Getting over divorce pain?

Originally Published: October 1, 1993 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 10, 2014
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Dear Alice,

I haven't really been able to talk to any girls since my breakup with my ex-wife 6 months ago. We haven't really signed any divorce papers, so I feel very obligated to stay faithful to her even though our relationship as we know it is over and done with. Will I still have this problem even when we actually get divorced? And will I forever feel bad about making the first move to end this relationship? Because for the past three months I could neither sleep or concentrate on my studies. My commitment to her and my love for her was the only thing that helped my to go on with my life. Now that's over I am totally lost. Please help me with my problem.

Signed,
New Life?

Dear New Life?,

Separating from a partner is one of the most significant stressors life can throw at you, and the sometimes overwhelming feelings of guilt, distraction, and disorientation you are experiencing are so normal as to almost be expected. Knowing that these emotions are common might not seem to make them easier to handle, but it might bring some comfort to know that the process of grief and loss is indeed universal.

People cope with loss differently — some cling to feelings of remorse, guilt, and a notion that if they remain faithful to the relationship they might be able to save it. Others feel numb and closed off from themselves and others. In both cases, it can be very helpful to focus on who you are, who you want to be, goals for your future, and tangible steps you can take get there. In clarifying a new sense of yourself, it might be helpful to ask yourself reflective questions like:

  • From what do you derive the greatest sense of satisfaction and self-esteem (apart from your relationship)?
  • What can you do to feel make yourself feel a little better? (Exercising, dressing nicely, treating yourself to a massage or a special meal are all popular answers.)
  • Who are the most supportive people in your life and how can you spend more time with them?
  • What have you learned about yourself from this experience?
  • What have you learned from this relationship that you'd like to take with you into your next one?
  • What new challenges can you overcome personally, professionally, or physically?

Although you may feel like you've lost your most significant friend, it's important not to go through this alone. Many find it a comfort to share their thoughts, feelings, and time with supportive family and friends, or with a mental health professional. If you're a Columbia student, you can make an appointment with a counselor at Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside) or the Mental Health Service (CUMC). Non-students can also seek out individual counseling or can consider joining a support group for people dealing with divorce, loss, or grief. Mental Health America maintains a website with listings of support groups, individual providers, and other resources for people coping with a difficult time in their lives.

It's hard to offer a guess as to when you might start to feel better, whether it's when the divorce becomes official or sometime before or after that. But allowing yourself to feel how you're feeling and to fall apart a little bit may be an essential part of recovering your sleep and study habits, and emerging back into your life in a new way. You cannot rush the grieving process. Many people report that after letting themselves come undone they are able to put themselves back together stronger than before. The path of healing may seem like an impossible uphill journey, but all mountains are climbed one step at a time. Perhaps asking your questions and reading this post are your first brave steps.

Alice