Divorce is a huge life transition, but unlike other major changes, we may come to it totally unprepared. We plan for other upheavals—especially good ones. We save for years to send a child to college. We make lists months ahead of a major move. We might take a year to plan a wedding. But we don’t spend the waning years of marriage flipping through glossy divorce magazines, or zip down to the bank to open a Divorce Savings Account the minute friction arises. We continue to invest in our marriage, as we should. To some, it feels disrespectful to a marriage—or even morally suspect—to actively plan for a successful, calm un-marrying.
This not-planning is understandable, but it contributes to what can feel like a whirlwind of chaos. As with a natural disaster, an emergency preparedness tool kit can help you weather the storm. A divorce tool kit doesn’t contain canned frankfurters and bottled water, but rather the tools you need to establish order, resume calm, and remind yourself that you are in control.
A Divorce Tool Kit contains:
New routines for daily chores. In marriage, we tend to divvy up the duties. One cooks; the other does the books. The stronger partner hauls the carry-ons into the overhead bin; the more fastidious one swipes the tray tables with scented wipes. Now you have to figure out how to handle both partners’ tasks alone—or line up others to help. Mastering the routines calmly and confidently might involve asking neighbors for the name of a good handyman or tech support person, and meeting that person in advance. You might want a reliable babysitter, housekeeper, lawn maintenance person, or even cook, if that’s within your budget. Try to be honest about the household tasks your partner really did handle. If you fought over these basic routines, this is a chance to reestablish systems in your home that suit you better.
So many adults live alone today, with or without children at home, and services have cropped up to enable us to manage solo living more easily. You can buy single-serving salads at grocery stores, a single-cup coffee maker to replace the large pot you used together—even a split of champagne for celebrating a victory. You can order pretty much anything you need online, from groceries to cleaning supplies to paper goods to furniture. As alienating and lonely as this transition can be, it’s also an opportunity to break any limiting or destructive home-based habits that developed in your marriage, and replace them with more supportive, uplifting productive routines—whether that mean switching to an organic diet, taking time to call your distant relatives at night, or even catching up on reading.
A plan for dousing emotional flare-ups. Connection with others helps us regulate our emotions. This is one reason your former spouse might act “crazy”; he’s missing out on the salutary connection he had with you. In divorce, our emotions can ricochet wildly, and we no longer have another adult in the house to catch them—or talk us down.
When we feel bad, the natural reaction can be to lash out. Picking a fight is a common response to an inner whorl of negativity, but riding out moments of anger rather than acting on them can prevent a decent divorce from devolving into a disaster.
One man told me he’d sent nasty e-mails to his ex in the midst of their divorce. She showed them to their children, something it had never occurred to him she might do. “Those e-mails still affect my relationship with my kids,” he said. “I apologized to her, but they still have those e-mails in their minds. They’re in college, and it stands between us.”
Note to self: Never hit “send” in anger.
In divorce, most of us need to identify a new verbal support partner or team. Many people turn to a professional counselor, coach, or spiritual guide. Some people find help from cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of talk therapy based on the premise that our worst feelings often arise from twisted thinking and can be argued down by marshaling real evidence against it. Emotions are feelings, not facts. They feel like facts, but they aren’t.
We probably also have to expand our repertoire of self-soothing techniques—physical and mental activities that reliably shift our mood. Different things work for each of us. Think about what has helped you calm down and right yourself in the past, and have these approaches ready when you feel overwhelmed, anxious or angry. If running along the nearby trail reliably soothes you, make sure your shoes and socks are ready, and head out whenever you feel yourself becoming lonely or scared, or itching to pick up the phone and yell at your once-spouse. Have easy, at-home options too, such as listening to your favorite music, flipping through art books, calling a friends, even taking a nap. Emotional regulation is a key to having a good divorce, and it’s a skill that improves with practice.
An emergency responder. Who will take you to the ER at 2 a.m., or stay with one child while you take the other? In marriage, it’s usually that live-in emergency responder, our spouse. Identify other people you could turn to in a crisis, and ask them to be on your emergency support team. Give an extra key to your house to a trusted friend or neighbor. Offer to be the emergency responder to someone else—helping others is empowering, and reminds you of how much you do have to give.
You may never need to reach out for help, but lining up emergency responders lessens the feeling of being vulnerable, due to divorce. For many, myself included, our ex remains our emergency responder, at least in the immediate aftermath of separation. This worked for me, but with time, I could see how it might be more empowering to have someone else’s name to write on the “in case of emergency” line on standardized forms. I wanted to be less dependent on him, and to fully know that I lived within a community of support, and that there were people around I could turn to, should I need
With time, most of us learn to handle many of the tasks we once delegated, or perhaps never learned. So many people I interviewed spoke about the real pride that came with the challenge of “fending for themselves.” This is one stealth benefit of suddenly going solo—you can gain new competence, and the confidence that comes with knowing you can do so much yourself.