Divorce upends your life. It ranks high on the worst things that happen to people. Even when its amicable, divorce is still pretty awful. It disrupts living arrangements, affects the way people feel about themselves, changes social relationships, has a dramatic effect on family finances, and forever changes the parent-child relationships. The rules governing your life have forever changed, which likely has you feeling very uncertain about the future.
As a result, you may notice that you are behaving in ways that never would have imagined pre-divorce. You may find yourself acting more childish, especially with your ex or involving yourself in risky or self-destructive activities. It is not uncommon for people to drink excessively or even experiment with drugs. So many people jump too quickly into new relationships in an effort to replace what they have lost.
Reducing turmoil in your life is a critical component in achieving the best outcome for yourself and your family. Keeping the turmoil in your life at a minimum will help you go through the stages of grief that is an inevitable part of divorce. What you need is a new set of rules, a new playbook by which you will organize your new life temporarily until you can do it yourself.
These rules are simple and generally fit into three categories:
- Don’t fix what isn’t broken – Limit changes to only those things that must be changed
- Prioritize your people: First, protect your children, second, protect yourself, (and, yes, your ex third).
- Guard your financial position: Provide for necessities, secure your assets, and pay bills.
Rule No. 1: These things take time.
We have already established that divorce is one of the worst things that will happen to you, so don’t be surprised when it takes time to heal. So many people tell you to “move on” “get over it” and “get back out there,” but don’t listen to them. Everyone is different and your timeline may be different than their timeline and that’s ok. Take your time, take the necessary time to deal with it properly. The average person needs at least a year, so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t immediately feel “ok.” For many it takes a lot longer, and that’s okay too! It’s normal to feel disoriented after a divorce. If you find it is taking too long, you may want to try therapy, and that is perfectly reasonable. In fact, I recommend it.
Rule No. 2: Don’t make any life altering decisions
One of the biggest mistakes our clients make is thinking that a divorce means they need to change other big things in their life: jobs, where they live, etc. But just because your marriage ends doesn’t mean you need to start a whole new life. Quite the opposite actually. The early months after a divorce are the worst time to change homes, jobs, to make large purchases or any drastic changes to your lifestyle because, whether you know it or not, you are probably not in a great place and probably not thinking clearly. You could be the exception, but most people are the rule. My advice is to hold off on any major life decisions that don’t have to be made right this instant. Give yourself time to gain some perspective and clarity.
Rule No. 3: Don’t rush into a new relationship
Do you know what is worse than a divorce? A second divorce a year later. Divorce usually cuts us to the quick—we’re raw and vulnerable. In the months after a divorce you are trying to figure out who you are without your spouse and rebuild a new life and a new you. That will likely take a couple twists and turns in the first year. You will almost certainly be a different person a year later, so anyone you begin a relationship with right after a divorce will almost certainly not be a good fit long term. Any relationship you enter into in the first year will likely be motivated by fear, necessity, or heartache—not the best foundation to begin a new relationship.
Rule No. 4: Focus on what is best for your children
Your duty as a parent is more critical than it ever has been and it is always surprising to me how many people jeopardize their welfare for vanity or to get back at their ex. You need to prioritize their wellbeing. It is your job to shield them from the divorce and the stress and nastiness that can and often follows. You should keep an upbeat attitude around your kids to help them feel secure and safe. Focusing on your children and their best interests also keeps you from obsessing about your own problems and issues while you are trying to understand and develop new rules for your playbook for life post-divorce.
Rule No. 5: Don’t jeopardize your employment
You need your job more than ever. It will represent security in the coming months. You need to protect it. Talk to your boss and tell them what you are going through. Most people understand how difficult life is for you and will be generous, but don’t take advantage. If you miss time, make it up. Do what you need to preserve the status quo. If you hate your job, I encourage you to stick it out for a year and if you are still feeling that way, then look to move on. At least by that point, it won’t totally be influenced by the divorce.
If you don’t work because you have been a stay-at-home parent, keep yourself open to opportunities. You will need to be thinking about the next step in your life and how you will become self-sufficient. Its ok to take a job you don’t like now to make ends meet. You may want to invest in your education and skills. If you are getting alimony and it is enough support you, this can be a great opportunity for growth.
Rule No. 6: Guard your finances
There is a temptation, when things are going wrong, to buy things we don’t need because it temporarily makes us feel better. Avoid making large purchases, especially on luxury items. Focus on your monthly bills, your house payment/rent, your car payment, your heating and electric bills, etc. Prioritize your payments if there isn’t enough to go around. Make sure you can get to work, so pay your car payment religiously every month. Then make sure you have a roof over your head. If you own a house with your spouse and can’t afford to make the monthly payment on your own, make sure your ex knows about it so that protecting your house is now a joint problem instead of all on you. As a general rule protect your people first (i.e. your children), then protect your assets, then, if possible, protect your credit score. So if you are faced with a choice between buying food or paying off debt, focus on what is necessary.
Rule No. 6: Keep your friends close
Divorce is an awkward topic among friends sometimes. There is always the question of whether they were your friends or your spouses. Some of your friends will be supportive others will not. When we are hurting there can be an instinct to withdraw, but you should nurture the friendships that support you. When difficult times arise, like during a divorce, good friends can be a godsend. Don’t be afraid to lean on them. That being said, I wouldn’t rely on them for legal advice. That friend giving you advice certainly has good intentions, but what happened to their sister’s brother’s uncle in his divorce may not work in your case. Before you decide to follow their advice, talk to your divorce lawyer first.
Rule No. 7: Foster Family Relationships
Blood is thicker than water as the saying goes. Family can be your greatest source of strength. Just like with friends, you shouldn’t withdraw from them. Instead, you should foster those relationships. Things may be tense with them currently, but your experiences in your divorce may be influencing those feelings or making things seem worse than they really are. Having your family in your corner can be so reassuring.
Most parents and siblings want to help their family. Sometimes, however, they can get too involved to the point where they are more concerned than you are. Be careful not to let your drama become their drama or vice versa. At the end of the day, you need to work with your attorney to formulate a strategy that works best for you and your immediate family. Family means well, but their advice isn’t always rooted in what is best for you or what is legally the best strategy, so be careful.
Divorce is hard. In that first year, it is all about reducing the chaos that naturally springs up when couples split up. Following these 7 rules will act as guiding principles as you develop a new playbook for a new life. Don’t be surprised if the rules you set up for yourself don’t look exactly like someone else’s. Realize that you will go through massive changes over the next few months and years as you go through the various stages of grief. Setting boundaries for yourself actually sets you up for success in the future. And remember, you will survive this, you will come out the other end. Just make sure you like the person emerging from the end of the tunnel.