What Can You Learn From Divorce?

Just because your marriage didn’t “work out” doesn’t mean it’s been a total loss. Quite the contrary. It’s natural to have feelings of regret, shame, and sadness when your dream of a life together ends abruptly, but once you get beyond those initial feelings, divorce (like any adverse event) can become your greatest teacher.

In her best-selling book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Buddhist nun and meditation master, Pema Chodron, describes the moment when her life changed forever —and for the better. One day, her husband came home and announced he was having an affair and that he wanted a divorce. Today, Chodron credits this as a defining moment in her spiritual journey and even admits her ex “saved her life.” She learned that even at this dark moment, there were lessons to be learned about herself. On the way to reconciling her feelings of hurt, betrayal, and humiliation, Chodron’s path of self-discovery lead her to an advocation as a teacher who has changed the lives of millions of people around the world.

Today, Chodron teaches “everything on the path is workable.” By this she means that even trauma, loss, pain, and humiliation can be transformed into something that allows us to become more self-aware, compassionate, present, and full of life. Most of us will never aspire to become Buddhist nuns, but, like Chodron, we can use the difficulty of divorce to become a better people.

Not sure how to begin transforming the negative into something positive? “Try to consider this period in your life a time-out, a time for sowing the seeds for new growth,” advises the mental health website helpguide.org. “You can emerge from this experience knowing yourself better and feeling stronger and wiser.”

helpguide.org suggests truthfully answering the following four questions:

  1. How did you contribute to the problems of your marriage? This can be a difficult, but it’s important to recognize that relationships are two-way streets. This isn’t a moral accounting or judgment but an assessment of mitigating facts. Were you too young and immature when you made the commitment? Did you consciously ignore red flag behavior in your spouse? Were your expectations of your spouse unrealistic?
  2. What are your relationship patterns? Do you tend to repeat the same mistakes?Consciously or subconsciously, many people enact behaviors again and again that undermine their happiness. The point is not to heap guilt on yourself, but to become aware of habits or attitudes that you can choose to change.
  3. How do you react to stress and deal with conflict and insecurities? Could you act in a more constructive way? Often our reactions are so ingrained in us, we aren’t conscious of them. One way to gain greater self-awareness is to keep a “melt down journal,” recording incidents that trigger adverse responses, such as angry outbursts, stuffing down emotions, avoiding conflict, binge eating, or excessive drinking or smoking. Once you’re aware of how you respond to stressors, you can more easily create strategies for replacing harmful behaviors with healthy ones.
  4. Are you in charge of your feelings, or are they in charge of you? Examine your negative feelings as a starting point for change. Looking over the journal you created, identify what you were feeling when you had an emotional outburst. Were you really angry, or was sadness the underlying emotion that caused you to become upset? If anger is an issue for you, consider what it is that really sets you off. Injustice? Inconsideration? Indifference? Is your anger really aimed at someone else, or yourself? Rather than railing against someone else, take steps to amend those behaviors in yourself.

It’s not easy, and results may not be apparent right away. (If possible, answer these questions with the help of a skilled therapist or spiritual advisor.) But when you’re ready, your answers may reveal important information about your past relationships and help you move towards a happier, more contented future.