We often speak of divorce as if it is a single act, a sudden switch from partnered to single—as though there is no time elapsed between the decision to split and the final seal pressed into the decree.
But divorce doesn't operate that way. Months, or even years, pass between the resolve and the resolution. And that period of time when you're both preparing for and anticipating the divorce can be the hardest stretch to navigate.
It's a weird space where you no longer occupy your former life, yet you are limited in exploring your new world. And it's a scary place, filled with the unknowns of the legal proceedings and the overwhelming uncertainty of the future.
If you're like most people, you don't know much about divorce until you're in the middle of it. Take this time to learn all you can about the laws in your state and the resources that are available to you.
Read up on your legal options before you discuss your plans with your attorney. Familiarize yourself with the role of mediation in your district. Make sure you understand the scope—and the limitations—of the decree and its associated documents. The legal process is confusing and expensive. The more you know ahead of time, the clearer your decisions will be, and the more money you can keep in your pocket.
Research local divorce support groups. Even if you never attend, it's good to know it's there if you need it. If you're worried about being able to make ends meet, look into sliding scale services and programs designed to help you get back on your feet. Investigate new child-care or transportation options for your kids if you anticipate changes in those needs. Energy spent researching what is at hand is never wasted because the knowledge will help you sleep at night.
My own biggest obstacle during this period was financial in nature. I felt a little better after securing a bankruptcy attorney and exploring that option. I ultimately decided that it was not the appropriate route, but just having that information at hand was comforting.
Consider the Worst That Could Happen
I generally advocate focusing on the positive. But that’s hard to do when you’re in marital limbo and you have no idea what your life is going to look like a year from now. And there’s actually a benefit to spending some time exploring the worst case scenarios.
Start by brainstorming – on paper or on your device – the worst possible outcomes of your divorce: bankruptcy, losing custody, being alone forever, etc. Give yourself a time limit of five minutes to jot these down without analysis or censoring.
Then, address each one in turn with what you could do if that fear does come to fruition. Keep these brief and don’t worry about the details or the roadblocks. It’s just important that these actions are possible even after the worst has happened. Limit yourself to no more than twenty minutes to write your responses.
My own “worst that could happen” list looked something like this:
Fear: I could end up homeless.
Response: I had several friends and family members willing to take me in.
Fear: I could be ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars I didn't have.
Response: I still had a job, and I could work out payment plans.
Fear: My destroyed credit would prevent me from being able to move on.
Response: Most of those things would drop off in seven years, and I could work to rebuild my credit.
And all of those things did happen to some extent. And when they did, I learned that none of them was as bad as I had feared.
Be careful not to spend too much time contemplating the worst that could happen. Visit it just long enough to brainstorm your possible responses, and then make an effort to shift your thoughts elsewhere.
Set Aside Time to Deal with Legal Components
Steel yourself. There will be paperwork. And emails. And phone calls. And then more paperwork. All of the evidence-gathering and form-filling and decision-making can be extremely draining and anxiety producing (especially when the envelope contains a bill from your attorney).
Designate a time once or twice a week when you handle the non-critical divorce-related tasks. Ideally, one of these needs to be during normal working hours so that you have access to lawyers, bankers, and government agencies.
You can even take it a step further if you don't want divorce-related news intruding when you’'e not prepared, and designate a new email account just for this business. Be careful to check it frequently in case there is some time-sensitive information that you need to attend to.
At first, I read every email, opened every envelope, and answered every phone call as soon as I could. The news was often distressing, and as a result, would cloud my entire day. Once I cordoned off a portion of time to deal with the informational flood, I found that I felt much more in control and wasn't as impacted on a daily basis.
You can't control what's in the oncoming message, but you can manage when and in what circumstances you receive it.
Be Mindful of Who You Surround Yourself With
How are you ever going to manage the kids and the household on your own? Your ex has always been so selfish. I bet she's going to try to take you to the cleaners. You are so strong, I couldn't handle what you're going through.
You hear it all while you're divorcing. Some comments are well-meaning, but can still miss the mark and drive up your anxiety in the process. Others come from a place of curiosity and dwell on the salacious details that you would rather forget. And then there are those people that always seem to be critical, whose words fuel your negative narratives.
People will likely approach you with their own divorce stories, some of which would best be classified in the horror genre. Much as you would consider other's childbirth stories while pregnant, take these divorce tales with a grain of salt. Their experience is not yours.
Be especially mindful of who you surround yourself with. Find those who balance your intense emotions, rather than amplify them. Seek out friendships with people that are generally positive and proactive. Borrow some of their sunshine on the days when you’re struggling to find it yourself. And when a well-meaning person says the wrong thing, talk to them. They can't learn to respond any better unless you help them understand your perspective.
Divorce has a way of sifting your true friends from the hangers-on. Not all will make it through, and those additional losses are not always easy. Yet, you also know that the friends who are still by your side are there for right reasons.
While You're Waiting… Live!
Your attorney has probably advised you not to make any major purchases, adjust your beneficiaries, speak out on social media, or openly date. The period of time approaching divorce can be a frustrating limbo as you wait for the legal permission to act.
But that's no reason to put your entire life on hold. The law doesn't restrict your ability to make a new friend, sign up for a class, enjoy a sunset, treat yourself to dessert at your favorite restaurant, flirt with the dogs at adoption day, volunteer at a food bank, or tackle a new skill. Instead of thinking about what you can't do, focus on what you can.
This difficult period does have an expiration date. You'll make it through. Just keep your mind on where you want to be, and put one foot in front of the other.
Written by Lisa Arends
Lisa Arends is a divorcee working to inspire others to move forward, recenter, and repurpose their lives. She has written the "How-To-Thrive Guide." Learn more about "thriving" and be inspired by visiting LessonsFromTheEndOfAMarriage.com.