Relationship Status: Separated (& Struggling)
One of the hardest periods of my life was during the months when I was separated, but not yet divorced.
It felt like I was grieving the death of my best friend. I completely lost my appetite and was constantly on the brink of tears. I got panic attacks, induced by all of the uncertainty that suddenly characterized my life (...a condition that was no doubt exacerbated by the all-too-frequent discoveries of shocking new details about my soon-to-be-ex-husband).
I started going for long runs, partially as a meditative exercise, and partially because it gave me a sense of control that I was otherwise lacking in my life.
I lost weight, and people began telling me how great I looked and asking me what I was doing differently. (Which begs the question, how do you politely explain to your coworker that your marriage fell apart and you’ve been losing weight because you’re a total fucking wreck and just not taking very good care of yourself?)
And perhaps the worst part of it was that I didn’t feel deserving of the grief I was experiencing...because he was still somewhere out there in the world. Possibly even happy.
I mean, isn’t grief a little melodramatic when the person you’ve been mourning is still alive?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my relationship status - “separated” - didn’t only describe my relationship to my partner; it described my relationship with the world around me as well.
I felt deeply alone.
Of course, not everyone finds separation to be this way. Some people perceive this period to be joyous, exciting, or liberating. And I get that. We all experience things differently for myriad reasons.
But if your own experience is or was remotely comparable to mine, it can take a while to come out on the other side of that sort of pain. So, with all of that said, I thought I’d offer up some suggestions that I have for those struggling while separated:
1. Let go of what you thought your future would look like.
We all tend to project our hopes and dreams for the future onto the boundless walls of our imagination and envision what our lives might look like in a handful of years. But having those sort of expectations often isn’t healthy or helpful.
For instance, while married, I knew I wanted to have kids at some point, and I imagined for whatever reason that I’d likely start having them once I hit my late twenties. But when my late twenties arrived, I instead found myself going through the divorce process.
The discordance between my idealized life at that point in time and the reality of my actual life was jarring, particularly so when close friends or family of mine announced pregnancies during that period.
But nothing was wrong with me. I hadn’t failed because my life no longer aligned with what I’d once expected. I just found (a bit ironically) that I needed to let go of the expectations I’d had for my future in order to move forward and actually start having a future.
When your expectations misalign with reality, you experience a sort of discomfort - a cognitive dissonance. But you don’t need to have your life perfectly planned out.
Let go of what you thought your future would look like. Embrace this time as an opportunity to reevaluate your needs and wants and reset.
Build a new roadmap - or don’t. But life is an adventure. So start treating it like one.
2. Get out of the house.
Travel. Go somewhere you’ve never been before. Explore the world and discover places that light you up. Maybe take a trip with a tour group so you can go with the flow and just enjoy the experience.
If you’re constrained by the expense, start putting money aside in an account each week or month and save up for it gradually. If friends or family want to do something to support you, you could even consider asking them to contribute to that fund (or ask for them to do so as your birthday or holiday gift for the year).
Consider picking up a new hobby. Walk dogs. Attend a new fitness class. Find a local pottery studio and take a lesson or two. Do something where you’ll be around other people who you can interact with as much or as little as you like.
But don’t hide from the world. It needs you.
3. Practice gratitude.
Think of a few things you’re grateful for each day upon waking and each night just before you go to bed. Have these positive thoughts be the first and last focus of your day. (Check out The Five-Minute Journal if you’d like a more prescribed method for this).
Directing your attention to what you have, to the special people in your life, to the opportunities you’ve been given, and to experiences that you’ve gotten to enjoy - instead of constantly ruminating on things you want or don’t have - can be a healthy habit.
With time and consistency, you’ll find that engaging in this practice will actually start to have a positive impact on your overall levels of happiness.
4. Focus on others.
Uncover ways to give back or help other people. Become a volunteer somewhere. Set a goal to do something nice for someone else on a daily basis. Even taking an action as small and seemingly innocuous as paying someone a compliment can have a positive impact on both their day and yours.
I found that I was generally very self-focused while going through my divorce. And when you’re self-focused and suffering, you tend to fall into a negative loop of self-pity and sadness.
Break that cycle by removing your focus from yourself. Others out there are suffering too. Try to help them in some small way. I promise it’ll begin to make you feel better.
5. Be patient, accepting, and gentle with yourself.
There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to feel while navigating through this period of your life. As I mentioned earlier, some people (like me) struggle immensely with it, and others may find that they’re happier than they’ve been in a long time.
Try to have some awareness of your own emotions and embrace them as they come. Give yourself permission to grieve. Or celebrate. Or cry out in anger.
But the more you attempt to resist or suppress your emotions, the more you’ll cause yourself to suffer during an already enormously stressful and difficult time.
In the end, remember that being “separated” is (usually) fairly temporary in nature. You won’t be there forever, even if it feels like it at times. Exercise patience and trust that things will continue to get better. Because they will - and so will you.