On our podcast ‘Tales That Tethr’, tethr Founder & CEO Matt Zerker interviews entrepreneurs, experts, thought leaders, and regular people about what is means to be a man, the challenges that modern men face, and how to overcome challenges and live life in a more connected and authentic way.
Divorce and separation are hard. Really hard. If you’re reading this and you’re going through a divorce or separation, heading towards one, or it’s in your rearview, you already know this.
It’s hard and confusing, full of big and uncomfortable feelings. How could it be any different? It’s a reconfiguration of your life - where you live, your time, your finances, your relationships with a whole variety of people including your ex, in-laws, family, friends, neighbours and of course, if you have them, your kids. It’s also a reconfiguration of your hopes, expectations and dreams for your life. Separation and divorce is a reconfiguration of yourself. It strikes at the heart of your identity.
When I got married I expected to be with the woman I was marrying forever. I expected to be her husband forever. That was the dream and vision in my heart and mind. I wasn’t envisioning anything different. When we had kids they became part of that forever vision and folded into my identity as being a dad alongside their mum.
When my marriage was over, as relieved as I was for the end of the frequent anxiety and tension, it also felt like a failure of a dream, and of me. I felt shame about that. I felt shame in letting people know that my life was changing in this way. In some ways I felt I was letting down the people who loved me and even the whole idea of how marriage is supposed to be.
As uncomfortable as my marriage had become it was at least familiar. The silence of my new space, especially when my kids were with their mum, was both welcome and weird. There was a new, yawning space in my life.
I knew that if I didn’t want my post-married life to be defined by blame, bitterness and sadness, I could either numb it or Feel It All.
I knew that if I didn’t want my post-married life to be defined by blame, bitterness and sadness, I could either numb it or Feel It All. I’ve been on the journey of deep grief before, and I'm a firm believer that the best way is through, not around. Sure you can Netflix (or drink or drug or sex) your way through difficult periods, but healing and avoiding are very different. Whatever you don’t heal will revisit you. The best way is through.
I made a commitment to Feel It All. It meant being with the feelings however big and however uncomfortable and scary, and making sure I was supported through it. It was one of the best decisions I made.
If you’re going through divorce or separation, or you’re heading towards it, here’s a list of what helped me and others. Originally I was going to call this The Survivor’s Guide, but I’m going to call it The Thriver’s Guide instead, because within this massive upheaval is the opportunity for healing, connection and growth:
Who do you have around you? Who are the people you can lean on?
By the way, as much as I had feared it, I never experienced any negative judgement from anyone for the end of my marriage.
Having a support system is essential to healing and moving on. Make a list of friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances in your life you can connect with. Having people you can go and have fun with is great, but on this list I want you to note the people who are good listeners and can be with you and your sadness and anger. These are the people who don’t try and avoid talking about the difficult stuff, who don’t try and ‘fix’ you or encourage you to drink/drug/sex your way out of it. Once you’ve made your list, ask for their support.
By the way, as much as I had feared it, I never experienced any negative judgement from anyone for the end of my marriage. The truth is, most adults know how challenging being in a relationship is. Most adults in long term relationships have probably questioned it at one time or another, and I only ever experienced understanding.
Being part of a men’s group has supported me through so many challenges in my life. This is my biggest recommendation here: find a well-run men’s group. Evryman and the ManKind Project are well worth looking into. Churches often hold men’s groups. Meeting in-person is preferable, a lot of groups are currently meeting online so access to this type of support is easier than ever. You already know TETHR. It offers great community and resources - lean into it.
You’re going to experience the anger, sadness and confusion of grief. However relieved you are to no longer be living the day-to-day stress of your previous relationship, you are still experiencing loss. Your life is changing on a tectonic level. Whilst it might be therapeutic to spend some time blaming and complaining about your ex, if you stay stuck there you won’t heal, you’ll stay bitter and you won’t reap the fruits your changing life can offer. And yes, some Netflixing and partying and whatever-works-for-you can be a wonderful and necessary escape from time to time but if that’s all you're doing, your anger, sadness, and confusion will bite your ass later.
That wetness you feel on your cheeks? Those are tears. Welcome them. The more deeply you feel and express these feelings, the more fully and quickly you’ll move through your intense emotions, and the healthier you’ll feel on the other side.
Feel it all: the sadness, rage, even joy. Give yourself permission to feel it as deeply as you can. The more comfortable you get with these feelings, the more quickly they will pass.
How do you do this? Express your feelings. Do this consciously, with intention, and safely where it’s not harmful to anyone else (see the note above about joining a men’s group - a solid, well-run men’s group will create this space for you). On your own, you can scream into a pillow, thump a mattress, whack a stick against a tree, howl at the moon (I’ve done, and do, all of these, it’s fucking great). That wetness you feel on your cheeks? Those are tears. Welcome them. The more deeply you feel and express these feelings, the more fully and quickly you’ll move through your intense emotions, and the healthier you’ll feel on the other side.
A good counsellor, coach or therapist can help you here too.
Journaling to get your thoughts and feelings out onto the page can stop the mental loops and bring you clarity. If you’re harbouring a lot of anger towards your ex, journaling (and expressing emotion as mentioned above) will help you move through it to a place of clarity and stability.
You have the opportunity to create a new shape for your life. Plan time for friends, exercising, hobbies. Some men isolate themselves when they’re in a long-term relationship, and friends and hobbies fall away. Now is the time to pick up these loose ends or explore something new. Meet-Up is a great way to explore interests and meet like-minded people, Eventbrite is a portal into a whole world of interests and learning, often free.
It’s easy to get lost in the what-ifs and bitterness of the past. Write a list of all the things that are better about your life now. Include the things you have the opportunity to do, feel and enjoy now you are no longer in your old relationship. Think about the following areas: finances, career, health, hobbies, relationship, friendship, family, personal development, spirituality. Stick the list on your fridge or on your phone for easy reference.
If you’re not yet divorced or separated, create a list of all the positive things that will be possible once it happens. I did this and put the list in my phone. I would refer to it when my life felt overwhelming - the fear of change and loss, the sadness, the anger. It was a great comfort (and guess what, everything I wrote down that I believed would change for the better, has happened).
It’s so easy to get stuck in the blame game. Yes, your ex may have behaved or be behaving in ways that were unfair or unkind, but whatever the circumstances of your split, you played a part. It might be hard to admit, but it’s true. Maybe you didn’t stick up for yourself, maybe you were emotionally unavailable, maybe you always walked away from conflict and nothing ever got resolved, maybe you weren’t a good listener or you never apologized. Whatever it was, if you don’t identify and address your part, you’ll find yourself repeating a version of the same shit in your next relationship.
Do yourself (and your future partner) the favour of doing the deep dive now of seeing how you contributed to your relationship ending. This is warrior work. The help of a men’s group, coach, counsellor or therapist can be crucial in helping you see what you may not be able to see on your own, and explore it with you.
Here’s a shortlist of what NOT to do. The following things are so tempting to engage in because they offer short-term relief, but the down-side is long term bitterness, blame and hurt.
THE DO NOT'S
- Numb your emotions. Yes, have a drink or two or whatever, go and unwind, have fun and get crazy (you deserve it) but don’t get into a habit of numbing your emotions.
- Send that angry email/text to your ex, you know the one you write in the heat of the moment. Write it, but don’t send it. Write it, sleep on it, don’t send it.
- Blame it all on your ex. You played a part, it might not be obvious at first but do the courageous work of finding out what it was and why.
- Badmouth your ex in front of your kids. It can be tempting, but they’re looking to you for stability and comfort. And this isn’t their fight. They get to form their opinions and their own relationship with their other parent. Instead, take responsibility for what you’re feeling and share that with them without blaming (‘Something happened and I’m angry right now’). And if you’re having a hard day, if you’re feeling sad or angry let them know (and let them know you’re ok and you have support). If your kids witness you doing this it will let them know that their feelings are ok too, and that it’s safe to talk to you about them.
What you’re going through is hard. Be gentle with yourself, find support and use it. There’s an easier, more fulfilling life waiting for you. I wish all the best on your journey there.
Matt Hilliard Forde is a certified relationship coach who supports men in creating the fulfilling and sexy relationships they deserve.