Going through a divorce is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever have to do. Your dream of marital bliss is now a nightmare. Tough decisions have to be made about who gets which belongings and assets. Friends and family members expect an explanation of what went wrong. You may need to hire a lawyer, and there is tedious paperwork to fill out. And, most importantly, you have to get through each day without imploding under the weight of your emotions, which might be the most overwhelming thing of all.
Author Avalon Sequoia Brandt, who has been through three divorces, understands.
“Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to magically erase your hurt, stress, loneliness, and confusion,” says Avalon, author of the new book, Still I Love: Loving after Three Divorces “But there are strategies that can help you cope, adjust, and even grow during this difficult time.”
In Still I Love, Avalon tells the compelling story of her three marriages and divorces, which she navigated on the long road to earning her degree as an attorney. While Avalon’s story reads like a movie script, it’s interwoven with her heartfelt observations and advice. Avalon’s reflections on how she has succeeded in maintaining her positivity, resilience, faith, and belief in love will speak to anyone who has dealt with a broken heart and divorce.
“Trust me, I know that divorce doesn’t originally factor into anyone’s life plan,” she acknowledges. “I have been divorced three times, not because I wanted to, but because circumstances forced me to make painful choices. My divorces left me brokenhearted, but each time I was determined to manage my pain, maintain my confidence, and remain open to love.”
Here, she shares 12 things that helped her survive while coping with divorce:
Accept that the marriage is ending. Nobody gets married with the intention or expectation of getting divorced, so when it happens it’s unbelievable! In order to accept that your marriage is ending, you must first be honest about why the marriage is dissolving. Usually, this means making sure that you are not fixating on your ex’s positive qualities and downplaying his or her hurtful or unhealthy behaviors—or your own. If you continue fixating on a selective version of reality, you will never be able to accept that the marriage is over.
“Even when you know it’s the right thing, making the decision to fall out of love with someone can be difficult,” Avalon acknowledges. “To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying and admiring all of the good things about past partners—there are still many things I appreciate about my former husbands. But I’ve learned that it’s important to be honest about your ex’s flaws, too. Otherwise, you run the risk of believing that your partner is ‘perfect’ and blaming all of the relationship’s problems on yourself, which can be fatal to your self-esteem.
“My best advice is to listen to your intuition,” she says. “Even if it’s uncomfortable to admit, you know when you’re lying to yourself and mentally covering for your partner. Even though the marriage is over, hold him or her to the same standards of behavior and accountability that you set for yourself. Be honest with yourself about how both of you contributed to the divorce.”
Allow yourself to grieve because your heart is broken. It’s inevitable that the loss of your marriage (as well as the dissolution of the hopes and dreams you had for your future) will cause you pain. You’ll need to take time to grieve and heal. So whenever you feel angry, sad, in despair, confused, betrayed, or a myriad of negative emotions, allow yourself to experience those feelings. “Cope so you don’t hurt yourself or anybody else,” says Avalon. If you can, call a trusted friend who will allow you to vent without judgment. If you’re at work, retreat to a quiet place and let your emotions flow freely. Get the pain out of your chest. Whatever you do, don’t bury your feelings in an attempt to convince yourself and others that “everything is fine.”
“When your marriage is dissolving, everything is not fine!” says Avalon. “As my first marriage was ending, I remember resolving not to let my hurt show on the outside. But of course it built up inside me, and when the pressure became too much, I had a major meltdown. I was hysterical—crying, screaming, running from room to room, banging on the walls, and stomping my feet. A family friend had to give me a sleeping pill to calm me down! That incident taught me the importance of being honest with myself about what I was feeling, when I was feeling it.”
Stop looking back. Eliminate “what if” and “if only” from your vocabulary. These two phrases factor heavily into the thoughts of anyone who’s going through a divorce. For instance: “What if I’d only been nicer?” “What if we’d started going to therapy?” “If only I’d asked more questions when I was suspicious.” “If only I had spent more time with him.” “If only I’d stood up for myself more often.” The truth is, you can keep looking back and wondering “what if” forever—but as long as you keep looking back, you will never move forward. You will be stuck in the past, mentally rehashing what can never be changed.
“Of course we would all do things differently if we’d known then what we know now—but unless you have a time machine, that’s impossible,” points out Avalon. “Accept that you did the best you could with the resources you had at the time. Try to forgive yourself and your ex, which will help you to feel more at peace and to break the unhealthy mental loop of ‘what if’ and ‘if only.’ You may find it helpful to remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re condoning your ex’s or your own bad behavior—it means that you’re choosing to let go of resentment, blame, and anger.”
Start moving forward and make the hard decisions. Ignoring a bad situation or a less-than-ideal reality won’t make it go away. If you’re going through a divorce (and even if you are already divorced), you may still be in contact with your ex, his or her family, and mutual friends, especially if you have children together. Maybe you still have some of your ex’s belongings, or find yourself visiting places you went together. And maybe that’s fine! But if you know these activities are causing you pain and preventing you from moving forward, you have some tough choices to make: Should I cut off contact? Do I need to return or donate items that remind me of my ex? etc. These decisions may be difficult, but remember, the short-term pain you are experiencing is worth it because you are doing what is necessary to MOVE FORWARD!
“Years after we had divorced, I was still in occasional contact with my first husband,” Avalon shares. “I talked to him more frequently when things weren’t going well because our conversations made me feel better. I’ll never forget what my uncle told me when he found out: ‘You will never be stable if you keep going back.’ And I knew my uncle was right. It was difficult, but I made the decision to let go of my emotional dependency on my ex, and I cut off all contact. Looking back, I know this was the healthiest thing I could have done, because it forced me to focus only on my future.”
Use a journal to process your emotions and map out where you want to go. In her book, Avalon shares that she started writing in a journal after her first marriage and found it to be a great survival tool. “I wanted to understand why I felt the way I did and I wanted to feel better,” she recounts. “As I started making entries, I discovered that I felt relief when I wrote. It became a source of strength that allowed me to open up to myself and to be honest with myself about my emotions. And as time passed, I could look back at my prior journal entries to remind myself that I was making progress, even when it didn’t feel that way.”
Based on her experience, Avalon suggests viewing your journal as a map that leads you from the past to the future. “To start, just try writing about how you feel about the relationship,” she advises. “You will discover that putting pen to paper will help you to get in touch with what you need and desire to move forward. You can write to reflect on what you learned from your marriage and divorce. Most importantly, creating a journal is also a great means to finding your new destiny, because you can record your evolving dreams and hopes for the future. It doesn’t matter if you journal every day or occasionally—this habit will help you when you need to process your emotions and organize your thoughts.”
Start to visualize your new destination. Now that you have accepted that your marriage is over and that you must move forward, it’s time for you to start visualizing yourself in a new life. To help yourself stay focused on your new hopes for the future, find or create a personal post-divorce mantra and remind yourself of it frequently. Select a mantra that empowers you and encourages you to move away from the pain, disappointment, and (often) embarrassment of divorce. Ideally, your mantra should carry you to a place of peace, joy, financial security, and contentment. Never discount the power of the words you tell yourself. Whether positive or negative, the words we say and believe about ourselves shape who we are. Words are powerful tools in focusing your intentions and shaping your attitude.
“As my first marriage was ending, I remember buying a calligraphy set and writing on construction paper some words and themes to encourage myself,” Avalon recalls. “I wrote on one sign the words ‘I’m on my way to the top one step at a time.’ I drew a ladder beside the words and I taped the sign on my bedroom wall. Every day I read it, several times a day, and slowly I started to feel myself changing, just a little at a time.”
Build a routine that makes you feel good. Even if living as a hermit feels safer (and it might!), try to fill your days with activities you enjoy and that keep your mind occupied: walks around the neighborhood, worship services, trips to the dog park, drinks with friends, etc. This serves three purposes: Enjoyable activities lift your mood, keep you busy so you aren’t wallowing, and get you out of the house and into situations where you’ll interact with others. If you want to reclaim your life after divorce, you must learn to be confident and comfortable in the world, on your own.
“After my second marriage ended, I made a special effort to discover life beyond being a wife,” recalls Avalon. “For me, a big part of that was exploring and enjoying the spectacular dining scene in Washington, D.C. At first, it was strange learning how to enjoy a meal alone. I got curious looks from maître d’s, waiters, and other diners. But over time, I began to dwell less on what other people were thinking and more on savoring each satisfying bite of my meals. Sounds simple, I know, but learning to enjoy a meal alone became a crucial survival tool that enabled me to reconnect with myself after a disappointing marriage.”
Set a new goal, or get back into an old hobby. It’s possible that you “lost” some parts of yourself in your former marriage, allowing your ex’s interests, desires, and activities to come before your own. That’s why it’s helpful to start pursuing a personal goal now—something to keep you focused on your own priorities and interests, and something that does not remind you of your marriage. So think: Before immersing yourself in your relationship, what did you do for fun? Where did you find fulfillment? Return to those activities. Or start pursuing a new goal that’s been on the back burner.
“Pull out your flute or your art supplies,” suggests Avalon. “Join a community softball team or hiking group. Sign up for a book club or cooking classes. Go back to school. Developing yourself is empowering and motivating, especially after you’ve just ended a relationship, or while you’re going through that process. One of the best decisions I ever made was applying to law school after my second divorce. Not only was I finally pursuing a goal I’d had for years; I was keeping myself moving forward and focused on the future, and I was strengthening my identity.”
Develop your courage and show your confidence. Don’t shun special occasions. Special occasions can be hard when you’re divorcing or divorced. The person with whom you’re used to celebrating is no longer there. Traditions can bring up painful memories. And even well-meaning friends and family may treat you differently. So if you’re tempted to stay in bed on your birthday or to bow out of a family holiday celebration, know that you’re not alone. Still, Avalon urges you to make a special effort to celebrate—perhaps in a fresh new way. In the end, shunning special events will only reinforce how lonely and unhappy you are feeling.
“After divorcing, I taught myself to love special events,” shares Avalon. “I sang in church and focused on how thankful I was to have supportive family and friends around me. And on my birthdays especially, I established a ritual that’s for me, and me alone. In the early hours of the morning, I drive to the Atlantic Ocean, sit on the beach, and watch the sun come over the horizon like a fireball out of the sea. I savor the beauty of nature, and I take time to think, reflect, and set goals. I always come away from this experience with newfound clarity and excitement for the coming year.”
Strengthen your foundation by staying close to (or reconnecting with) your family and friends. While you were married, it’s possible that you focused primarily on your partner and drifted away from other loved ones. Or perhaps you’ve purposefully put distance between yourself and loved ones who questioned the wisdom of your relationship. Whatever the reason, it’s time to reconnect and repair any damage that’s been done.
“The people who love you and who have known you for years will keep you grounded and remind you of who you are, if you allow them to do so,” Avalon promises. “Throughout my marriages, my friends and family stood by me and supported me when I wanted to give up, and even when they disagreed with my choices. They also served as a great sounding board. Looking back, I wish I had listened more closely and taken more of the advice that they offered instead of allowing my desire to be in love and in a marriage dictate my decisions!”
Show yourself some TLC (emphasis on the L!). You may have had a relationship that ended badly, but you don’t (and you shouldn’t!) have to live without love. For the sake of your present and your future, you need to learn to love yourself. First, work on seeing yourself as a whole and complete person, not as one-half of a relationship. You also need to treat yourself as kindly and with as much compassion as you would a friend or loved one (i.e., stop beating yourself up relentlessly!). And while all of us can and should strive for self-improvement, you need to recognize and value all of the wonderful aspects of yourself that have been there all along.
“Even after my divorces, love is still the center of my existence,” confirms Avalon. “Yes, I still hope to find a lifelong romantic partner, but that desire no longer dictates my happiness and drives my actions. Instead, my number one goal and priority is to value, honor, and love myself. I affirm this intention by looking into the mirror each morning and saying with a smile, ‘I love you.’ Then, I show myself love through actions big and small, starting by luxuriating in a long, hot shower!”
Help someone else. As Avalon has pointed out, it’s important to concentrate on your own needs and desires after going through a divorce—but she also warns against becoming too self-focused and isolated. Serving others, she says, is one of the best ways to combat feelings of loneliness while making connections with others and regaining personal purpose.
“In my thirties, I started and ran a ministry to help young adults become spiritually mature and personally grounded,” says Avalon. “My goal was to provide them with the tools to handle new freedoms and to navigate common pitfalls and temptations that might get them off track. I remembered the difficulties I’d faced, and I wanted to help others avoid some of my mistakes. I believe that I did make a difference in some of their lives, and that is one of the legacies of which I’m most proud.
“I have come to firmly believe that my success is not measured by whether my relationships are successful, by how much money I make, by what my job title is, or by the house I live in,” It’s measured by the positive impact that I have on others’ lives.”
“Whether they focus on looking inward or outward, I’m betting that most of the coping strategies I’ve shared won’t seem like ‘enough’ to you—at least in the beginning,” concludes Avalon. “None of them will magically heal your broken heart or repair a life that has been turned upside down. Only time, and your own choices and intentions, can do that. However, I can promise you from experience that these tools will help you process your pain, figure out what your priorities are, and start you on the path to healing.
“Lastly, I hope my own story comforts and inspires you,” she adds. “I have been where you are now—several times—and I know that it’s an overwhelming, crushing place. But I also know that now I’m satisfied and excited by my life. It is full of love, joy, and success. I wish the same for you.”
Avalon S. Brandt, Esq., is the author of Still I Love: Loving after Three Divorces. She was educated in the Baltimore City Schools. In 1994 she graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law. She is currently employed with the law offices of Saul E. Kerpelman, which represents children for injuries resulting from childhood lead exposure. Prior to joining the Kerpelman firm, she was a partner with the law offices of Wilson & Brandt, providing legal representation in custody, divorce, child abuse, and criminal defense cases.