Prior to divorce, one of your predominate life roles is that of "husband" or "wife." And once that position is pulled from you, it leaves a job opening that is often filled with a self-appointed role that ultimately causes more harm than good.
Is it time for you to quit one (or more) of these post-divorce jobs?
In my day job, I was a math teacher, educating teenagers on how to find x. In my evenings, I dedicated myself to finding my ex so that he could face the legal repercussions of his illegal activities. Through a combination of triangulation based on account activity and Google Earth, I was able to deliver an accurate address to the police.
In the beginning, this cyber sleuthing had a purpose. Yet, even once he was located and his illegal actions verified, I had trouble letting go of my newfound investigative skills. The searching felt purposeful; the details, important. By focusing on assembling information, I was able to distract myself from what I was feeling.
I decided to put in my letter of resignation for my detective role on the day after the divorce was final. I did one last search, cleared my browser history, and packed away all of the accumulated paperwork. His whereabouts and activities were no longer any of my concern.
It didn't make any sense to me. I just couldn't wrap my brain around how my vowed protector had morphed into my persecutor, seemingly overnight. The only way it made sense to me was if he embodied some sort of monster archetype, only described in modern psychiatric terms.
I reflected upon his childhood. I considered his traits and innate responses to stress. I carefully matched his characteristics against those that define various personality disorders, until I settled on the label of sociopath. The non-violent type, as far as I knew.
For a time, I found peace in my amateur diagnosis. It was a way of gaining some sense of control. By naming it, I found some dominion over it. But then memories, good memories, starting bubbling up to the surface. And I couldn't integrate those with my current image of him. So I let go of the labels, and instead tried to see him as an imperfect man, flawed as we all are, and more a stranger to me than I knew.
Many of my coaching clients have unwittingly assumed the role of advice-giver and confidante with their exes. In the marriage, they were the competent ones, the ones who knew how to get stuff done. And their ex-partners? Let's just say they were content with having someone else take the reins.
And even once the households were divided, the struggling ones turn to their exes for advice and assistance, and the more adept ones find themselves in the position of caretaker and organizer. In some ways, it's a mutually beneficial relationship—one person gets his or her needs met, and the other is able to maintain a sense of control and feels as though he or she is needed. On the other hand, this one-way exchange keeps both people tied to the past, limiting autonomy and promoting an unhealthy dependence.
In a marriage, it's natural to turn to your spouse for advice and to voice your opinion freely to him or her. But after a split, the advice-giving is best done by someone else. It's okay to step back and let your ex manage—or even mismanage—his or her own life. It is no longer your responsibility.
My marriage died a sudden death—and I had a driving need to understand why. I had no ex-husband willing to talk, so I had to perform the marital post-mortem with only the impression of the body remaining.
I was convinced that the only way I could obtain closure and be able to move on was if I could follow the precursors to the demise step-by-step. I examined and assembled clues like puzzle pieces. I developed theories, some more plausible than others.
It was strange, in my pursuit of the "truth," I began to realize that the actual facts mattered less than the narrative I crafted around them. I eventually settled on an explanation that helped me forgive and let go. And only then did the drive to dissect the past fade.
Divorce is scary and disorienting. Nothing is certain; everything is in question. I often hear from people that respond to this frightening period with absolutes: "I am never going to trust again," "I am never going to let anybody in again," "I just can't do this."
They are acting as sentry, building walls and posting guards around the uncertainties of life. They seek to control all that enters and prevent any unauthorized exits. For the prison warden, the rules are rigid, the mind always watchful, and the expectations have been constructed around the idea that everyone is disreputable.
Being a guard against life is not only exhausting, it's doomed to disappointment because it's impossible to protect from all misfortune. By all means, be observant and alert. But you don't have to wear the Kevlar vest just to live your life.
"Can you believe what he did now?" I asked my coworker after informing her of my ex's latest shenanigans. The news brought her some entertainment and distraction from work, and sharing it made me feel important. Of course, in order to maintain interest, the news always has to be fresh; and ideally, each new story tops the last.
This self-appointed role combines the obsessiveness of the detective with a need for attention and validation. The salacious details are mined and then shared, followed by the reward of a shot of feel-good dopamine.
The tabloid journalist requires drama to survive. Even if they are not directly manufacturing it, they are elevating it through attention and energy. It feels boring at first, turning away from the revelatory details. But it soon becomes freeing, as you realize you are not dependent upon "likes" for your friendships, and you have time and energy to dedicate to more advantageous pursuits.
For almost a year, I carried a printout of my ex's mug shot and associated newspaper article. Whenever I would have to deal with someone regarding a delinquent account or talk to another attorney, I would present them with the paper. It was my clumsy attempt at saying, "I’m innocent. He’s the one who did this! Please don't judge me."
Part of my drive to proclaim my innocence came from my ex's attempts at gaslighting. He had engaged in some extensive character assassination behind my back while we were married, spinning horrific (and quite creative) falsehoods about me. And so I became obsessed with trying to clear my name and restore my reputation.
Eventually, I realized that those who knew me didn't need my evidence of innocence; they had faith in me regardless. Those that had been fed a steady diet of lies by my ex were unswayable, and so were not worth my efforts. And the relative strangers that I was so determined to convince? They didn't really care whose "fault" things were; they were just doing a job.
Take an honest inventory of the roles you've assumed after your divorce. Are they serving you, or is it time to quit and move on to a new line of work?
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.