Getting over divorce pain?

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 me to go on with my life. Now that's over I am totally lost. Please help me with my problem.

New Life?

Dear New Life?, 

Separating from a partner is one of the more significant stressors life can throw at you. Even if both parties agree that a relationship is “over and done with,” it doesn’t necessarily make the process of moving on any easier. Losing someone who has played a large role in your life is a big change that requires time to heal and readjust. Many people report overwhelming feelings of guilt, distraction, and disorientation that are similar to what you’ve described. While knowing that these emotions are common may not alleviate them, it might bring some comfort to know that the experience of grief and loss can be universal. And while the time and process of moving on will vary for each person, there are some techniques that may help facilitate your healing. 

It might be helpful to know that all people cope with loss differently. Some may 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 may feel numb and closed off from themselves and others. In fact, research looking into the emotional responses of ending a romantic relationship found that factors such as who initiated the breakup and what led up to it (such as cheating or dishonesty) influenced the partners’ responses. The researchers found that those who initiated the breakup typically reported mostly positive feelings such as relief, reduced anxiety, and freedom. In contrast, those who didn’t initiate the breakup reported greater negative emotions such as sadness or depression, changes in sleep and appetite, and decreased self-esteem. A technique called reappraisal in which you evaluate the positive or negative aspects of a situation may help facilitate the process of moving on. In one study, researchers looked at the effects of positive and negative reappraisal of both their partner and the context of the breakup. When participants focused on the positive aspects of the breakup (positive reappraisal) and negative aspects of their former partner (negative reappraisal), their despair was reduced.    

You mentioned that you feel lost and that it might be weighing on your ability to foster new connections. Before starting a new relationship, you might find it helpful to first reflect on who you are, who you want to be, goals for your future, and tangible steps you can take to get there. In clarifying a new sense of yourself, you might consider asking yourself questions such as: 

  • From what do you derive the greatest sense of satisfaction and self-esteem (apart from your relationship)? 
  • What are some small steps you could take to make yourself feel a little better? Physical activity, dressing nicely, treating yourself to a massage or a special meal are some ideas to get the ball rolling. 
  • 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 may help to remember that you don’t have to go through this alone. Although it can be difficult to ask for help, reaching out for social support may give you some solace. You may find some relief after sharing your thoughts, feelings, and time with supportive family and friends. Others have found that keeping busy, whether at their job or through hobbies, has helped ease feelings of loneliness. However, if your feelings of loss continue to interfere with your daily routine or if you’re tempted to turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms such as drugs and alcohol, you may consider seeking the help of a mental health professional. Both individual counseling and support groups are there for people dealing with divorce, loss, or grief. One resource you may check out is 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 or when you’ll feel ready to start dating, whether it's when the divorce becomes official or sometime before or after that. The grieving process takes time, and you might find that you’ll be able to process the situation better if you try not to rush it. Allowing yourself to feel how you're feeling — even if that means falling apart a little bit — may be what you need to begin recovering your sleep and study habits, and emerging back into your life in a new way. In fact, many people report that after letting themselves come undone, they’re 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. 

Good luck, 

Last updated Jan 29, 2021
Originally published Oct 01, 1993