Regaining Your Confidence After Divorce
©Jan Andersen 2002
Divorce is never easy and yet after divorce, there is hope. Hope for a brighter future and freedom from the shackles that have confined you to a life of misery, or even a life of denial. I have seen so many people continue to exist in unsatisfactory liaisons, convincing themselves that it's "better the devil you know", refusing to acknowledge problems and just living with the blind hope that the situation may get better. It rarely does. The most important lesson that I learned through my own experiences is that staying in an unhappy union "for the sake of the children" is the worst thing you can do.
My parents were unhappily married for 27 years before my father finally decided the time had come to leave. I remember feeling relieved, but I also remember thinking, "I wish they'd separated years ago." My memories of my childhood are not happy ones. I clearly remember the terminally gloomy atmosphere in the house, the constant bickering between my parents and my mother forever belittling my father in front of my brother and I. I used to hope and pray that they would get divorced and I would far rather have been brought up by one, loving parent than by two who were so busy fighting with each other and so wrapped up in their own misery that they never had quality time with us.
My father re-married thirteen years ago to a wonderful woman who has been a fantastic stepmother to me. He is no longer the sad, depressed and withdrawn man that I came to know as a child. According to his brother, his current personality is the same as when he was younger, before he met my mother and before she knocked all the stuffing and self-esteem out of him. He is a vibrant, energetic 64-year-old and has a fantastically quirky sense of humour. Whenever we go to stay with him, we inevitably end up laughing so much that we find it hard to catch our breath.
I feel regret for the years that he effectively lost whilst he was married to my mother, living in a locked shell of dejection and hopelessness and yet I could so easily have ended up doing the same myself. It is the wise words of my father that saved me.
When I was in the final stages of a very unhappy marriage myself, I clearly remember a conversation that I subsequently had with my father. He told me, "If you're unhappy in a situation, get out now. Don't make the same mistake that I did and stay together for the sake of the children. I realise now that that was the worst thing I could have done and that you suffered as a result."
Shortly after that, at Christmas 1992, I left my husband to embark not only on a life of single parenthood with my children, but one of hope for the future and the chance that I may eventually meet someone who would fulfil the criteria that I would expect from a nurturing relationship.
Yes, I went through the whole range of emotions including anger, sadness, panic and fear. I also worried about how my children would cope. I went through a period of self-assessment, wondering what qualities I possessed and what I could do to regain some of the self-esteem that had been destroyed during my seven-year marriage. However, above all, I felt relief. The burden that I had carried around for seven long years was removed the moment I told my ex-husband that I wanted a divorce. What those words gave me were hope, with a big "H".
I set about building a stable environment for my children by returning to the marketing career that I had forfeited after marrying my husband. Although I was out-of-touch with up-to-the-minute information technology, I refused to let this faze me and I secured my job through my enthusiasm and willingness to learn. Within a few weeks and without any formal training, I was proficient in several Microsoft packages and was soon teaching other people, including my boss, tips and techniques.
It was at this company that I met my current partner, Mike and the big "H" that had featured prominently in my vision since my divorce, suddenly became a reality.
When you separate from a husband or wife, the level to which your confidence is attacked very much depends on the circumstances surrounding the divorce. The most difficult situation of all must be when your partner has left you, especially if it is because they have met someone else. You must feel that you self-worth has been violated and that there must be some fatal flaw, either in your personality or, more sadly, for the way you look. Quite frankly, anyone who leaves a partner based on such a superficial reason as image is probably not worth fighting for anyway. In those circumstances, try to look upon your partner as being shallow and one-dimensional and how you are worthy of someone far better.
It is a lot easier to leave than it is to be left and the people who walk out generally come to terms with the separation a lot more quickly than the partner who has been left behind. The person who leaves may try to justify their actions by criticising the partner they are leaving and we all know that it is far easier to hand out criticism than it is to receive it. The biggest knock to self-esteem is criticism, but if you are on the receiving end and you know that it is unjustified or unconstructive, try to perceive the disparagement as a sign of the other person's inadequacies and, remember, there is a lot of hypocrisy in criticism and people will often criticise you for faults that they possess.
Sometimes people just fall out of love for no apparent reason. Unfortunately, it happens. In these situations, neither party is necessarily to blame and it is sometimes possible to terminate these relationships amicably without any knock of confidence on either side. However, you do still have to move on and you do still have to convince yourself that you are attractive to other people, something that may be difficult if you have been in a relatively static, long-term relationship.
When you get divorced, it's so much easier to focus on the negative aspects and losses rather than the positive side and the gains. It's normal to worry about money, loss of security, loss of intimacy, loss of shared friends, loss of the dream of raising children together, loss of sharing special occasions such as Christmas together and the loss of shared responsibility. There are several stages of grief that most people must travel through in order to reach the stage where they finally gain a sense of self-worth and feel ready to assume a new identity as a valid, confident single person or single parent. Understanding that this is perfectly normal helps enormously.
Acceptance may be difficult for some people, particularly those who are living in denial and falsely believe that their partners may return to them. In some instances this happens, but in most cases it doesn't. However, even if the absent partner has intentions of returning, why should you put your life on hold in the meantime? After all, they aren't. Fix your hair, pamper yourself, meet a friend, or go out and do something you've always wanted to do, even if you don't feel like doing it. Have a good time. Show your ex-partner that you are capable of enjoying yourself without being part of a couple. You may end up deriving so much pleasure from your new life so much that if you partner decides to return, you may realise that you don't want them any more.
The sooner that you adjust to your new life, the sooner your children will too. It's easier to remain in the self-pity stage if you don't have children, but when you do, for their sake it is important that you try to hide any negative feelings from them. Remember that their own confidence may have taken a battering and they may feel that perhaps they are to blame for the separation or that the absent parent no longer loves them. It is important to sit down with the children, ideally together, and let them know why you are divorcing in a reassuring manner. Tell them that you will always be their parents and that you will always love them and that they are not to blame in any way for the break up.
Never badmouth your ex-partner to the children. They may question their own worth if they feel that they are genetically like someone who is portrayed by you to be some sort of ogre. It is difficult, I know. There are many times when the unreasonable behaviour of my ex has caused me to open my mouth and perhaps say things that were undiplomatic, but if the children are present, it's best to bite your tongue until they are out of earshot.
Often when people divorce, the last issue on their minds may be entering into a new relationship. However, there may come a time, sooner for some than others, when you may feel ready to begin dating, which can be a very scary thought, particularly if you were married for a long time.
I have always maintained that if you go looking for a partner, you either won't find one or will end up with someone totally unsuitable just for the sake of being part of a couple. This is dangerous, because when that relationship eventually turns sour, your confidence takes another knock and you may end up believing that there is something wrong with you or that you just aren't cut out for this coupling lark. However, Prince or Princess Charming, isn't simply going to come knocking at your door, so you do have to get out and about and make yourself marketable. No, that doesn't mean grinning inanely at every appealing chap or girl that you see in the local supermarket, but I think you get the picture.
Did you know that 90% of people meet their partners in the workplace? That's where I met my current partner and our relationship was based on a solid friendship that we built through working together. Yes, the advice has always been that you shouldn't mix business and pleasure, but this probably applies more to extra-marital affairs. However, in our case it worked very well and personally, I found it a bonus being able to spend lunchtimes with my partner as well as the evenings.
Again, when children enter the equation, it does become more complicated. However, although dating is for adults and you should choose your partner, not your children, their feelings do have to be taken into consideration. It's important to make it clear to any future partner that you do come as part of a package. If someone is not willing to accept your children (more particularly if they live with you), then the relationship will never work without someone getting seriously hurt.
Your children need to understand that you have emotional needs and you should explain to them why it is important for you to date other men or women. However, they should also understand that not everyone you date or become friends with is going to be a potential "new" daddy. Their biological dad will always be their real daddy and this only changes in situations where the biological father disappears and doesn't have any further involvement with his children. Any man can father a child and yet it takes a very special man to be a real daddy and there are many stepdads out there who perform this role brilliantly.
Before you are ready to enter into another relationship, however, just get out there and do something positive; take up a new hobby (that could eventually be developed into a money-making venture or business), take a course, retrain for an alternative career, join an exercise class (when you feel fit and energetic and your body looks good, you feel more positive), or do all those things that you felt unable to do when you were married.
Finally, one of the most therapeutic things that I did following my divorce was to compile two lists. The first was a list of everything that was bad in my marriage and included all the negative feelings that I experienced on a day-to-day basis. I then compiled a list of all the positive reasons for divorcing, including all the optimistic feelings that I experienced as a single person. After reading through the lists, I wondered why I'd stayed in such a dead-end relationship for so long. Do the same and you'll feel so much better.