After my husband left I understood for the first time how someone could actually die of a broken heart. If you, like me, were unceremoniously dumped, don’t be surprised if you go through pain more severe than you’ve ever felt before. I heard this over and over from women who were left, especially if it was for another woman. Men had left me before I got married, but this was different. Those men were only passing through—on some level I knew that—and there was a voluptuousness to mourning their loss, sobbing loudly while sprawled on the couch, drinking wine, listening to torch songs, and feeling desperately sorry for myself. Those breakups lent drama to my otherwise boring single life. The death of my marriage was real drama—the kind I’d never experienced before—the kind that breaks you down, tears you up, and can land you in a mental hospital or with slit wrists.
Just in case you think that this level of extreme grief is excessive or abnormal, I’m here to reassure you that it isn’t. The pain you’re experiencing is very real according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. Fisher reports that brain scans of people who were dumped show the areas associated with “physical pain, obsessive thinking and extreme rage becoming active. During this time, we’re willing to take enormous risks for big gains and big losses.” The intense romantic-love center of the brain also cranks up to try to win the person back. It’s a profound form of suffering, Fisher says, adding that the drive to love is stronger than the sex drive. No one kills himself or herself over being sexually rejected. People do kill themselves or others over getting dumped. In one study of people who were dumped, 40 percent went into clinical depression.
Whether you’re the leaver or the left, divorce, like death, leads you through the five stages of grief originally outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross about those facing terminal illness. If you’re the one leaving, you may have experienced some of these stages before you announced your departure.
- Denial. “This can’t be happening to me.” Or “I can’t actually be doing this.”
- Anger. “It isn’t fair. What did I do to deserve this?”
- Bargaining. “How do I get him to come back?” Or “Maybe I should stick this out and try to make it work.”
- Depression. “I feel hopeless. Nothing matters anymore.”
- Acceptance. “This relationship is over. I’ll be okay now.”
You may go in and out of all of these stages—for years. Recovery is an agonizingly slow process of two steps forward and one step back. Abigail Trafford, my divorce guru and author of Crazy Time: Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life, estimates that it takes one year to recover for every five years of marriage. From my experience she’s right on the money.
Although it may not feel that way for a long time, the reality is that no matter how devastated you are, and no matter how long it takes—and recovery time varies widely depending on individual temperament—you can get through this and move on as long as you honor your own grieving process. Don’t try to short-circuit it before you’re ready. You don’t want to be that divorcée still carrying on about how her ex ruined her life ten years after the divorce.
Getting through that time will be an exercise in reaching into yourself and finding survival strategies you never needed before. The first few months to a year is the hardest part. After that it really does get easier.
Find A Good Shrink
No, it’s not enough to talk to girlfriends. Yes, you do need a therapist to shepherd you through the transition. Whether you’re consumed with pain, anger, guilt, or all three, a wise therapist can help you turn a trauma into a turning point.
Our final marriage counselor was the tall, slim, beautiful Kali. She was fifty but looked forty, dressed in smart tailored casual clothes that, unlike my wardrobe, definitely didn’t come from Wal-Mart or Goodwill, and had the tall, slim body I’d always longed for. I would have preferred a plump, cushiony, grandmotherly type with a reassuring number of wrinkles, but despite her fashion-model looks, Kali exuded such warm, nurturing motherliness that I bonded with her instantly. You should look for the kind of therapist who, like Kali, makes you feel taken care of and hopeful about the future.
I desperately needed to fall into the arms of a mom—any mom. My own mother had died five years earlier, thank God, because she adored my husband so much that news of our split-up would have certainly killed her. I didn’t have a sister or any other family, and I didn’t want to burden my long-suffering girlfriends with nonstop kvetching. If you are lucky enough to still have a mom to comfort you, don’t be ashamed to cry on her shoulder. No matter how old you are, or Mom is, that’s what moms are for . . . as long as she’s not more devastated by the divorce than you are.
I cried pretty much 24/7 after being left. This is another common pattern. If you can’t stop crying, don’t try. Just let the tears flow. The more tears you get out at the beginning, the fewer you will have to cry in years to come. Although life’s pleasures held little appeal at this time, every week I’d look forward to my session with Kali. Sometimes I could barely wait. I would flop on her soft brown couch and moan about how miserable I felt, how pitiful I was, what a disaster my life had become, that I couldn’t stop crying, how I was in such intense pain I could barely move. I raged bitterly against Zeke and his wretched Jezebel of a girlfriend. Kali always congratulated me for doing such a great job of mourning. She said some people were afraid to let it all hang out—they blocked out the pain and anger, made believe everything was okay—and those people were bound to suffer much more in the long run. She thought it was terribly brave of me to allow myself to feel my pain and express my anger. Wow! I could actually feel proud of myself for the very loss of control I was so ashamed of. I was vying for the championship of the grief Olympics. It seemed I was on fast-forward when it came to recovery. Slowly, my self-esteem, which was at rock bottom, started to inch upward. If you’re feeling like a loser for weeping a geyser of tears or dissolving into rage and self-pity . . . don’t. Kali was right: Allowing yourself to feel all those feelings is part of the process. You need to go through them all to come out the other side.
I always left her office feeling better than when I’d walked in. Every week I told her how worthless I felt, how I wanted to crawl under a rock—being dumped is hell on a girl’s self-esteem. Every week she reminded me how smart, funny, compassionate, and downright wonderful I was. I didn’t believe her, of course, but I sure liked to hear her say it.
Kali also helped me deconstruct what went wrong in my marriage. I went over my lonely childhood, realizing that in my marriage I’d re-created my relationship to my depressed, angry, helpless father. We talked about how I was trying to repair the wounds of my childhood through my marriage. We all do this to one extent or another, but often don’t come to terms with it until we get divorced. Figuring out what went wrong is a major part of recovery. You need a shrink who is wise and understanding of the dynamics of relationships, and who can guide you through the confusing maze of what actually happened in your marriage while gently helping you sort out why and where you lost your way.
How Do You Find A Good Shrink?
You’re exquisitely vulnerable at this time, and it’s easy to wind up with someone who’s either clueless or critical. I found Kali through another therapist whom I’d gone to for compulsive eating problems. If you have a friend who has been helped by someone, and you like what she says about the person, go to her. Interview a few therapists and choose someone who makes you feel better about yourself, who makes it clear that she respects you—what you believe, who you are, and what you have to say. Avoid the arrogant ones who make you feel like they know the way and you are a dolt who has no idea which end is up. They’re all too common in the world of therapy. You’ll know you’re in the right place if you feel better when you walk out of your therapist’s office than when you went in. You should be busy mulling over all the insights you gained during your session.
When it gets really bad—if you can’t stop crying or get out of bed or have suicidal thoughts—go to a psychiatrist and ask for medication. There’s no shame in popping some Zoloft in your time of need. SSRIs have rescued stronger souls than you. I’m still taking my Wellbutrin regularly.