10 Lessons from a Divorce Survivor

"Dear World"

D-I-V-O-R-C-E:  When Your Life Becomes a Country Song

Tammy Wynette’s classic D-I-V-O-R-C-E ballad was released in 1968, and captured a moment in American culture when the fault-lines in the institution of marriage became part of the national conversation.  It was a seminal song that it many ways defined the heartache of divorce.

That song was also part of the soundtrack of my own life when my parents divorced in 1972.  It was like I woke up and found myself in the middle of a country song.  And just like little J-O-E in the ballad, I was “going away” too.  We moved across the country from Vermont to Texas, and my sister and I joined the ranks of latch key kids who were the true emotional pioneers in the land of divorce.

From my parents’ divorce, I learned some key lessons that shaped the woman that I have become (and am still becoming). From my own divorce in 2011, I experienced the transformative power of relationships.

Lesson #1:  Education is power

Like many women of her generation, my mother’s occupation was being a mother coupled with being a farmer’s wife in rural Vermont.  She did not have any training or education beyond high school.  After the divorce, she entered the workforce for the first time, and she was petrified at her limited prospects.  She regretted that she had not gone to college, and stressed how important education was to make a living.  Her fear and courage left an imprint on us. It was clear to both my sister and I that education was the first critical step toward economic power.  You can gain and lose a lot over your lifetime–financial and otherwise–but you never lose what you have learned.

Lesson #2:  Divorce is expensive

A good friend quipped to me when I was going through my divorce:  “There’s a reason that divorce is expensive…because it’s worth it.”  In Tammy’s classic ballad, she doesn’t talk about legal fees, court costs, moving expenses, living expenses, therapy fees and what it will cost to rebuild your life–emotionally and financially.  When emotions are running high, the last thing you want to do is jump without thinking.  This is the time to understand exactly where you (and your spouse) stand financially…and what you have to lose and gain.

Lesson #3:  Surround yourself with people you trust

Don’t assume the fetal position and hunker down with Ben & Jerry (or whatever your vice may be).  This is the time to seek counsel.  “Trusted advisor” is just a marketing term until you experience it.  My CPA was my first stop, and she was invaluable.  Not only did she give me sound financial advice, she also shared with me her own experiences as a primary breadwinner who had recently gone through a divorce, and she recommended an attorney to me.

Lesson #4:  Get in touch with your inner Zen master

Do you hate those stereotypes of emotionally over the top people who are losing their minds over the infamous cheating spouse?  This is your chance to be the Zen master of your life and to place the rational over the emotional.  There will be time after the dust has settled to hike to the top of the mountain and let it all out with an epic scream, but for now…get out your excel spreadsheet, make lists of what has to be done; documents and records are your new best friends, gather them all and organize them.  You are the master of your divorce domain.

Lesson #5:  The path of harmony is financially beneficial

When I met with an attorney, she saw my divorce as a great opportunity for mediation.  She explained that the path of harmony is much less expensive than a contentious and litigious battle.  She also explained clearly to me what I had to lose as a primary breadwinner who had been supporting my spouse.  We all know agreement is not easy or simple, but when it means saving thousands of dollars, it makes the harmony less about rainbows and unicorns and much more about financial prowess.

Lesson #6:  You are not alone

Today, the average divorce rate for all Americans is 44% — it has actually declined in a recent years.[1]  However, there’s more than meets the eye.  According to a report titled “‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’: Why Most Divorce Filers Are Women,” published by the American Law and Economics Review in 2000, women file more than two-thirds of divorces in the U.S.

And women aren’t the only demographic making waves in the divorce arena; people over the age of 50 are ending their marriages more frequently than ever before. [2]   Divorce does not have the cultural stigma that it did when my parents divorced in 1972.  Today, it is another life stage that is often a part of our shared experience.  It is the story line for Hollywood or a TV sitcom; it’s the crust of the apple pie that didn’t quite come out the way you wanted it to.

Lesson #7: Don’t listen to the radio

When you are going through a divorce, whatever you do don’t drive down the road and listen to the radio.  It is Murphy’s Law that when you are separating from someone, every song will be about love, pain, break-ups, infidelity and emotional devastation.  Save yourself the pain and instead make playlists that are about triumph, recovery, courage, winning and redemption.  Ask your friends for their survival play lists and they will respond with surprising and illuminating suggestions.

Lesson #8: Find an outlet for the emotion

You will need an outlet…so you don’t explode, and so you can get in touch with your inner Zen master (see lesson #4).   What brings you joy?  Makes you calm?  Soothes your soul?  For me, I credit:  the labyrinth of movies on Netflix, music turned up loudly and dancing with all the lights off, cooking with friends and family, the women of my wine group, long, compassionate talks with my sister, Cathy, and healing hikes with my friend, Nancy.

Lesson #9: Treasure and nurture your relationships

Relationships are the salve of our lives.  When you have to rebuild your life, when the floor falls out beneath you, what matters are the people who love you and believe in you.  The authentic people, the real relationships will come forward with their love and support.  The virtual “likes” or fair weather friends will vaporize into cyberspace.  The key lesson here is how critical it is to nurture and treasure your relationships every day.  Don’t waste your time on the superficial and artificial.  Remember that Facebook is a virtual community.  Make sure you’re investing time in the real thing.

Lesson #10:  Pain and joy are inextricably bound

When you’re going through a painful experience, it is difficult to remember joy.  The sun is shining, but you feel rain on your face.  It’s hard to see blue sky when you’re living in a black cloud.  Then, it happens.  You are officially on the other side.  There will be a moment when there is a sign that your divorce is not just over legally, it is over emotionally.  It may be when you stop using the words “my husband,” or when you laugh really hard for the first time or when you have your first bad, hysterically funny, blind date…it’s a moment of joy. And in that moment, you understand that pain and joy are inextricably bound together.  They are opposites, and in order to experience one, we must also understand the other.  That is life.  And, then, you are driving down the road, and because you are feeling brave, you turn on the radio.  And when Tammy Wynette sings D-I-V-O-R-C-E, you laugh so loudly that you have to pull the car over…


[1] https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/marriage-divorce.htm

[2] According to data published by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in June 2013