Learning to THRIVE alone after divorce.
October 17, 2009 9:38 PM   Subscribe

After divorce, how can I learn to be a confident, whole individual without being in a relationship? I'm struggling with insecurity, I feel like there is a part of me missing, and I've gotten myself so worked up about it that I'm in a state of "analysis paralysis." Please help me break through that paralysis!

I am divorced (1 year and some change) after a 7 year marriage. The big issue in the marriage was that my ex eventually decided that he just didn’t want to be married to me anymore. Over the last 4+ years of the marriage, he withdrew emotionally, stopped telling me he loved me (when I asked he would answer “sometimes I love you”), told me that he didn’t miss me when I left for trips/conferences, was never in the mood for intimacy (not even kissing, very rarely hugging, never initiated by him), and toward the end began lying about random things. I’m not convinced that an affair was happening…I’m not convinced that it didn’t happen either. Needless to say, I spent those 4 years analyzing and guessing at what would make him love me again, which I now see was a massive blow to my self esteem. I lost touch with who I was (I used to be a strong, independent, determined woman) during that time, and that just kills me.

While the divorce was immensely painful (I believe that you just don’t “give up” on a lifetime commitment but I had no other choice), it was also the absolute right thing to do and I feel like a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders as I started life over. I got the very clear, strong message that I needed to use this time in my life to “learn to live alone” in preparation for a future relationship, if that makes any sense. I definitely feel as though I will be married again someday, but now is my time to develop as a person. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I’m struggling with.

I feel as though something is missing in my life, and I think it’s the fact that I am not in a relationship (for the record, I have been talking to an ex boyfriend and we have talked about wanting to date each other in the future but right now we both have “issues” to work through. So there’s the possibility there, and it’s constantly on my mind). I know that I’m smart, I have a great job, great friends who love me, and I contribute positively to the world. But I long to have a partner…someone that I know for certain loves me and thinks about me and wants to be with me. The only way I can explain it is that I’m just not fully successful and complete without that. There are times where I am just “paralyzed” with that longing and wind up wasting hours just watching TV or reading (which equals procrastination) instead of being active, and I hate that! It’s holding me back, and I just can’t figure out how to get past it. I also have a huge sense of insecurity/anxiety about any future relationships…like I’ll misread a man’s signs and screw up a potential relationship or chase after men that truly aren’t into me.

I did therapy as the marriage was ending (yes, currently attempting to get back in to see someone), and it is helpful but it’s only 1 hour a week. I understand CBT (trained in it!) and so I know all of the mental exercises that I should be doing. My counselor training is working against me at the moment though (I’m good at convincing myself that it won’t work or that I won’t do it right) and I’ve gotten myself in a state of “analysis paralysis”.

I am looking for any advice or personal anecdotes you can give me. I want to make the most of this time being single and I desperately want to clear this hurdle. How can I learn to feel like a “whole person” without a relationship? How do I deal with that huge feeling of insecurity I have? I’m open to book suggestions, Bible verses, specific things to do, hard questions to ponder, a good butt kicking, whatever you got to break the mental paralysis and move forward. I’ll be glad to hear it all!
posted by MultiFaceted to Human Relations (23 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of people take issue with this book and this recommendation, but in a situation somewhat analogous to yours I was helped a great deal by the book Beyond Codependency by Melody Beattie.
posted by Miko at 9:45 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do stuff that matters to you. Even if you hate it and never want to get out of bed. If you force yourself to do stuff that is meaningful and offers you some integrity eventually it will all feel as natural as breathing. Want to travel? Volunteer? Make a peanut-butter chocolate cocktail recipe? Learn to tie a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue? Get started. When I do stuff I love I rarely think about how I'm going home to two cats. Not ideal, but living with authenticity makes you attractive to yourself and others. Good luck.
posted by ShadePlant at 9:47 PM on October 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

Also, "Risking Everything: 101 Poems of Love and Revelation" rocked my insecurity socks. It's not as cheesy as it sounds. Amazon has it.
posted by ShadePlant at 9:49 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

May I offer a poem? This is *Wait* by Galway Kinnell.
Any thoughts I want to give right now seems just a poor rendition of what he writes, (below) so I'll just leave it at this. But wishing you the best of luck as you wait to be ready.


Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven't they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Don't go too early.
You're tired. But everyone's tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.
posted by keener_sounds at 9:51 PM on October 17, 2009 [25 favorites]

seem, not seems. Sorry.
posted by keener_sounds at 9:52 PM on October 17, 2009

Best answer: "Over the last 4+ years of the marriage, he withdrew emotionally, stopped telling me he loved me (when I asked he would answer “sometimes I love you”), told me that he didn’t miss me when I left for trips/conferences, was never in the mood for intimacy (not even kissing, very rarely hugging, never initiated by him), and toward the end began lying about random things. I’m not convinced that an affair was happening…I’m not convinced that it didn’t happen either. Needless to say, I spent those 4 years analyzing and guessing at what would make him love me again"

This stood out to me. I don't think this is "needless to say" at all. If you had a friend whose husband didn't miss her, didn't want intimacy, and only "sometimes" loved her would you advise her that something must be wrong with her? If not, why were you so excessively willing to think this about yourself, instead of telling him his behavior was completely unacceptable and you were kicking him to the curb? I know you say that you believe very strongly that a marriage should be worked on, but that doesn't mean one person bending over backwards to make themselves "good enough" for the other person to love. It might be worth considering that you stayed for so long because you feel like you're only "good enough" if someone else says you are. I don't have any magical tricks, but maybe just try sitting with the thought of "what is it that someone else's approval gives me?" and "what would it feel like to believe that I'm good enough even when someone else says I'm not?"
posted by MsMolly at 10:25 PM on October 17, 2009 [8 favorites]

First, you have to believe. Or believe that someday you WILL believe -- that you are a wonderful, amazing, valuable person in your own right. No matter what anyone else may think. You may have to fake it 'til you make it for awhile. But practice thinking it enough, and eventually you WILL believe!

Second, do therapy. You know that's what you need to do so just do it.

Third, exercise and get yourself in killer shape if you're not already. Actually, this should be my first recommendation! #1 mood/perspective enhancer.

Fourth, just let yourself feel free. Indulge whatever whims you can -- and see where they take you. Go easy on yourself in terms of schedules and commitments and whatever. Just be.

In fact, that's my ultimate advice (and the advice that I struggle to take every day myself!):

Be here now.


Good luck.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 10:27 PM on October 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

I got the very clear, strong message that I needed to use this time in my life to “learn to live alone” in preparation for a future relationship,
It sounds like you know what you need right now. And it sounds like it is a very hard lesson (which is why it is what you need to learn.)

So when you feel paralyzed with longing, you should respect that that is the part of you which is finding change hard. I can think of two things that might help when you are in that state. The first is to give yourself permission to have some down time. Put limits on it so it doesn't cause problems in your life but when you feel like you have no energy to do anything, give yourself time to do nothing. The second is to journal - write whatever you are feeling and thinking at that moment. (Both thoughts and feelings are important.) Then set aside a time when you are feeling normal to read what you wrote and then journal again with your response - what does it feel like to read what you were going through, which thoughts do you agree or disagree with now.

Finally, set limits on yourself for how much time you spend thinking about your past and future. Obviously, when you become paralyzed, my advice is do what I suggested above. But on a normal day, set aside some time to think about your life. The rest of the day, when your thoughts go in that direction, tell yourself that now is the time to be in the moment, living your life in the now and that you will worry about past and future during your worry time.
posted by metahawk at 10:42 PM on October 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

MsMolly: It might be worth considering that you stayed for so long because you feel like you're only "good enough" if someone else says you are. I don't have any magical tricks, but maybe just try sitting with the thought of "what is it that someone else's approval gives me?" and "what would it feel like to believe that I'm good enough even when someone else says I'm not?"


I was talking to a very wise friend of mine once, and I remarked with some embarrassment that I'd been trying to impress someone I knew: "I have this nasty habit of really, really wanting people to like me."

He said: "you mean... you're human?"

There are people who are entirely too concerned with making other people happy. But a spouse is supposed to be on your side, right? If you can't hope that your spouse likes and approves of you, at least in some way, how can anybody hope to be liked in this world?

I don't think we necessarily disagree much, but... well, I know how this feels. It's hard to learn to like yourself again. Maybe that's what you mean: that it's okay to let that approval flow from yourself rather than the person you were tied to for so many years.
posted by koeselitz at 11:02 PM on October 17, 2009 [5 favorites]

Rings a lot of bells for me. I was only married for 3 years, but we'd already been together for 3 before that. The marriage was emotionally brutal, and I spent nearly all of that time desperately trying to hold it together, willing to change anything about myself, to give up anything to make it work. At the end of it I was a shell of my formerly confident, world-beating self. I also longed for contact with someone else; being alone was very difficult for a long while.

What got me through was that I sunk all my resources into a project I'd regarded as a pipe-dream during the marriage. I lived incredibly cheaply and worked a lot of overtime, saving everything I could. In the fall, about a year after my divorce, I bought a beat-up motorcycle that was almost as old as I was, and spent a few months of winter free time fixing it. Through all of this I craved connection, companionship and touch, and got very little of it. I was not comfortable. In the spring I quit my job and rode that motorcycle across the country to attend, for the summer, a school I'd read about years before.

One sunny fall day, a few weeks after I'd returned from school via another cross-country ride -- a good 2 years after the divorce -- I was walking down the street and noticed that I was unexpectedly okay with who I was, where I was, right then. The desperate craving for connection to someone else was gone. I turned that feeling of okay-ness over and over in my head, not sure quite what to make of it. I had become, though I didn't entirely understand it at the time, emotionally viable again.


Beyond that, all I can offer is sympathy. I'd suggest you work on remembering what you used to love before you gave up on loving and settled for so much less. Maybe you'll find something you want to invest yourself in. But don't expect it to be comfortable right away.
posted by jon1270 at 4:03 AM on October 18, 2009 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Blockage in doing the CBT exercises suggests to me that you haven't really fully experienced the hurt and anger you need to feel. I suggest a long letter addressed to the Ex about how what they did really hurt you. Don't send it. Just write it.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:44 AM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You sound hurt, but what strikes me as odd is that you don't sound angry. You sound chagrined that you spent so much time trying to fix it or "make him love you", but you don't sound pissed off that he was such a colossal dick.

If he had done this to your friend, would you not be taking her out for ice cream and telling her that he was SUCH an ass, and how DARE he? Because you love her and she didn't deserve that shit!

Love yourself. Get mad. Write the letter Ironmouth suggests. Don't send it, but feel the anger.
posted by sadmadglad at 6:26 AM on October 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Um, to build on that...

When you get mad, you'll be disagreeing with all the things your ex said about you and made you believe about yourself. You'll defend yourself. You'll realise that it's not that you suck at relationships and make bad choices, it's that HE pulled away and HE didn't communicate and HE wasn't fair. It will be healthy to defend yourself because it will remind you of that strong determined independent woman who is still in there, just cowering a bit because she hasn't gotten mad and fought back yet.

I also think that it takes strength to actually allow yourself to be incomplete for a while. You have a wound, and it's going to change you. Can you be strong enough to give it the honour and time it needs to heal? Can you recognise that as strength, not weakness?
posted by sadmadglad at 6:32 AM on October 18, 2009 [7 favorites]

koeselitz, I think you may be misreading my comment, because that's exactly what I was saying, that she has to learn to feel that she's good enough without external approval. She has to value her own worth, or someone will always be able to take it from her. I completely agree that a spouse should be someone who has your back and supports you, and I think that's exactly why the OP needs to ask herself why she lived for so long with a situation where that wasn't the case, accepting someone else's judgment of her worth instead of standing up for what she deserved.
posted by MsMolly at 7:45 AM on October 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Um, yes. I just wanted to add that the TV watching, procrastination, and paralysis sounds an awful lot like grieving and healing -- a/k/a -- you are successfully spending time alone.

In our culture, I sometimes find that we don't value enough the need to do nothing. Sometimes after a big trauma, doing nothing is exactly the best thing to do. What seems like procrastination to you might be important "reorganization" and "rebuilding" time for your psyche.

So, maybe stop getting down on yourself for all the time you spend "hanging out"? To me, that sounds like times spent recharging your emotional and intellectual batteries.

And if you want to make that "down-time" more productive, try reading and watching either positive or neutral subject matter. No cop shows. No Discovery Channel documentaries about Nostradamus or 2012. In fact, try to stay away from anything that involves negative social interaction to drive the storyline (soap operas, most nite-time drama series like Grey's Anatomy, etc.) and/or anything that shills fear (The Earth After Humans! Volcano! End-Times!! Ahhhhh!!!)

(BTW, I used to love all that stuff! On the other hand, I find it hard to watch now that I am happy in my life. The situations ring false to me. I don't fill my head up with that stuff anymore because I never ever again want to feel convinced that to be unhappy, fearful, and have untrustworthy folks in your life is normal/sexy/the definition of success.)

So what to do while you laze about? What about podcasts, dvd's and books about being more positive? Think Wayne Dyer or Eckhart Tolle. Or stuff about how to play an instrument, garden, cook, build furniture, etc. I've had a lot of success downloading podcasts on cool subjects and listening to them on my morning walks or cleaning the house. It's ok if your mind wanders, too. I think that is normal, maybe even healthy for you at this stage.

Here's the thing: You are changing. Right. Now.

Before, you were someone who would spend 4 years living in a situation that was detrimental to your precious well-being. Now, you are not that kind of person. Who are you, then? What are you becoming? We don't know! It'll be fun to find out though, don't you think?

Overall, I'm trying to say that the divorce-thing is a process. Life (and trying to get better at doing it) is a big fat process. I'm pretty sure if you end up lazing about from time-to-time after a big trauma like ending a 7 year marriage... that's probably exactly what you need to do. No judging your process, just go with it.

Good luck on your journey.
posted by jbenben at 8:41 AM on October 18, 2009 [11 favorites]

You say you don't feel like a "whole person" outside of a relationship. But as you sadly know, you can also be just a shell of who you are in one -- I lost touch with who I was (I used to be a strong, independent, determined woman) during that time, and that just kills me. Try holding on to the feeling that you are so much more of a "whole person" now that you are free from the abusive creep who was your husband.

You are free because you no longer have to spend every moment of every day trying to "remedy" his perceived inadequacies in you. You can sit peacefully with a book as opposed to trying to be "better" all of the time. You get to just be at all times and without his disappointed gaze upon you. Embrace that! That is you being authentically who you are right now, which in my opinion, is a "whole person".

I agree with the folks above that tell you to get angry at your ex's mistreatment of you. Take the time to cry (hard) and grieve the loss of the dream and how it did not bear any resemblance to reality. Feel all of your feelings fully and accept and embrace them. Do something nice for yourself every day. And don't expect to feel different overnight (as jon1270 explains above in his wonderful personal story). You are on a journey of self discovery and that is exciting and beautiful if you can find a way to see it that way.

None of this is to say that you should drop the desire to someday share the wonderful "whole person" that you are and will be with another. But don't short change the process before you see and truly feel how much of a "whole person" you already are.
posted by murrey at 9:13 AM on October 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Time heals most wounds, and you haven't been out of your marriage for very long. You may be pushing yourself too hard, since you have training in counseling and psychology and might think that you should have a leg up because of it. I divorced my husband in 2005 after 9 years of marriage and it's taken me until this year to start to feel 100% myself again. The common standard is 1/2 the number of years of marriage until you completely re-adjust, and I think that's more or less correct. I would recommend taking a break from therapy (even self-administered) and just try living for a while - no matter how badly you might feel you are doing it. Use your CBT training to stop self-evaluating and just get back into the world.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:05 AM on October 18, 2009

I think you might need an accountability partner. A good friend who can meet you at a coffee shop twice a week, who can take you to the movies once a week, who will give you and help you accept positive affirmations. And while they sound cheesy, positive affirmations are actually tied into endorphins and other physical things in your body - I am beautiful, I am strong, I am smart, I am funny are affirmations that you can try to internalize but articulating them aloud. Get a workout buddy - met him or her at the gym twice a week or for a quick run. You are going to be fabulous by yourself, but it's really easy to fall into lonely habits and get lost in the funk, and that's where an accountability buddy is really helpful.

And one more thing: give yourself permission to be sad, angry, frustrated, disappointed. Don't berate yourself for feeling the whole range of emotions that inevitably come with this icky territory. It's ok to feel like crap; just don't let the feeling like crap take over every corner of your life. It's a tough balance, but you'll get the hang of it.

Good luck!
posted by cachondeo45 at 12:42 PM on October 18, 2009

Here's a poem I think speaks to your situation:

Love After Love
Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
posted by Lycaste at 7:10 PM on October 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone.

I started crying on the second line of the "Wait" poem and cried my way through every answer. But it was a good cry (I needed it) because you all made excellent points. Every one of you seem to get it. You all get what I've been feeling and thinking...you all said something that resonated with me and made sense. That one thing alone made me feel like I wasn't crazy...that what I'm going through is more normal than I realized. I need to do things with authenticity, I need to Wait, I do need to get in killer shape!

The Light Fantastic actually hit the nail on the head. Because of my psych background, I've put immense pressure onto myself to not fall apart in all of this and to show everyone that I could just sail right through this whole thing and be civil to the ex. And while I've been pissed at him, I've never really stayed angry for very long...somehow I've always rationalized it away. So I'm going to take everyone's advice and write an angry letter, go exercise, do something meaningful, be present in the moment, and read lots of poems.

I'd still love to hear more advice though, so anyone else is welcome to post. Thank you again!
posted by MultiFaceted at 7:27 PM on October 18, 2009

If you're looking for helpful, eye-opening, "That's exactly how I feel!" poetry, the book How to Survive the Loss of a Love can't be beat.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:49 AM on October 19, 2009

Don't beat yourself up if you still have moments where you love him, or want to please him. Don't act on it, but realize that different parts of you will change at different times. You can be angry and realize he was awful with one part of your mind, and with another part still long for him. Remember that the longing isn't really for him, but for something you thought you had. Just don't beat yourself up if it is directed toward him - it's natural. It will fade as he recedes from part of who you see yourself as in the present, and becomes part of your past.
posted by lorrer at 9:23 AM on October 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Hello! I'm just coming out of something pretty similar to this, and there are a few things that have helped me. One was signing up for a race - half a year ago I could barely run around the block, and last week I just finished a 10K. It was amazing. Most of all because the friends that I've leaned on since the breakup were there, cheering for me at various spots throughout the race - seeing them so happy for me, so happy at what I was accomplishing for myself, so happy that I could do this! That practically made me cry right on the road. Remembering their faces is making me tear up a bit now, actually. But the love that I feel from them, that I saw in their faces that day, is a reminder of how complete and awesome I can be as my own person. (Not to mention a reminder that I can still feel love, and I can still connect with people.)

Another thing that helped a lot, especially towards the beginning, was stepping out of my head and looking at myself as I imagined a bystander or stranger might see me. One day I was feeling pretty low while waiting for the train, and I just started thinking: anyone who passes me right now would think I'm pretty put together. I had just got out of work at a great job, I was waiting for a train so I could visit my best friend for dinner, and I had just spent some of my newly-single-person salary on some creature comforts - hell, I was practically envious of myself. I realized the only thing that was holding me back was in my head. On the outside, on anything anyone could see, I was not only doing fine, I *was* thriving.

These days I still don't like to think too far into the future (there's still loads I'm afraid of there), but I *am* really enjoying my life now. Compared to the life that I had before with him - where, like you, I had become codependent, self-doubting and generally insecure, all under the mask of a long-term committed relationship (the goal, as I'd thought it) - my life now is freaking awesome. Materially, there's no comparison. And it's not necessarily that I'm not "ready" to date again - it's that I'm totally happy *not* doing that. Living my own life is a gift after all those years thinking of him and us together. There's so much out here to try now! I'm curious at what I might be up to next year :)

Good luck!
posted by Curiosity Delay at 7:43 AM on October 21, 2009 [5 favorites]

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