends care about you, of course, but the fact you've decided to dissolve a marriage really isn't their concern. Your wellbeing is their concern. Your happiness. Your children's happiness. The person caring most about the mechanics of divorce and leading separate lives was me, and that's something I had complete control over.
The exception to "nobody cares", in my experience, is family and others in your inner circle who hold onto that same stigma that dogged me early on. There may be traditional reasons for this, cultural reasons, religious reasons or just the simple sadness for a relationship that is no more. Family in particular can be complex, especially when there may be existing resentment, jealousy or as we've all experienced at one time or another, individuals who just revel in drama. They can be your greatest supporters or, if they prefer, antagonists. But that's their own emotional struggle to deal with, not yours, and a truly supportive inner circle will prioritise your wellbeing.
Where it really started to normalise for me was over the course of time as I learned how many other people had, themselves, gone through divorce. Sometimes it was much simpler happening earlier in life and without kids, but often it was much, much more complex, especially where there was financial distress or older children. Once I came to terms with the fact that the concept of a marriage falling apart is not the thing I should be worried about and I should instead focus on the logistics of the various practical challenges that presents, I became a lot more comfortable with the situation and frankly, a lot happier.
Everyone Has Their Own Story
Someone I spoke with recently was married to an abusive drunk. They knew the relationship was over when they found themselves thinking how easy it would be to push their inebriated spouse down the stairs.
A friend confided in me about how their partner had physically assaulted them since the birth of their child. The kid was about to enter adulthood.
Another friend explained recently how it wasn't until their wedding night they acknowledged they were gay.
Not all stories are as dramatic; one friend is happily married with two children of their own and two their partner had in a previous marriage. Another divorced young and now lives happily with their new partner, the child they had together, their partner's ex and the child they'd had previously.
I've deliberately used gender-neutral pronouns here; it surprised me how often personal stories didn't align to the stereotypical norms of male and female behaviours. Especially in cases where there has been mental illness, alcohol dependency or drug addiction, you realise just how unique everyone's own journey is and how even though your own may feel exceptional, it's probably not.
I mention this here because as my life started to settle down, that headline kept coming back up - "everyone has their own story". As time went by and I met new people and heard new stories, it would come up over and over again in my mind. It helped me normalise my own circumstances and overcome the stigma I'd felt so much in the early days.
People Will Draw Their Own Conclusions
It's tricky when there's mutual friends, common contacts in social circles, other parents at school and all sorts of scenarios where you're going to be spending time with the same people your ex is. Whose side do they take? Who are they sympathetic to? Angry towards?
There's a temptation to inject your own views into discussions with these people but frankly, the chances of doing that in a balanced fashion in the midst of the most emotional period of your life are zilch. I know when I think back to conversations with friends who've gone through similar trauma in their own lives, I'm acutely aware that as much as I want to be there to support them, I'm only hearing half the story. One friend in particular I've spent a lot of time with is convinced their ex is actively turning their kids against them and they may very well be right, but I only hear one side of the story. Another was concerned their child had been abused whilst in their ex's care and again, I've only heard one story. But to my earlier headline, I don't care because I'm not listening to their stories so that I can play judge, I'm listening to help them get it off their chest and deal with their emotions.
What I found over the course of years was that when it comes to mutual friends, it was preferable to simply not discuss the ex. It might come up organically (which parent will the kids be with when a friend wants a play date, for example), but that's a discussion that can be had in a pure mechanical fashion without emotion. It's harder when more pointed questions are asked - "How's it going with the divorce?" - and candid, honest responses aren't always compatible with the goal of remaining neutral. Interestingly, I found that people judged bitterness towards the other party quite harshly, especially where they viewed behaviour as derogatory. "Why can't they just get over it and move on", I'd keep hearing. It feels almost trite to put it this way, but people respond well to positivity and just getting on with life, but judge negativity and bitterness quite harshly.
Giving people time and space to observe without feeling like someone is trying to influence their views is invaluable and, in my experience, led to much more support.
Listen to What is Said, Judge by What is Done
During the good days of my marriage, I knew my wife wanted the best for me as I did for her. After all, that's the bedrock of a relationship: that you're there to support each other and wish for nothing other than their happiness. Divorce changes that and in many cases, inverts that bedrock yet somehow your brain is still wired to want the best for them and in turn, to expect that they want the best for you.
During the divorce process, there was constant strategising about how to move matters forward and drive the formal things to a conclusion and time and time again, I'd talk to my lawyer and say "she's telling me she'd like [blah]". In this context, [blah] was normally something that had the optics of good intentions, often motherhood statements such as "desirous of an amicable outcome" or words like "fair", "kind" and "considerate". Who wouldn't want these things?! These things are all great! At one stage I relayed this messaging to him after which he paused, and then asked a very simple question:
What do her actions tell you?
Uh... something different. Opposite.
It was the "be kind" of misdirection where someone says words you naturally support (of course we all should be kind!) yet demonstrate actions to the contrary. Do you judge them on the words? Or the actions? Of course it should be the latter, but that realisation only comes once you recognise that the two don't always align.
The problem is the aforementioned brain wiring where you're conditioned to expect the other party to want the best for you and to take them at their word. It's hard to let go of the fact that your wellbeing is no longer their first priority and frankly, the inverse is also true. But that doesn't change the intention being represented so we need to move beyond judging on words and start judging on behaviour. I later heard this same sentiment expressed in a more eloquent way:
Characterise people by their actions and you will never be fooled by their words
This was another epiphany for me, and it fundamentally changed the way I viewed the situation. If I'm honest, it gave me a lot more clarity of mind; it forced me to let go of many of the emotions surrounding the divorce and instead just focus on the facts. The motherhood statements and platitudes no longer mattered, all that mattered was actions.
The Rashomon Effect
I read a lot to try and help me understand what was going on, particularly in the earlier days of separation. One piece I read really resonated as it helped explain how two people who were once so close can now be on totally different wavelengths and have different versions of the same events. The piece I read was about the Rashomon Effect:
The effect is named after Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashomon, in which a murder is described in four contradictory ways by four witnesses. The term addresses the motives, mechanism, and occurrences of the reporting on the circumstance and addresses contested interpretations of events, the existence of disagreements regarding the evidence of events, and subjectivity versus objectivity in human perception, memory, and reporting.
Same event, different perceptions of what happened. The Rashomon Effect doesn't help explain what actually happened, rather it describes how people in a highly emotional, life-changing time of their lives can have fundamentally different views of the same circumstances. This might sound kind of clinical and detached, but it helped explain behaviour that I simply couldn't rationalise before. Recognising that people can have different perceptions of the same events that led to the separation helped me deal with the grief. But probably about a year after separating, I had an epiphany that really helped me move forward: the root cause didn't matter anyway.
It Doesn't Matter What Caused It
It's only natural to seek out answers and, indeed, to apportion blame. I've done it, others in similar situations I've spoken to have done it and should you ever find yourself in the same place as me, you'll do it too. It's not always just blame with the other party either and I suspect there's rarely a divorce where all the fault lies purely on one side.
I found all the reasons in the world to explain why this had happened. Recent incidents, things related to money, to work, to kids and even signs that I should have picked up on right from day one of the relationship. I'm sure she did the same. But ultimately, it's inconsequential and my pinning the blame on particular things was making no difference whatsoever.
Legally, it doesn't matter either. In Australia (and in many other parts of the world), we've had the concept of No Fault Divorce since 1975. The court doesn't care who did this or who didn't do that, all they care about is that there's an irretrievable breakdown of the relationship and that either one or both of you wants the marriage annulled. That is all.
In playing back all the events over all the years, I was just reliving bad memories. It was making me angry, regretful, emotional. I wasn't longing for reconciliation and as I moved forward in my own life, I wasn't even wishing things were back where they were years ago. I was seeking answers where I wasn't going to find them, and they wouldn't change a thing today even if I did.
Stop dwelling on it and move on. I can't say I always do that, but the more I've just put my head down, looked to the future and powered forward, the better things got.
Telling the kids was the worst. In the hours beforehand, I was a mess. Inconsolable. I felt that stigma I mentioned earlier coming over me in waves as we prepared to tell our children we were breaking up the family.
Their mother was the one who told them as we all sat down together. It was pretty short and to the point, effectively boiling down to us having mutually decided to lead separate lives. The bomb was dropped, then she finished by prompting the kids for any questions they'd like to ask us. They paused, then our 9-year old son spoke up:
Can we have pizza for dinner tonight?
I smile thinking about that even now 🙂 It was a relief valve at an enormously stressful time not just because it was kinda funny given the gravitas of the news they'd just heard, but because it demonstrated that just as with the observations above about friends not caring, the kids didn't care either. They cared about being loved, supported, having their parents' attention and really, just fundamental Maslow's hierarchy of needs sort of stuff. They didn't understand the social concept of marriage, they weren't aware of the stigma I felt and frankly, if it didn't have any actual impact on their lives in any meaningful sort of way, they didn't care.
In later reading I'd learn that as far as divorces and kids go, this is the ideal time to do it. Were they to be much older (our daughter was 6 at the time), things would be harder as they became more independently minded and more aware of the social issues surrounding a marriage breakdown. But at this age and in an environment that was still civil at the time, both the news on that day and everything else I've observed in the years since has been entirely unnoteworthy.
But I also don't want to trivialise the situation with kids as I've seen things work very differently for other people, especially when teenagers are involved. I can only relay my own experiences here and acknowledge that I've been extraordinarily fortunate. Part of that good fortune has been luck due to the timing of our separation, their age and their personalities, and part of it has been good management on our behalf as parents.
What I've found most difficult to navigate is loyalty binds:
A loyalty bind in divorce is where the child does not feel allowed to love both parents. He has to side with one or the other about any number of issues, big and small. His anger, sadness, and anxiety increases as he feels pushed to choose and either choice results in the loss, or fear of loss, of the other parent. He can’t win.
When you've got two people who've decided to wind up a relationship, there's going to be flashpoints. Disagreements. Possibly legal battles. You're both angry, both convinced you're right and sometimes, certain that the other party is the devil. Now, imagine amidst the heights of that frustration a parent gives the kids some pretty unfiltered opinions about the other party - how do the kids react? Angry towards the parent being spoken harshly of due to the things they've allegedly done? Or defensive of that parent as they watch the other one unleashing on them? He can't win!
I've found this to be an extremely delicate area to navigate for two reasons:
Firstly, I've had to make sure that no matter how I've felt about the situation, I avoid negativity towards the ex in front of the kids to the fullest extent possible. Sometimes that's easy insofar as there are many discussions that simply don't need to be had with the kids (it's much better to vent to close friends and family), but other times it can be extremely difficult if it's a topic that directly impacts them (e.g., their movements over school holidays). But that burden is on us - the adults - and it's one the kids shouldn't have to bear.
Secondly, there's dealing with times where the other parent puts the kids in the very position you're trying so hard to avoid. Particularly when derogatory messaging comes home in ways that could only have come from the other party, you're left feeling defensive and wanting to set them straight with your version of the record, but now you're back at the loyalty bind problem. It's not always explicitly derogatory behaviour that creates that loyalty bind either, it can be something as minor as being emotional when the kids mention the other party or particular activities they've been involved in; "every time I talk about [thing], it makes [mum|dad] upset".
In dealing with the latter situation, I sought support from a family counsellor who gave me an example from another client that epitomises everything that is wrong with creating loyalty binds. A lady had attended with her 6-year old daughter and during the session, received a call from her lawyer related to matrimonial matters. After hanging up, she burst into tears and in an attempt to calm her, the daughter put her arms around the mother and said, "that's ok mum, I hate dad too". That story is just heartbreaking and even though it may not have been the mother's intention, her reaction drove a wedge between a child and their parent. That's a hard one but again, we're the adults, it's our responsibility to manage our emotions around these situations.
I keep coming back to what is ultimately a very simple premise: putting the kids in a situation where it creates a loyalty bind is a selfish act that prioritises your emotions over the kids' wellbeing. Whether it's deliberate or accidental, it must be avoided to the fullest extent possible.
Seek Professional Help
I originally started seeing a psychologist to help me deal with stress and sustain my performance when I felt everything was getting too much for me. It quickly became clear that the bulk of my stress wasn't due to my workload, it was due to my relationship. This is where psychologists can make a big difference - cutting through the emotion and getting to the core of what's eating you.
So, I started seeing Clive. He wasn't the first psych I'd seen, but he was the first one that really resonated with me, so I made appointments to see him every couple of weeks. We'd spend an hour each time going through recent events, how they made me feel and how I'd deal with them moving forward. He made an enormously positive difference not just in terms of understanding my own emotions, but reframing situations to reduce the unnecessary stress I was feeling.
Here's a perfect example: I'd often worry about things that were really of very little consequence but would bug the hell out of me. They'd come through an email, via the kids or in a lawyer's letter. On one occasion, I unloaded the whole lot onto Clive after which he sat thoughtfully, then suggested the following:
Think of her as a drunk person in a pub throwing punches at you. It's demanding your attention, but nothing is connecting and eventually she'll tire out or sober up.
I loved that and ever since that session, I've become much more adept at separating the things that actually require my emotional input from the drunk punches.
The other exceptionally helpful guidance he gave came during a protracted legal stoush that felt like it had no end in sight:
Me: "This feels like it will never end"
Clive: "Do you know what to do next?"
Me: "Yes, I'm going to do [legal thing] then [other legal thing] then if that doesn't work, [alternating legal thing]."
Clive: "Then just follow the process."
Follow the process. Time and time again, I'd sit on the couch, pour out my heart and we'd come back again to simply following the process. Divorce paperwork - follow the process. Parenting orders - follow the process. Financial settlement - follow the process. At their essence, they were merely business deals and negotiations, they just happened to be wrapped up in multiple layers of emotions.
In a later session, there was one addition to this guidance; follow the process and sustain performance. You can't let the process sap you of energy such that you're unable to perform. You can't let it mentally or emotionally drain you, distract you from life's essentials or keep you from reaching the goal. This was the high-performance coaching I was seeking out in the first place, and it was more relevant at this juncture than ever before.
That's not to say that following the process is simple, it certainly wasn't for me, and those layers of emotions would regularly impede progress. Clive would often break it down into psychological behaviours he'd plot out on the whiteboard:
I'd rarely take notes, but I'd take photos. I'd go back through them later on in an attempt to make sense of it all. Professional help made an enormously positive difference; it helped me process everything going on in my life, understand it more objectively and ultimately, lead a happier life. Speaking of which...
It Gets Better
Every person I spoke to who'd been through divorce and "emerged on the other side" told me the same thing - it gets better. Clive told me that from day 1, pointing out that there's a very predictable cycle we all go through:
This maps pretty closely to your classic Kübler-Ross 5 stages of grief and we recognised that I was somewhere around the righthand side of the whiteboard. It's not always movement in the one direction, indeed I was oscillating back and forth around "understanding of new normal", sometimes a couple of steps backwards towards "anger", but increasingly towards "engaging and embracing new normal". And my new normal was starting to look pretty damn good:
Let’s face it. Everyone who’s as slick as Troy and done as much for the sec community deserves a girl that fine!😂 #yesG— .b (@dot_b) June 4, 2021
I love this comment, not because I alone somehow deserve romantic happiness, but because we all do. To inject further optimism into the end of this post, upon reflection, every single story I relayed above about friends who have gone through their own divorce struggles has resulted in new partners, new lives and new happiness. Every. Single. One. Charlotte and I got engaged on New Year's Day two years ago and married in September. Life has never been better 😊
Sometimes, life feels like a fairytale. This is now my favourite photo ever ❤️ pic.twitter.com/lspKwVVSly— Troy Hunt (@troyhunt) December 9, 2022
One final note on this, a quote from Lao Tzu:
If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.
There are still "drunk punches" and occasional anxious moments, but they're increasingly fleeting and I'm at peace. I hope this post has been helpful and if you recognise yourself in this, that you reach this stage of the process quickly and peacefully.