The apparent ability of some parents to get on with their social lives post-divorce without missing a beat can be demoralizing to those who find business as usual impossible. This perspective can be especially painful during holidays and anniversaries. When the lonely, isolated parent views themselves negatively in contrast to the active parent an unhealthy dynamic can occur in which the lonely or isolated parent may berate themselves for being weak and fearful thus compounding their misery.
In my opinion it’s better to experience some degree of solitude or soul searching post-divorce. Rushing out and “getting back in the game” to prove that you’re not weak or vulnerable can be as unhealthy as an excessive amount of isolation and loneliness. In the former approach you ignore or devalue your emotional experience by keeping busy, in the later your emotional life envelopes you making transformation into a new and better life difficult.
I believe that it’s important to be okay with being alone. The benefits of being comfortable with who you are as an individual outside of the social milieu can’t be overestimated. With the ability to be alone and reflect comes psychological strength and depth. Finding time to meditate, participate in psychotherapy, read, pray, hike or other solitary and self-enhancing activities will allow your psyche to heal from the often terrifying disruption you’re experiencing.
You may ignore the emotional impact of separation and divorce but that avoidance comes at a price. Your emotions will always find a way to express themselves and ignoring them only ensures their surfacing on their own terms rather than allowing them to surface through periods of introspection. The parent who stays busy to avoid their emotions often does so out of fear. Fear that acknowledging their sadness and anger will paralyze them.
There are a million ways to run from your emotions post-divorce. A myriad of obsessive or addictive activities are available that you can engage in to avoid feelings of sadness or loss. These behaviors are every bit as destructive as drowning in your emotions to the point of paralysis.
A prolonged experience of isolation and loneliness can be harmful as well. You’re right to acknowledge the major change that’s occurring in your life with all of the attendant emotions these changes bring. It’s equally important to realize, however, that the pain you’re feeling will not always be as profound as it may be in the initial phases of the divorce. At some point you will get back to living your life fully, albeit in a different yet fulfilling way.
The experience of loneliness and isolation post-divorce can seem beyond control. Although a natural result of the loss you’re feeling, allowing yourself to become fully engulfed by fear and sadness during the divorce process will put you at the mercy of your emotions. Instead of having emotions your emotions will control you. You won’t be able to see a way to dig yourself out of the isolation pit.
The more isolated you become the more foreign, threatening and rejecting the world seems.
Surfacing from an entrenched period of isolation can be extremely difficult. The advice and encouragement of well-intentioned family, friends and clergy may not be sufficient to overcome the emotional barriers you’re up against. As a psychotherapist I’ve seen the effectiveness and insight therapy can bring. Unfortunately therapy is not for everyone.
So here’s something else to consider when striving for a healthy balance between activity and introspection, your children. How you deal with major stress in your life becomes the primary coping mechanism your kids will use as adults. The example you set provides the skill set they’ll inherit to deal with life when things get tough.
It’s important to remember that you won’t surface from your loneliness without asserting yourself. Take the initiative to engage with people and don’t accept rejection. Striking a balance that allows healthy introspection and social engagement is a worthy and challenging goal. Ideally you can find a way to honor your experience of dramatic change, loss and anger yet still remain engaged in life in a meaningful way.
Leo Terbieten MFT is the author of two helpful books for parents going through separation and divorce; “The Custody Manual” and “Change Your Mind, Co-Parenting in High Conflict Custody Cases”.