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William Schroeder, MA, LPC
Last week I posted a quote of “You don’t know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.” I can’t tell you how true that quote is for people going through a divorce and even a painful breakup. When people come in for a first counseling session, after listening to their story, one the first things I look for is identifying their support network. The hope is to make a person’s support network be like the legs of a chair… the more they have, the more steady they are even if one becomes wobbly or is removed. What I mean by support network is friends, family, faith (if that’s important to them), work support networks, exercise-oriented activities, animals, etc. Often, a counselor becomes a leg of that support network as well. All of these things are helpful in moving through difficult times.
For me, the experience of losing someone I loved was more than any pain I had dealt with up to that point. It was more than losing a part of myself — it was a complete annihilation of my old self. I struggled with a lot of sadness, sleepless nights, and the few nights I did dream; I had vivid emotional dreams of my ex. All of this was continual evidence of how my brain and I were struggling to make sense of what had happened. The sadness that surrounded me at the time felt too overwhelming to embrace fully — but when I did sit with it, it helped me to grow in ways I wouldn’t have previously imagined. As I allowed it to coat me, it helped it to release its grasp on me.
Much good came from that time of hardship — in time. It forced me to sit with my pain and look at my fears and pushed me to make daily plans on how to create little changes to overcome the bigger struggles. A few years ago I wrote a post on how divorce can turn you into Voldemort. It was a reminder for me of how difficult it can be to open yourself up following loss and the difficulty of sitting with pain and growing from it. That said, I learned a couple of things from the experience that I hope can help you on our journey in developing your emotional intelligence.
I have posted in the past about how difficult the process following divorce was for me and the temptation to avoid pain as well as some things that I found helpful in Buddhism. Today I am going to break it down again in an even more simple process:
- Give yourself space to be sad or mad – This may sound strange, but the worst thing you can do is try to suppress your sadness all the time. It’s tough because society will almost naturally encourage suppression because some people don’t know what to do with your sadness. As a result, it can be easy just to bury it and try and move on. My suggestion is to honor your grief and create some space for it to exist with you. If you don’t, it will ride shotgun with you daily. What does that look like? For me it meant when I had an emotion that came up, trying to give it space to flow through. This may mean stepping outside, going to your car, or to the bathroom, but give yourself that space. Sit with it. Understand it. Grow from it. Honoring what has passed helps to create fertile grounds for future relationships.As a guy, I found it hard to find direction with this as most books on divorce were written for women. I read a book called The Storms Can’t Hurt The Sky, and it made a lot of sense to me and helped me to work through painful emotions that surrounded my divorce.
- Make short term and long term goals – For me, my short term goals surrounded survival stuff: financial goals, taking care of myself, working out, journaling, therapy, awareness of weakness, etc. How did I implement these things? I put a post-it note on my closet door that showed me how much I needed to make each week and made a budget for myself. I journaled regularly and used the app Day One to stay on track with it. Journaling helped me to have snapshots of each day so that I could see progress, setbacks, and even some blind spots. Exercise helped me to stay in shape and fight some of the sadness that comes naturally with huge life events. I cut down my counseling work as I knew I had to take care of myself while going through all this. Meeting with a therapist helped me to pull all these pieces together and see what I was doing well as well as where I might need assistance. As for my long term goals, they were broader in focus, and that was helpful to me. I made a list of what I wanted to change: run on Town Lake, read more classic works, learn to cook better, grow my company, travel more, and date again. Looking back on those goals, I can honestly say they were helpful and healthy.
- Utilize your support network – As I mentioned earlier, it’s essential to evaluate and use your support system. Who has helped in struggles in your past? A friend, family, a running club, your faith, wine club, therapist — think through this and even if there aren’t as many as you might like, make it your intention to seek support. When you are fresh out of a breakup or divorce, some friends may stick to the sidelines until the smoke clears. You may have friends that come out of nowhere and are essential in the process of moving forward. It helps to let people know that you might need some assistance and see how they respond. Again, try to have as many legs on your chair as possible.
- Learn from your past relationship – Part of the reason I encourage people to proceed slowly after divorce or a breakup is so you have a chance to learn the lessons from your breakup. Relationships don’t have to leave you broken. There is a lot of data that shows when people don’t learn from their losses they will then be attracted to intimate relationships with what will turn out to have similar issues. So, give yourself that space to learn from your past relationship and see how you can grow and change not to repeat those same mistakes.
- Live in the now – I can’t tell you how many times I forgot this lesson as I would replay the past over and over in my head or freeze a bit with overwhelming when I thought about the future. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have space to process what you are feeling; it is just important not to let yourself get caught in a vortex of regret. Give yourself space to try and just experience a moment. One trick can be getting a rubber band and putting it on your wrist and whenever you catch your mind drifting, snap yourself to try and get back in the moment. Wake up and focus yourself on the world around you as much as you can. How many times have you found that you arrive at work or home and you have no idea where that time went? Pay attention. Notice your senses — air on your skin, the sun on your face, etc. Smile at strangers. Stand up and move your body. Eat lunch in a different place than normal. Bring a portable chair and sit outside on breaks.
- Disrupt negative spirals – When you get in a nosedive of negative emotion and ruminating on bad things, pull yourself out of it. Negative thoughts can easily ride shotgun with us or become like our personal humidity. We have to acknowledge them and notice when they are unproductive. Make a circle and focus write in it the things you can do something about and put the things you can do nothing about on the outside of the loop. You can still care about this stuff that may fall outside of the loop without worrying about them. Give them their space, honor that space, but don’t let it always weigh on you.
- Keep a positive perspective even in tough times – After my divorce, I will say that I watched Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and I Love You Man, more times than I can count. They helped me to laugh and be hopeful about the future. I encourage people to look for the opportunity in tough times like making new friends, growing from hardship, gaining more depth. I also think it helps to look back on tough times from a perspective a few years in the future and try to think of how we might want to grow and change or where an area of opportunity may be that we can’t currently see.
- Date when you are ready – There is no perfect timeline for when someone is ready to start dating again. As I said in previous posts, I chose to try dating a bit before I was ready, but it’s all part of the process. My suggestion would just be to check and make sure you aren’t trying desperately to fill a void. This comes up for a lot of people and if it is there, be aware of it, communicate it, and proceed slowly, so you don’t jump into a relationship with similar difficulties. Consider transitional relationships to date different types of people and figure out what you might want. People are often surprised to find out that over the years they have been in a relationship, their preferences may have changed. Remember that this doesn’t have to lead to a permanent relationship, can be a lot of fun, and you might discover a thing or two about yourself.
The final step is being able to let go a bit. To do this, we have to accept the situation, look at what we have learned, and look at what things you need to do to move on — actions you need to take for yourself. Men are often faced with many forms of loss in life. This can be a divorce, loss of a child, loss of a job. When guys go through a hard loss, and they will hold it and not talk through their feelings. Sometimes they will reserve those feelings for their partner – so if they lose that person – it’s that much greater of a loss. Women, by contrast, often have people that they share their emotional worlds with and this is a big part of what helps them cope. Guys way of coping often is to distract instead of cope. Very often I will hear the story of a man who went through a big loss and a friend may take them out and get them drunk or maybe go on a trip. These things aren’t bad, but it would help just to make room for more consistency and check on those going through loss. It helps to know that the recovery takes time and to be patient with it.
Should you do therapy? If you find yourself resistant to the idea of counseling, then you might want to keep in mind that it doesn’t mean you have a problem or that you’re in crisis. Therapy can be a way to work toward a better life, with someone who has no agenda but YOU. If you would like to talk with a counselor about how they might help you and see if it might be a fit, contact us to make a counseling appointment or read more about dating and relationships counseling on our dedicated page.