Of all the plans you made for married life as you registered for gifts, bought a house, had kids, made friends, and otherwise settled into a routine as one half of a couple, going toe to toe with your spouse in divorce court a decade or so later probably didn’t make the list. No one (with the possible exception of Donald Trump’s wives) walks down the aisle with an exit strategy tucked in her garter. So when one of you decides to bail, the pure chaos of a life unraveling and the uncertainty of what comes next can make you feel like an emotional pinball, careening from shock and anger to confusion, panic, despair, guilt, hate, longing, possibly even relief or excitement.
And whether you left or got left, in this tumultuous state of flux, crazy, even contradictory, thoughts and fears can bounce around your head: I’ll ruin him … I’ll get a boob job … I’m going out to get laid … I’m better off … I hope he keels over screwing that minx he ran off with … Maybe he’ll come back … Did I make a mistake? … Will I ever feel okay again?
Totally crazy … and perfectly normal, according to relationship and mental health experts. “You’re going to go through every single possible emotion because life as you know it is over no matter whose choice it was to leave,” explains Jennifer Freed, PhD, a marriage and family therapist in Santa Barbara, California. “Whether it was good or bad, marriage is a structure. It’s familiar, it’s repetitive. You get used to a certain rhythm. Whenever we lose that, we fracture psychologically to a certain degree, and then have to reassemble. In that process, it’s natural to have these rapidly cycling feelings.”
If there’s one thing you can hold onto while you’re spinning wildly on this emotional Tilt-A-Whirl, it’s that as disoriented and nauseated as you’re feeling in the thick of a divorce, eventually you will regain your equilibrium. “These feelings don’t last, though it seems like they will,” assures Dr. Freed. She points to a friend who took to her bed after her husband of 20 years left her for a younger woman. “She kept saying ‘There’s nothing worth living for.’ Now she’s happy as can be and full of life. These feelings can be intense, but within a year or two the emotional swings become less extreme.”
Meanwhile, as you adjust to the New Normal, relationship experts explain what’s going on if you’re thinking …
… WTF happened?
Regardless of whether you were blindsided one morning by your husband’s I’m leaving youannouncement or your divorce was a slo-mo train wreck that took years for all the cars to come off the rails, when the reality hits that your marriage is over, it’s a shock. “Everybody at one point or another, even if you wanted the divorce, says ‘Holy shit! I can’t believe what’s going on,’” says Yahoo Health’s mental health expert Rob Dobrenski, PhD, author of Crazy: Notes On and Off The Couch. Like post-earthquake aftershocks, he says these WTF feelings rippling through your psyche “will come and go. If you stand pat and let time do its thing, eventually those feelings will stop.” The mistake people who initiate divorce can make at this stage, he says, is to misinterpret uncertainty in the face of huge change as a sign they should stay married. “People think feeling scared means they must not want to really go through with the divorce,” says Dr. Dobrenski. “Maybe you should reunite; maybe you shouldn’t. But don’t base your decision on fear.”
… I’ll get a boob job and lipo and Botox.
If your husband traded you in for a younger model, your first instinct may be to book an appointment with a cosmetic surgeon hoping that a little body work of your own could entice him to come back. Save your cash because that’s magical thinking. “Marriages don’t break up because of what a woman’s breasts look like,” notes Dr. Dobrenski. And while getting nipped and tucked may lift sagging breasts and smooth out some wrinkles, cosmetic surgeries can’t fix the deeper relationship flaws, like communication problems or fundamental differences in money management or child rearing, that can really sink a marriage. “New breasts don’t improve communication or make couples enjoy each other’s company outside of the bedroom, so trying to fix a marriage with plastic surgery is like putting a band-aid on a gun shot wound,” says Dr. Dobrenski. If you still want the body work in a year or so when your feelings aren’t so raw, go for it. And consider it good use of your divorce settlement.
… I wanted the divorce, so why am I sad?
If you couldn’t wait for the official divorce decree to arrive in the mail, feeling a bit blue that your marriage is finally over and done with can really throw you for a loop. You wanted out, so why aren’t you celebrating? “When you’re building up to leave your marriage, you pay a lot of attention to what’s not working about the relationship because you need to psychologically prepare yourself to go,” explains Miami-based marriage, family and sex therapist Lisa Paz, PhD. “But once you leave, it’s normal to become a little reflective and melancholy. A certain phase of your life is ending, and even if it was your decision to go, you’re still mourning the loss of the life you had together.” Any time you trade the familiar for the unfamiliar, it’s natural to get a little nostalgic for what you left behind. “Getting a do-over, a chance to hit the restart button on your life can be refreshing, exciting, liberating,” says Dr. Paz. “But it’s also scary because with separation comes pain, anxiety, depression, confusion.” Hang in. Once you settle into your new life, the sadness should pass.
… I feel lost. Who am I now?
Losing your longtime status as one-half of a couple can leave you feeling unmoored and adrift, a little uncertain about how to define yourself when you’re no longer Mrs. So-And-So. “Divorce creates a vacuum, so no matter how ‘together’ you typically are, it’s normal to feel a little lost during a divorce because along with your husband go the familiar routines and structures that went with your marriage,” says Dr. Freed. Not surprisingly, this can be especially devastating for women who built their entire identity and self-esteem on being their husband’s partner – keeping the house, tending the children, perhaps working in their husband’s business. Not having that structure and social position in the community to identify with can be terrifying. “Raising children and being a good spouse is an important job and some women find that vocation incredibly meaningful,” says Dr. Freed. “But when your man leaves, it invalidates the entire profession. Every woman I know of who’s going through a serious divorce right now is on anti-anxiety medications or sleeping pills because the anxiety is so intense.” Expect to feel a bit disconnected until you start establishing your own new routines and rituals around your new life. “The more energy you invest in your own development as a person, the less time it will take to get over the breakup,” says Dr. Freed.
… I feel guilty for leaving him.
You couldn’t stand being married to him for one more minute. The way he breathed drove you nuts. And yet, with the excitement of being solo again, come twinges of guilt for going. What gives? “If you haven’t had the worst marriage ever, there’s still an emotional connection with your ex,” explains New York City psychotherapist Michael Batshaw, LCSW. “And if you’ve been close to that person and shared a life with them, even if there are strong negative feelings and you don’t want to be married, you’re aware that you’re hurting them in a pretty major way. Unless you’re a sociopath, you’re going to feel some guilt.”
… He left me for someone else, so I’m going to sleep with every guy I can!
It’s possible that bedding one or two hotties might soothe your wounded ego and reassure yourself that you’ve still got it going on. And if sex was nonexistent in the last few months (or years) of your marriage, it’s understandable to want to go get some. A dose of casual sex (with condoms, of course) can do your body and mind good in lots of ways. Just don’t count on a casual romp to heal what really hurts. “If your ex cheated or left you for another woman, settling the score is a temporary fix, but it doesn’t usually address the profound rejection most women feel when the man they loved and trusted leaves them for someone else,” says Dr. Freed. And you run the risk of having the whole abandonment scenario play out again if Mr. Casual Encounter treats things too casually for you. “One of my clients tried three different guys in six months after her husband left her for her best friend. She had the best sex of her life, but in each case she just got hurt again,” says Dr. Freed. “The guys were certainly interested in having sex, but they weren’t interested in knowing her. And ultimately women need people to be interested in them, not just their bodies.”
You’ll sleep with his best friend. Slash his tires. Tell your 20,000 Facebook friends and Twitter followers that he’s got a really small penis. Tip off the IRS that he’s been cheating on his taxes for the last decade or so. Confide to his overbearing, nosy mother that he really wants her to move in “during the divorce transition,” but is too shy to ask her. Cooking up revenge fantasies – and imagining your ex’s suffering – can be highly entertaining … and cathartic. But keep it in the realm of imagination so you don’t do anything you’ll really regret later. “We seek revenge because we think that hurting the person who hurt us will make us feel better. But it doesn’t usually,” says Dr. Freed. “Initially you feel a rush of power and control when we act out our vengeance, but that usually fades and then you’re left with a sense of shame and humiliation because you sank to such a low level of behavior.” Something else to keep in mind: Continuing to nurse revenge fantasies can actually get in the way of your breakup recovery. “Staying focused on your ex is a way of not letting go,” says Dr. Freed.