How to survive a separation and divorce
January 21, 2015 7:27 AM   Subscribe

I am in the beginning stages of separation and divorce. I am the initiator and it is completely one-sided. How do I survive the various feelings I'm going through? Bonus: with tween children.

I’ve finally decided to go ahead with a divorce. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through, and it’s only just beginning. And it is doubly hard because my family is completely unsupportive (see my previous questions for background).

I have secured an apartment for Feb 1. Our two daughters (10 and 12) will split their time between the apartment and our family home; the details of that haven’t been worked out yet. The kids are doing remarkably well but I know they are very sad. We are keeping the lines of communication open and they will be starting therapy soon.

Every day I struggle with different feelings:

- Sadness at the ending of an 18-year relationship
- Immense guilt and sadness for the pain this is causing my husband, kids, parents, in-laws
- Additional guilt for cheating on my husband (I was unhappy for a very long time, but went about the breakup all wrong)
- Selfishness for ending a “perfectly good” marriage for my own personal fulfillment
- Fear about the long-term consequences for my children
- Anxiety about whether I can be strong enough to get through this, while supporting my kids
- Anger at my parents for getting me in this situation in the first place (arranged marriage)
- Anger at my husband for threatening all kinds of bad behavior during the divorce
- Hurt that my parents and brothers are abandoning me/siding with my husband
- Pride for finally standing up for my needs, and setting this example for my kids

Please tell me how to survive all of this. Tips, mantras, anything will help.

I am in therapy which is very helpful but only see her once every 2 weeks and cannot increase this.
posted by puppet du sock to Human Relations (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Hi, I was your kid in this situation. We were 16 (me), 13 and 10 when my parents divorced after 19 years. My number one suggestion would be not to badmouth your children's other parent in front of them. Ever. Not now, not 15 years from now. And for that matter, try not to badmouth your parents either. It creates all sorts of internal stress for you and heartache for your children.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:39 AM on January 21, 2015 [22 favorites]

Oh, dear. I am angry on your behalf.

This is a suggestion you can take or leave, clearly. But in reading your previous question-- thanks for referring to it, by the way-- it strikes me that there is burgeoning body of memoir about woman in positions somewhat like yours. I loved Leah Vincent's book. And also, there are a growing number of support groups, as I think people alluded to in answer to your earlier question. You are pretty far along in this process already so you don't need consciousness-raising in that sense. But I always find it comforting to read a book by a cool, smart person.

Good luck to you. You are doing the right thing by your kids, not backing down. Your family's behavior is very disappointing-- that's putting it mildly-- but you are setting the right example, owning your stuff and moving forward.
posted by BibiRose at 7:46 AM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

By the way, I just realized that the Goodreads's blurb makes Vincent's book sound very lurid and sensationalistic. It's not, really, at least not by my reading. What made me cite it, as opposed to other memoirs by people coming from orthodox families, is how clear the book made it that Vincent's parents always chose their religious sect over their daughter, and the identity crisis she had to go through to get over that.
posted by BibiRose at 7:51 AM on January 21, 2015

Selfishness for ending a “perfectly good” marriage for my own personal fulfillment

If you were unhappy, your marriage wasn't "perfectly good." It wasn't good at all. Good relationships of all sorts are when all parties are happy and thriving in them. No one should sacrifice themselves in relationships for other people.

You would benefit from therapy, so that you can process your myriad feelings about what's changing in your life.

Trust that once you leave that you'll have regret and sadness, but also that you'll be delighted. You'll feel free. You'll enjoy being the mistress of your own life. It's scary, but ultimately, it's great.

Agree that you don't badmouth your parents or you Ex to your kids. Even if the kids ask the hard questions. "Sometimes people get very angry at their loved ones and they act badly. Your grandparents are having a hard time and they're angry with me. I still love them and I believe that they love me too." Model forgiveness and understanding.

Your kids may get angry with you, especially if they hear negative stuff from other family members. One thing that my dad used to say when I'd get angry with him was, "You have a right to be angry, but I'm your parent and I decide what's in your and my best interest. You may not understand today, but I'm doing what I think is right. But you're allowed to be angry. I love you anyway."

It's a process, you'll have good days and bad days, but probably more good than bad. Don't feel guilty about it. Your soon to be ex deserves a wife who loves him. Your children deserve parents who are happy. Your parents, well, who knows? If you have to, you can survive without them.

I wish you good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:00 AM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Are there other positive feelings that you have? Relief about being honest and no longer living a lie? Excited about this uncertain, new direction? Seeds of confidence being sewn?

In your position, I would accept that there is going to be a period of bad feelings, but know that they won't last forever, and they will be replaced by better feelings. So my mantra would be "short term pain, long term gain" and "all experiences are temporary, including this."

It's ok to be angry, sad, guilty, all of those things. You sound like you have a depth of emotion that will guide you well once this all settles out.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:05 AM on January 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

- Find time to exercise, even just a walk.
- Watch some mindless TV.
- Find a support group so you can start building a strong chosen family.
- Show forgiveness and compassion to the people who are not behaving well now; it's important for your kids to see how you handle this.
- start saving for a nice little vacation six months or a year from now. Even a weekend away.
- Keep a journal, write down all the thoughts you're having and then write your responses to them so you can practice good self-talk.
- Eat well.
- Take hot baths.
- Let your girls know they are allowed to feel how they feel. Give them a chance to say whatever they want to you without you getting defensive, just listen acknowledge their feelings.
posted by brookeb at 8:09 AM on January 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

I can't comment on kids because I don't have them, and can't comment on cheating because it wasn't a factor, but I also initiated a divorce from my husband. It's been almost a year now and I have zero regrets.

It is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through, and it’s only just beginning.

Yeah, I won't lie, it is probably the worst thing you will ever go through unless (god forbid) one of your kids dies.

- Sadness at the ending of an 18-year relationship

It's like a death of the future you thought you were going to have. You will have to grieve. A lot. A lot a lot. Give yourself the space to do this. Don't skip the grieving step, it will just prolong it. This is the time to surround yourself with as much support as you can muster, especially a therapist.

I answered a similar question recently with specific things to do. IT GETS BETTER. Everyone told me that and I did not believe it, but it's true. Things evened out after about six months, and at almost a year, I am as happy as I've ever been.
posted by desjardins at 8:19 AM on January 21, 2015 [12 favorites]

I was your kid 25 years ago, and you 4 years ago. I agree about not badmouthing the other parent in front of the kids; the kids need to be allowed to exist and relate to each parent as much as possible independent of this conflict.

But you asked how to survive. I can tell you what I did that helped:
  1. I put a lot of emotional focus on daily habits: exercise, meditation, adequate sleep, learning, skill development; health, self-cultivation, self-indulgence. Things that represented how-I-wanted-to-live as opposed to how-I-had-lived in the marriage. I got a habit-tracking application and a journal and I sort of leaned-on / personally-identified-with the new habits, in a way that reminded me every day that no matter what else, I was respecting myself, honoring my own judgment about a different direction in life. And also simply that "another day had passed". A lot of what had to happen was putting time between the separation and the present. A count of days and a reminder of all the positive things I've done for myself during those days helped.
  2. I indulged things that were generally harmless but suppressed during the marriage. In my case I realized I'd suppressed my enjoyment of "lying on my sofa watching movies and/or reading', which are mostly-harmless passtimes. So I did a lot of them. To be nice to myself, and again, to put time between separation and the present.
  3. I bought some houseplants. They helped keep me company without much guilt about my emotional swinging and selfishness. They helped make the new apartment feel like it had a life in it.
  4. I drank. This helped take the emotional edge off but it was dangerous for my reliability as a person and bad for my health and took a while to stop doing. So I wouldn't recommend it. I'm mentioning it because you're under tremendous stress and may well take to self-medicating somehow; it's good to recognize how you're doing so and make a conscious effort to keep it under control / direct it to something relatively easy to quit when the immediate need subsides.
  5. I wrote a ton in my journal. Pages and pages every day at first. By now it's down to a simple summary of the day's events. But I had a lot to digest.
  6. I went on some new adventures. Little trips to visit people or places on my own, that formed new single memories and were genuine fun, disconnected from the heartache.
  7. I had new (romantic, sexual) relationships. Short term / low commitment, tried not to misrepresent myself, probably hurt or disappointed my new partners with my instability and inward focus. This is a difficult point because it has the potential to further destabilize you, your relationship with your kids, your relationship with your ex and/or family, hurt your new partners, distract attention from other areas of responsibility, and so forth. But I'd be lying by omission if I said it didn't help me. It helped me. Selfishly, to avoid sinking too far into despair, to give me joy and optimism and light.
  8. I talked, at length, to my friends. And I greatly deepened a few existing friendships. I did see a few therapists but they didn't help much. Friends helped a lot. Just listening and comforting me and reminding me that they were still there, that I had people who were interested in seeing me come out the other side as a whole and single person.
Good luck. Know that for the most part your job now is just to put time and tranquility between you and the event. The good days will very gradually start to outnumber the bad ones. It's trite but true. It will also take years. Don't rush it, try to be patient, and kind enough to yourself to cultivate patience. You'll carry wounds from it for a long, long time.
posted by ead at 8:24 AM on January 21, 2015 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I've been following your questions. You are absolutely doing the right thing.

As far as the guilt goes - I've been thinking lately that one of the signal features of infidelity is that it immediately transforms messy, complicated situations, in which both parties are responsible for the state of the relationship, and there's a ton of ambiguity and hurt and uncertainty on both sides, into black-and-white ethical dilemmas in which one person is bad and to blame and the other person is innocent and good. As soon as cheating happens, all that messy history gets erased and is replaced by something much more straightforward: a narrative with a villain and a hero....and maybe that's part of the allure.

Because something I've come to believe is that people will cause themselves all kinds of pain, and get themselves into the most miserable situations, in order to avoid ambiguity and uncertainty. And this makes sense, because the anticipation of pain is in so many ways worse than the actual experience of pain. Once you're actually in pain you can figure out how to deal with it, plot ways to escape it, and bring it to an end. But while you're anticipating it, trying to prepare for it, always guessing that it's on the horizon - you can't escape it, because it's not there yet, and you're not 100% sure it's coming, but you can't ignore it, either. You can lose years of your life to this anxiety, trying to stave off pain, never quite sure if or when it will arrive.

If I imagine you in your marriage before the infidelity, I imagine you in a state like that - knowing on some deep level that the relationship isn't right for you, isn't sustainable, is going to make you miserably unhappy in the long run - and yet not quite able to put your finger on what's wrong; always sensing more misery on the horizon but never knowing when it would arrive - and surrounded by people who made it clear, in a million ways, small and large, that if given the choice between your inward happiness and the outward appearance of a stable family, they'd choose the family every time. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I bet you tried to talk to your husband about your unhappiness before you cheated. I bet you tried to talk to your parents, maybe even your in-laws. I bet no one heard you, no one deeply listened, and certainly nothing changed. And so you lived for a while in this state of ambivalence and uncertainty, never quite sure what your unhappiness was worth, or whether it really existed at all - because how can you actually measure your own feelings when no one around you will acknowledge them?

What you did, when you cheated, was to upend this situation. You blew apart the system that refused to make space for your unhappiness and did the one thing it was impossible for them to ignore. You proactively seized the unhappiness - and the blame that was coming to you - with both hands. Your family would have blamed you if you'd tried to leave this marriage no matter what, I'm sure of it - the cheating just made the lines bright and clear for everyone involved.

And I'm not saying it was right, but I am saying it makes sense, and was maybe even necessary, because your husband and your family then did exactly what was necessary for you to leave, which was to make brutally explicit the implicit rules that were underlying your life: that you mattered less than the marriage; that your happiness was never a priority for them; that you were always something that could be sacrificed. The ambiguity is gone at last. All that ugliness is out in the open now. You are facing it. You're living it. You're overcoming it. You can put it in the past.

Given all that, I wonder if you can set aside guilt about cheating for something a little gentler, like regret. It is heartbreaking that it came to this pass, but from the outside - and acknowledging that this is a sensitive topic - it seems to me that maybe you did what you needed to do.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:36 AM on January 21, 2015 [76 favorites]

As far as the guilt goes - I've been thinking lately that one of the signal features of infidelity is that it immediately transforms messy, complicated situations, in which both parties are responsible for the state of the relationship, and there's a ton of ambiguity and hurt and uncertainty on both sides, into black-and-white ethical dilemmas in which one person is bad and to blame and the other person is innocent and good. As soon as cheating happens, all that messy history gets erased and is replaced by something much more straightforward: a narrative with a villain and a hero....and maybe that's part of the allure.

I'm not sure I'd use the word "allure". But - having gone through something like this myself in the distant past - I think pretentious illiterate is spot-on with this analysis.

Someone somewhere has a thesis about infidelity that states that a major cause of cheating is "losing the narrative thread of one's life." Which is actually a pretty good description of being stuck in a bad marriage.

Re the "transformative" nature of affairs: I'm reminded of an old story concerning Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot. He was up in the air giving a new design a test flight when Things Went Horribly Wrong: just a total loss of control, alarms going off, it was a mess and he had no idea how to cope with it. So he started doing stuff at random, pulling back on the stick, putting down the flaps, anything he could think of. And suddenly he found himself in a spin. And he thought "hell, I know how to get out of a spin!" and he proceeded to do so, and landed safely.

Mechanistic and geeky though my example is, I think it illustrates one of the key ways in which humans attempt to extricate themselves from trouble - especially when the trouble is inchoate and vague and there is no obvious answer. In the case of a bad marriage, an affair really does seem to be an effective way to 'simplify' a thoroughly awful situation. Unfortunately, it tends to come with all kinds of guilt. I hope that puppet du sock will get past it and forgive herself. Because I agree: I think she did what she needed to do.
posted by doctor tough love at 9:06 AM on January 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

You are courageous for ending a relationship in which you are unhappy.
It will do the children good to see you doing something for your own good.

I have been reading a good book by Jhumpa Lahiri, 'Unaccustomed Earth' that is all about difficult relationships; has many stories about broken relationships, and about arranged marriages.
It's a paperback, you can get it from the library.

It may be some comfort to you to see that this is a well known you have taken.

Right now it's important for you to concentrate on the concrete things you have to do, all the things involved with separating your household. This will be a more public part of what you're doing.
The private part is how you behave toward your children and explain to them, if they want to know, what it is you're doing.
For the most part they won't care because they have known or intuited that there was a problem with your relationship to their father. And always reassure them that they are not at fault, in no way are they at fault.

Continue to be're not alone.
posted by billl at 9:08 AM on January 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Kudos on having the courage to leave this situation. I can only imagine how scary it is and how unsupported you feel right now but I am sure that you will feel much, much better about the decision in a few years. You will still have challenges but will also have the freedom and corresponding satisfaction to live a way that is more true to yourself and, therefore, also better for your daughters.

I agree with everyone people have mentioned above, such as never being negative about your ex to your daughters, even when he and family does, "You know, your father/your grandparents/your xyz and I love you very much" or "We may sometimes see some things differently but we all love you very much." Eventually they'll pick on on the BS, likely be grateful for what you have done as well appreciative that you were aware of the negativity but didn't personally make them feel like they had to choose or keep it a secret from you."

In your post, I see you essentially blaming yourself for the relationship ending but it takes two to tango and it sounds like your husband wasn't being a very supportive or understanding husband. I think all of this will become clearer with time and you will also feel more confident in your decision. It saddens me that your own family isn't being more supportive: they could disagree with your decision but still love you as their daughter/sibling and work to support you, your children, and your ex as the father of their grandkids. The idea that people have to choose, disown, etc. is so short-sighted. If it's any consolation, it sounds like they're reacting to some pre-prescribed views rather than their own hearts, and that eventually some or many may come around. They are likely mad at themselves a bit as well, even if they're taking it out on you, for not having found you a better match early on; perhaps they have their own relationship issues and are jealous that you but not they have the courage to start a new, better life for yourself and daughters. Anger may be the result but the causes are many and often subconscious.

That said, I'd start looking for new support groups: fellow Muslims who also have experienced divorce, who can relate to your situation and have been able to find a balance, including self-acceptable. When you've moved out, you'll also have the chance to find new families/parents to connect with. I'm glad you're seeing a therapist and was wondering if your daughters could see one, at least a few times, as they transition?

- Have you talked to your daughters' guidance counselor at school? You could call, drop by or send a quick email: "Dear ____, I wanted to let you know that my husband and I, the parents of Y and Z, are going through a divorce, including setting up two households. We're trying to support them as best we can but I know it's very hard on them. If you could help by letting their teachers know, occasionally checking in on them, and sharing any observations or advice with me, I'd appreciate it." There's no need to go into details -- likely it's better NOT to -- but simply give the heads up; as a schoolteacher of teens, I am grateful for such updates because I can try to be extra flexible and supportive with students. I'm sure your daughters school would feel the same way.

- Good luck moving out, both logistically and emotionally. I'd always stress to your daughters that you will be setting up this new home together and that their old home is still 100% theirs, too. If you could incorporate them into the housekeeping process, I think it could help: they could choose chores or responsibilities to feel part of things. They can help add touches that make it feel lie theirs, not necessarily expensive things but like choosing a plant to grow or the new couch at the thrift store. They may not want to do this right now but at least they can do little things around the apartment.

Again, I wish you the best and believe you are making the best decision for you and your daughters long-term.
posted by smorgasbord at 10:55 AM on January 21, 2015

OP, I've been cheering for you since reading your Asks this past summer. No doubt about it, I agree you've made the exact right choice to begin living your authentic life. I'm so excited for your future! And I'm so glad both you and your kids are soon-to-be in therapy - I hope you've found really kind therapists and are able to stick with it.

You might find a bit of solace and perhaps the warm flicker of recognition from these two authors who, to me, are Women Who Truly Get Life, and who also, at some point in their lives, each cheated on their “perfectly good” husbands (to borrow your parlance) --

Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elisabeth Lesser

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (great movie, too).

tiny beautiful things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed.

My best good wishes to you!!
posted by hush at 11:48 AM on January 21, 2015

Response by poster: You are all so wonderfully kind at a time when I need it the most. I marked pretentious illiterate's answer as best because it truly helped me reframe my situation, but every answer here has been very helpful.
posted by puppet du sock at 1:31 PM on January 21, 2015 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: I have a positive update to this thread. My family has come around. They finally understand my reasons for leaving and are now supporting me. It has made a world of difference. I moved out two weeks ago, and the first week was very rough, but things are getting much better. It seems my husband is ready to cooperate. The kids are doing remarkably well. A big thank you to metafilter; the support I've received here has been absolutely invaluable. I am moving forward!
posted by puppet du sock at 9:34 AM on February 21, 2015 [9 favorites]

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