“I want a divorce.”
Those are easily four of the most devastating words a wife can hear. Divorce can leave you depressed, lonely, financially strapped and wondering, Now what? “Initially, you feel like you’re never going to get through because you’re just so turned upside down,” says Vikki Stark, MSW, a Canadian family therapist and author of Runaway Husbands (Green Light Press), whose own husband of 20-plus years left her without warning. “But the chaos won’t last forever.” It usually takes about two years after a divorce to feel normal again, Stark says. During those 24 months, there are ways that help women heal, including talking out feelings, taking classes and even dating again.
Here are 12 tips to help rebuild your life:
1. Let yourself grieve. The breakup of a marriage is like a death, so it’s natural to mourn the life and lifestyle you’ve lost – even if you wanted the split. That’s because “there’s fragmentation and a vacuum where there once was order and routine,” says Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in Santa Barbara, Calif. So take time to lie in bed eating ice cream, she says. But only a short while. “It takes about half the time you were in a relationship to fully mourn the loss,” Freed says. “Let go bit by bit.”
2. Keep a journal. Writing about your emotional struggles may reduce some pain. Keeping a journal helped people with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2008 Syracuse University study. Participants wrote either about their distress or a neutral topic for three months. Those who’d written about disturbing experiences showed a significant improvement in their moods and responses to memories of what happened. If nothing else, journaling every few days tracks your healing. “It provides perspective in a clear, simple way,” says Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Mount Kisco, N.Y. “Look where I was, and where I am now. You can inspire yourself.”
3. Lean on friends. Rely on close friends to prevent you from doing anything stupid or rash, like drunk dialing your ex, slashing his tires, posting nasty things to Facebook or harassing his new girlfriend. “When people get hurt, they don’t think rationally and do really crazy things,” Freed says. “Your posse will keep you from falling off the edge.”
4. Seek professional support. Girlfriends who’ll let you sob on their shoulders and sleep on their couch when you can’t face being alone are true treasures. But for figuring out how to jump-start your new life, it’s better to talk with a therapist or spiritual advisor. “It’s hard to get motivated about life on your own,” O’Neill says. “Divorce is a process, and having a professional outline one that fits you is useful.”
5. Reinvent yourself. When you’ve been one half of a couple, losing that role can make you question who you are. “The we doesn’t exist anymore, so you need to connect with your individual identity,” says Miami marriage and family therapist Lisa Paz, Ph.D. How? For starters, list the things you like about yourself that are separate from your former role as wife, Paz advises. What are your strengths and unique attributes? When are you at your best? What do you value about yourself? “These questions can start you on the next chapter in your life,” Paz says.
6. Make new friends. After your divorce, you may feel like the odd woman out in a paired-up world. In fact, your married girlfriends may not want to spend as much time with you. “Two of my [female] clients were told by [married friends] that they didn’t want them around because their husbands might get interested in them,” Freed says. That’s why you’ll need new single friends. “You’re part of a different social pool now, so surround yourself with similar people,” Paz says. Besides, hanging out with new people means less time spent on painful memories and feelings. “The more time invested in negativity about the ex means less time spent working on what’s possible,” Freed says. “Women need to vent – it’s an important part of healing – but [avoid] people who keep recycling that.”
7. Start dating again. Flattering male attention is a great way to reinflate a bashed-up ego. “Dating replenishes your social network,” Paz says. How do you know if it’s too early to put yourself out there? “If it feels good, it’s not too soon,” she says. So ask friends for fix-ups. Or go online to a few reputable dating sites, which offer a sea of bachelors. Just keep it light and have fun. You don’t need to find a soul mate, just someone pleasant for dinner and a movie.
8. Get back your groove. Once you’re dating, there’s the possibility of sex – a prospect that’s both exciting and frightening, especially if you’ve been intimate only with your husband or it has been years since you were in a singles world. You may feel old, have let yourself go or faked orgasms while you were married. “Many women tell me they’re afraid to be naked with someone else, especially if they were shocked by the divorce and never saw it coming,” O’Neill says. The first step: Get reacquainted with your body. “Start by taking long baths, reminiscing about past sexual pleasures or fantasizing about what a new partner might do,” O’Neill advises. “If you haven’t masturbated in a long time, take it slow to discover what kinds of touch and rhythms lead to orgasm.” If you run into problems with arousal or orgasm, relax. About 10% of women have difficulty achieving orgasm, according to studies. Bring it up with your gynecologist or see a sex therapist to find the problem and resolve it.
9. But take it slow. It can be tempting to bed someone new right away, if only to prove you’re still desirable. But take precautions. Better yet Remain celibate. Women sometimes take sexual risks to boost self-esteem, but women ultimately need men to care about them – not just their bodies,” Freed says.
10. Get smart with finances. Even if you paid the bills while you were married, get up to speed on money matters – fast. Taking charge of money is key to feeling in charge again,” Freed says. Here are two ways to get started: Take city-college or adult-education classes in personal finance management. Join an investment club, where members pool their resources to invest in the stock market. Find a club near you through the National Association of Investors Corp. (a.k.a. the Better Investing Community), a nonprofit organization that teaches people how to navigate the stock market.
11. Make a bucket list. Sure, divorce creates a vacuum. But it also offers the opportunity to rediscover old – and new – interests that you let go when you were married. “In any relationship, no matter how good, we give up parts of ourselves,” Freed says. “Now it’s all about you. What do you want to experience before you pass away?” Women often rebound from divorce into fulfilling lives, says Stark, who heard from hundreds of women about their divorces through her Sudden Wife Abandonment Project. “They rebuilt [their lives] in ways they had never imagined,” Stark says. “They went back to school, traveled, remodeled their homes and started careers.”
12. Celebrate being single. When you’ve come out of the divorce darkness, celebrate the occasion. Take a trip with girlfriends, kids or by yourself if you can afford it. Or throw a “divorce shower” to recoup stuff you lost in the split. “Divorce is a process of going through and coming out the other side,” O’Neill says. “A celebration marks that you’re moving forward with your new life.”