Turning stumbling blocks into building blocks

If you have recently become separated or divorced, you’re probably experiencing a lot of painful feelings: from loneliness and grief to anger and fear. What if you could use the pain of this crisis as a foundation to build a stronger, happier, more self-aware person?

Ending a love relationship is a difficult task. Even when both parties are handling it in a mature, respectful manner, divorce inevitably stirs up a host of negative emotions. If you’ve just begun the process of separation, you’re probably experiencing feelings of sadness, guilt, loss, and a terrible isolation; it may seem like this is a journey you must make, or at least begin, all alone.

The breakdown of a marriage can be the single most stressful and traumatic event in a person’s life. But like any other life-crisis — such as losing a job, a home, a friend or family member, or even a religious belief — there are several relatively predictable stages of adjustment you must experience in order to complete the healing process. The opportunity here is for you to learn and grow as an individual along the way.

The first stumbling blocks to overcome are fear and denial. “This can’t be happening to me!” was Karen’s first thought when Frank, her husband of 20 years, told her he was leaving her for another woman. “I was very fearful about the future,” she remembers. “My thoughts were: ‘Where will I live, how much money am I going to have, what’s going to happen to our children, and what if no one ever loves me again?'”

Frank, who was raised a devout Catholic, felt extremely guilty on two counts: first, for the pain that Karen and the children were feeling; and second, about what his church had to say on the subject of divorce. “I felt torn in two directions,” he says, “but I really wanted to be with Beth. So I told myself that my leaving was for the best; that the kids would get over it; that I shouldn’t be ruled by the dictates of a religion I wasn’t even sure I believed in anymore.” Frank spent five years ignoring his feelings of guilt and sadness over the end of his relationship, covering them up with a much more “acceptable” feeling for him: anger. “I was angry so much of the time,” he recalls. “When the kids would say ‘we miss you Daddy,’ I’d get mad that they were spoiling my happiness. When my parents gave me the cold shoulder because of their religious beliefs, that made me furious.” Until Frank recognized and acknowledged the guilt and grief behind his rage, he remained stuck in a pretty unpleasant emotional stage.

If you’ve recently become separated, you can probably empathize with either Karen’s or Frank’s feelings — depending on whether you were dumped or the one who did the dumping. And until you acknowledge and work through the painful stages that accompany the end of your relationship, they’re going to be stumbling blocks that will trip you up time and again.

Dealing with denial

As human beings, most of us have this remarkable ability to temporarily shut off pain that’s too great for us to handle. We put it in a box labeled “Denial,” which we keep tightly shut until we’re strong enough to face what’s inside. If the experience is sufficiently traumatic, we place it in a box labeled something like “Worst Nightmare: Do Not Open!” We store this box behind a hidden trapdoor in a dark and secluded cellar of our minds; in fact, it’s so well hidden that we actually forget where we put it for long periods of time.

This storage system works nicely for a time, allowing us to get on with some of the daily tasks of living. But until the experiences filed away in those boxes can be taken out, held up to the light and seen for what they really are, they’ll always be lurking around, ready to trip us up when we least expect it.

No matter how smart you are, how many successful business ventures or university degrees you have under your belt, this is a process that you may not be able to begin — never mind complete — alone. If you take nothing else away from this article, please take this: it isn’t shameful, or an admission of weakness or stupidity, to admit that you need help. Enrolling in some kind of therapy, attending seminars geared to personal growth and/or recovery, or even reading some of the better self-help books available out there may be the smartest investments you’ll ever make.

“After my third marriage failed, I had this sudden revelation,” says Laura, an investment banker at a prominent Toronto firm. “At first, I just blamed my ex in specific, and all men in general: you know, the ‘all men are pigs’ sort of thing. Then one day, I suddenly realized that all my relationships have essentially been the same — different man, same old crap — and that I was the one element common to all three relationships.”

By accepting her share of responsibility for her marital breakdowns, Laura was able to see that she had some issues she needed to resolve before becoming involved with someone else. She realized that she consistently chose the same kind of man to have the same destructive relationship with, but had no idea why she made these choices. “Before therapy,” she asserts, “I really had no freedom to choose a healthy relationship. I didn’t have the freedom to choose being single, either,” she adds.

Your emotional divorce

Feelings such as fear, grief, anger, and even hatred are common, even “normal,” during a divorce process. Many therapists suggest that you allow yourself to fully experience these feelings, then let them go when they’ve served their purpose — which is to mourn the death of your relationship. Dr. Fisher recognizes that: “It’s tough to let go of the strong emotional ties which remain from the dissolved love union. Nevertheless, it’s important to stop investing emotionally in the dead relationship,” he continues.

Your emotional divorce probably began months or even years before one of you decided to make it official, but your emotional divorce won’t be complete until you let go of the bitterness and the battles of your dead marriage. The bad news is that some people will never divorce themselves emotionally from their former spouses, keeping alive their anger and resentment from the past to the point where they can’t truly experience happiness in their present lives.

You may get some transitory feelings of satisfaction from directing your self-righteous anger at “that rotten so-and-so you had the misfortune to marry,” but think of what that anger is costing you. Is it really worth it? A wise friend once told me: “You can either be self-righteous, or you can be happy; you can’t be both.”

Life 101

There are a number of seminars and courses available to help you let go of the past and create an exciting new life for yourself. Each one has a different approach or philosophy, so it’s up to you to choose the one(s) that’s right for you.

When you find a course that interests you, attend an introductory session or arrange an appointment to speak with the enrollment manager. If possible, talk to a respected friend or co-worker who has taken this course, or ask the company for a referral to one of their clients.

The right choice probably won’t feel comfortable — growth and change are never comfortable. Instead, ask yourself whether the promises and goals of a particular course are aligned with your own. Can you see the possibility (even if it’s only a faint glimmer right now) of generating a great new future out of participating in this course? If so, your next step will be to deal with the stumbling blocks that will stop you from participating. These obstacles could be anything from “I can’t afford the time/money” to “I don’t like personal-development seminars.”

Again, if you can see an opportunity to heal and/or design a future that will have you jumping out of bed rather than pulling the covers over your head each morning, you’ll find a way to handle these blocks.

Sometimes, the things that could prevent us from participating in personal development are the very things that stop us in other areas of our lives. Ask a friend or family member for help — whether that means babysitting your kids during the course, driving you to and from the course location, or even lending you the money to pay for it. The people who love you want you to be happy, and most will welcome the opportunity to help you put your life back together.

Even strangers can be of assistance sometimes. At the end of an introduction session to one course, an unemployed woman stood up and declared that she really wanted to enroll, but she didn’t have the money. So she offered to clean the houses of any of the other members of the audience for $40 each; within ten minutes, she had collected more than 20 prospective “employers.” This doesn’t mean that you should immediately start cleaning people’s houses — it just illustrates that with creativity and determination, you can overcome whatever obstacles are standing in your way.

There are many courses and seminars available to help you complete your emotional divorce. Here are a couple of organizations offering personal growth seminars in your area:

  • Landmark Education offers an intensive three-day course called “The Forum,” which invites you to move beyond the limits you have set for yourself and break through to new levels of accomplishment, enjoyment, and self-expression. It offers you the opportunity to leave the past in the past and to move into a future that isn’t limited by what has been. Call Directory Assistance for the Landmark center nearest you, or their Head Office at (415) 981-8850
  • “Keeping the Love You Find” is a two-day workshop for singles who want to learn how to let go of painful memories, say goodbye to former partners, and stop making the same relationship mistakes. Developed by Harville Hendrix, Ph. D., the seminar will help you understand why your relationship failed, and teach you how to find lasting love in the future. For more information, or to find a workshop in your area, call the Institute for Imago Relationship Therapy at (800) 729-1121

Begin the climb

Take the first steps to turn those emotional blocks you keep tumbling over into the foundations for a self-sufficient, balanced, happy person. If you need help letting go — and most people do — don’t be ashamed to ask for it. There are dozens of avenues for you to explore: from books to seminars, traditional therapy to Zen Buddhism. As difficult as it may be to believe right now, you do have the freedom to choose happiness. After all, isn’t joy worth the sacrifice of some painful, toxic emotions?

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