No matter how bad your divorce was, you don’t have to stay stuck & bitter for the rest of your life.
Divorce drags a lot of agony in its wake. And grief is an inescapable part of it. But the work to overcome grief after a bitter divorce can create another level of agony altogether.
Emotions like anger, guilt, shame, embarrassment, disappointment and fear are among the normal line-up after a divorce.
Bitterness, however, is ugly. It oozes out of anger, resentment and indignation over the perception of being treated unfairly. It goes beyond anger to a nastiness and malevolence toward the other person. It can even carry undertones of hatred.
Think about someone you have known who was so full of negative energy that s/he couldn’t focus on anything good. Perhaps that person had such deep, uncontrollable anger that s/he said and did “crazy” things.
Perhaps you even tried to reason with or help the person, but came to realize that there was no getting past the bitterness.
A person that is “pissed off” can’t move on, and remains a prisoner to the past.
If you’re trying to overcome grief after a bitter divorce, you will have to do a lot of work to defuse the rancor.
You won’t be able to control what your ex says or does. But you can decide for yourself that your survival depends on moving through the stages of grief. The alternative, staying stuck in any stage can lead to emotions and behaviors with lifetime consequences – and neither of us want that for you.
It’s not uncommon for people divorcing or already divorced to be immersed in senseless, destructive battles with one another. It’s also not uncommon for one or both to pretend that s/he isn’t hurting, or to avoid or mask the pain.
Healthy anger can be a potent messenger, telling you if something is wrong, painful or threatening. In divorce, however, anger is often wielded as a means to punish an ex while maintaining a bitter relationship.
Who would want that, right?
Remember that bitterness doesn’t run on clear thinking. It runs on the vapors of rumination over deep wounds that the other person may never acknowledge, let alone assuage. And that can lead a person to act destructively...and ultimately stay stuck.
In order to overcome grief after a bitter divorce, that process will have to be embraced. The stages will be the same as those for grieving a death, though infused with attributes unique to divorce.
There will be no funeral, and some of the trusted members of your support system may be part of the “loss” in the divorce. But there is life. And there is hope for yours to evolve to a more authentic, mature, happy place after you reach the stage of acceptance.
Here are 6 strategies to help you overcome grief after a bitter divorce.
- Accept the divorce in your mind until your heart catches up.
This isn't the same acceptance that shines the encouraging light from the end of the grief tunnel. It's just a mental, pragmatic acceptance that says, "The divorce is a reality. I have to get through this, and I'm the only one who can do it."
You may feel numb, and you will definitely feel the heaviness of the grief to come. But now it's time to step to the starting line and mentally accept the situation.
- Find a therapist, divorce coach and/or divorce support group.
Divorce unravels everything. It’s not just the big, obvious stuff. It’s also the countless little things -- the nuances that stitch together memories and the rituals of daily life.
Having all that pulled out from under you can be like waking up in the dark after an earthquake. How do you know where to step without stumbling? How do you access anything you need?
The blessing of working with a divorce professional is that s/he knows where the light switch is...and can offer you a hand so that you can more safely navigate the rubble.
And a support group can give you the camaraderie of others who are at the various stages of grief that you will need to work through.
- Let the grief begin.
It’s going to happen, whether you accept it or resist it. Your commitment should be to move through each stage without getting stuck.
Yes, you will undoubtedly come back to stages you thought you had left. And the stages won’t necessarily happen in order.
The promise of the grief process is that each stage offers gifts -- if the stage is temporary. Each stage poses its own dangers, however, if treated as your final destination.
Divorce is not the end, so don’t give it the false power to be. (It’s worth noting that the stages of grief can range from five to seven in research. But the five original stages defined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross are always present.)
- Work on your anger.
Anger is actually a secondary emotion with a brilliant ability to shield you from deeper, primary emotions like sadness and fear.
In the early stages of an event (separation, divorce, discovery of an infidelity), it can deflect the inevitable flood of pain and fear. This protection is one of the gifts of anger.
Think of anger as a “PEP talk”: power, energy and protection. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Kind of like, “Bottle that up and give me a 6-pack!”
Think about how you feel when you are angry, even enraged. There’s an energy that needs a place to go. And it can be so strong that it makes you feel powerful when you express it. (Ever take a run or lift weights when the fury is running through your veins?)
Now think about anger as a protector. It can be a veritable flame-thrower of emotion that can keep your offenders at a distance. Or it can simply protect you from underlying emotions for which you’re not quite ready.
These gifts can give you resolve and the energy to take action to heal. They can also help you set very clear boundaries, especially at a time when you feel so vulnerable to trespass.
But there is a risk to anger. If you stay in this stage too long, you could make poor judgments.
You could bust right through those anger-inspired boundaries and hurt people. You could use all that powerful energy to create (and maintain) conflict. And you could hide your bitterness behind a false sense of control that anger can give.
If you are trying to overcome grief after a bitter divorce, this part of your journey will be especially important. Get into the habit of writing out your anger in a journal or in letters you don’t send. Scream into a pillow. Pound a pillow. Talk it out with a divorce coach, therapist or friend.
- Take responsibility.
Divorce isn’t a one-person show. There is always at least a sliver of that pie graph with your name on it.
Learn to communicate in “I” statements. Even the practice of speaking differently (and more responsibly) can slow your thinking and make you more aware of your thoughts.
Take note of what pushes your buttons. And use the awareness of your responsibility as inspiration for personal-growth work.
It’s amazing the way owning up to your own contributions to a failed marriage can halt the blame game.
- Strive for compassion and gratitude.
Your ex may be the last person on earth for whom you feel compassion, let alone gratitude. But remember that s/he is as human as you, and is navigating this strange thing called “life” with as much vulnerability as you.
Can you open your heart to the possibility that your ex’s hurtful behavior is a cover for underlying anger, fear and sadness? Would that remind you of anyone?
And just because you're divorcing doesn’t mean that your time together was a waste. You shared life experiences and learned powerful lessons that have changed you. Even the difficult experiences taught you things you will never forget.
And if you have children together, you will always have something for which to be grateful.
The work involved to overcome grief after a bitter divorce is about getting to a place of acceptance. This isn’t a “party on the mountaintop” after a long, upward trek. It’s just a newfound realization of your own strength.
Think of it as a starting place where you stake your flag in the ground and say, “Now, I’m ready to move forward.”
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a divorce and life coach, who works with people just like you who want to know how to overcome grief after a bitter divorce. For free weekly advice, register for my newsletter. If you’d like to explore working with me, you can schedule a private 30-minute consultation with me.
Looking for more help coping with divorce heartbreak? You’ll find what you’re looking for in Dealing With Grief.