Addressing a significant loss in life, this guidebook enables those who have experienced a divorce to mourn sufficiently and begin to heal. Delving into the 10 essential touchstones of the healing process, this resource encourages the exploration of feelings of loss, identifying the specific needs of divorce transition, and understanding the divorced person's bill of rights. Compassionate and accessible, this outline will allow those in need to navigate through what can be overwhelming grief to a new beginning.
About the Author
Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, is a grief counselor and the director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. He is the author of several books including Healing Your Grieving Heart, The Journey Through Grief, and Understanding Your Grief. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.
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The Wilderness of Divorce
Finding Your Way
By Alan D. Wolfelt
Center for Loss and Life TransitionCopyright © 2008 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
Open to the Presence of Your Loss
"A wound that goes unacknowledged and unwept is a wound that cannot heal."
You are going through or have experienced a divorce.
In your heart, you have come to know deep pain. From my own divorce experience as well as those of people I have companioned over the years, I have learned that we cannot go around the pain that is the wilderness of our grief surrounding lost love. Instead, we must journey all through it, sometimes shuffling along the less strenuous side paths, sometimes plowing directly into the dark center.
In many ways, and as strange as it may seem, this book is intended to help you honor the pain that comes with your divorce. You have probably been taught that pain means something is wrong and that you should find ways to alleviate the pain. In our culture, pain and feelings of loss are experiences most people try to avoid.
But you will probably learn over time that the pain of your divorce grief will keep trying to get your attention until you have the courage to gently, and in small doses, open to its presence. The alternative — denying or suppressing your pain — is in fact more painful.
Staying open to the ripple effects of divorce
During and after a divorce, there is often a huge ripple effect of additional loss that spreads out in many directions.
Loss of dreams and goals. Many aspects of hopes and dreams you had together as a couple are now changed and different.
Loss of self-esteem. When you experience divorce loss, it is natural that your self-esteem is impacted. You may not feel as attractive and desirable as you once did.
Loss of identity, belonging and lifestyle. You were part of a "couple" and a "family." Divorce can leave you feeling uncertain of your identity and leave you questioning where you "belong" in the world around you.
Loss of personality. In part, you knew who you were because you had a "mirror" in your life. When you lose your mirror, you may find yourself reflecting, "I just don't feel like myself."
Loss of feeling loved and accepted. Love is anchored in acceptance. The loss of love can put you at risk for feeling unacceptable, unlovable or unworthy of love.
Loss of someone to express love to. Giving love is as important as receiving love. You may feel like you have love to give, but no one is there to receive it.
Loss of intimacy needs. You may miss someone holding you, touching you, making love with you. While this is difficult for many to acknowledge, loss of emotional, physical and sexual intimacy are tremendous losses for many divorced people.
Loss of companionship and a partnership. You may have been used to doing things together that you now need to do alone. It may have been little things like watching TV together, going shopping together, just being in the same room together.
Loss of physical security. You may not feel as safe living alone as you did when you lived with your spouse.
Loss of financial security. You may have gone from two incomes to one income, yet have increased expenses with all the changes that come with the divorce.
Loss of your home. Now you may live somewhere else and it feels very different. You may have had to downsize and miss the space you used to enjoy.
Loss of good credit. You may feel like you are rebuilding your financial life, and this can leave you feeling a loss of power at a time when you may already feel helpless.
Loss of friends and family. Your friendships and family relationships are no doubt impacted by the divorce. You may have been close to some of your spouse's family, but those relationships have now been cut off. Sometimes family and friends are judgmental and stop all communication or, sadly, even harass you for the decisions you have made.
Loss of reputation. Does anyone whisper when you pass? Does anyone spread rumors about you or your former spouse? Sometimes with divorce there are aspects of loss of reputation that may hurt deeply.
Loss of faith. You may be questioning your faith or spirituality. This can result in a lost sense of meaning and purpose in your life.
Loss of joy and happiness. Some of life's most precious emotions, such as joy and happiness, can be compromised by the experience of divorce.
Loss of health. Divorce can compromise your immune system and result in changes in your health. Obviously, our bodies are tied into our emotions and let us know when we are stressed out.
Loss of your children. You may have lost custody or have to share custody of your children. Moving children back and forth between homes is a loss in and of itself. Not seeing your children every day or being able to put them to bed at night is a very real loss.
Loss of influence over your children. If you are not with your children as much as you were before, you can experience a loss of influence over what they see, hear and do. You may experience a parental instinct to protect them but feel helpless to do so.
Loss of your children's loyalty. The reality is that sometimes children take sides around who is "right" and who is "wrong" in a divorce. Sometimes children are encouraged to choose a "side," and you feel cut off from them.
Loss of the hope for future children. Perhaps you had hopes to have more children in the future. The loss that comes with divorce can also bring real loss related to future children.
Loss of hope for a future marriage or significant relationship. Some divorced people feel hopeless about the possibility of meeting and committing to another mate.
Setting your intention to heal and transcend
You are on a journey that is naturally frightening, painful and often lonely. No words, written or spoken, can take away the pain you feel now. I hope, however, that this book will bring comfort and encouragement as you make a commitment to embracing that very pain.
It takes a true commitment to heal your divorce grief. Yes, you are wounded, but with commitment and intention you can and will become whole again. Intention is defined as being conscious of what you want to experience. A close cousin of "affirmation," it is using the power of positive thought to produce a desired result.
When you set your intention to heal and eventually transcend this life-changing experience, you make a true commitment to positively influence the course of your journey. Healing and integrating this loss into your life demands that you engage actively in the grief journey. It can't be fixed or resolved; it can only be soothed and integrated through actively experiencing the multitude of thoughts and feelings involved.
Integrating your divorce grief
The concept of intention-setting presupposes that your outer reality is a direct reflection of your inner thoughts and beliefs. If you can change or mold some of your thoughts and beliefs, then you can influence your reality. In journaling and speaking (and praying!) your intentions, you actively help "set" them.
You might tell yourself, "I can and will reach out for support during this difficult time in my life. I will become filled with hope that I can and will survive this divorce." Together with these words, you might form mental pictures of hugging and talking to your friends and seeing happier times in your future.
Setting your intention to heal is not only a way of surviving your divorce, it is a way of actively guiding your grief. Of course, you will still have to honor and embrace your pain during this time. By honoring the presence of your pain, by understanding the appropriateness of your pain, you are committing to facing the pain.
In reality, denying your grief, running from it, or minimizing it only seems to make it more confusing and overwhelming. Paradoxically, to eventually soften your hurt, you must embrace it. As strange as it may seem, you must make it your friend.
In this book, I will attempt to teach you to gently and lovingly befriend your divorce grief. To not be so afraid to express your grief. To not be ashamed of your tears and profound feelings of sadness. To try not to pull down the blinds that shut out light and love. Slowly, and in "doses," you can and will return to life and begin to live in ways that put stars back into your sky.
I invite you to gently confront the pain of your grief. I will try with all of my heart to point to the Touchstones as you journey through the wilderness of your divorce grief. As we go forward, remember: As you do your grief work you will experience transcendence and live with meaning and purpose every day of your life.CHAPTER 2
TOUCHSTONE TWO Dispel the Misconceptions About Divorce and Grief
"Life is like an onion. You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep."
As you journey through the wilderness of your divorce grief, you will come to find a path that feels right for you. This path will be your path to healing and eventual transcendence. But beware — others may try to pull you off this path. They may try to make you believe that the path you have chosen is wrong, even "crazy," and that their way is better.
The reason that people try to pull you off the path to healing is that they have internalized some common misconceptions about the divorce experience. Many of the misconceptions deny you your right to hurt and authentically mourn your lost hopes and dreams for your marriage.
Misconception: Grief and mourning are the same thing.
Perhaps you have noticed that people tend to use the words "grieving" and "mourning" interchangeably. There is an important distinction, however. We as humans move toward integrating loss (divorce loss included) into our lives not just by grieving, but by mourning.
Grief is the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we have when we experience divorce.
Mourning is when you take the grief you have inside and express it outside of yourself. Another way of defining mourning is "grief gone public" or the "outward expression of grief."
Obviously, this book is rooted in the importance of openly and honestly mourning the loss of your relationship by expressing your grief outside of yourself. Over time and with the support of others, mourning will create momentum for your healing.
Misconception: If you get a divorce, you are a failure.
There are those people out there who may project to you that when your marriage ends, you are a failure as a person. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Divorce is about the disintegration of hopes and dreams, about a life partner who did not materialize. Divorce is not failure, it is a transition. We are conditioned by society to bring to marriage many unrealistic expectations, such as "two shall become one," "until death do us part," and, of course, "happily every after."
Actually, in a healthy partnership, two people remain separate individuals who communicate respect for each other, perceive each other as equals, and grow both individually and together. The reality is that for many, it takes more than one try to both discover and experience this kind of equal and mutually satisfying relationship.
Misconception: When you marry, you must stay committed to the thought that this love will last forever.
Many people grow up believing that one ideal person completes them and that after they find one another, they will live happily ever after.
Yet, in reality, relationships do end. No, we don't always understand why they end, but they do. About one of every two marriages ends in divorce. This fact demonstrates that love is often not forever. This misconception related to "forever" often results in us judging ourselves harshly when our relationships end.
Relationships sometimes have a lifetime of their own that does not include forever. A relationship is not always the final resting place where you settle in forever.
Misconception: If you get a divorce, you will never marry again.
Some people would have you believe that if you get a divorce, you will never have another significant relationship or marry again. However, divorce is often a transition to single-hood, re-coupling, or eventual remarriage.
The reality is that many divorced people do eventually remarry. Actually, about three out of four North Americans who get divorced remarry, usually within three years.
I have companioned many people through the divorce process: people who didn't want the relationship to end; people who initiated the end of the relationship; and people who mutually agreed to end the relationship. My experience has been that regardless of the circumstances, if you are willing to authentically mourn your loss, you can go on to create new and satisfying intimate partnerships.
Misconception: After your divorce, the goal should be to "get over it" and "move on" as quickly as possible.
Our culture tends to be impatient with experiences that involve grief, loss and the need to mourn. Don't be shocked when some people around you expect you to be "back to normal" very soon after your divorce.
If you openly express grief outwardly, you may be viewed by some as "weak," "crazy" or "self-pitying." The sometimes subtle but direct message is "shape up and get on with your life."
If you internalize these kinds of messages, you may be tempted to repress (bottle up) your thoughts and feelings about the divorce.
Remember — society will often encourage you to prematurely move away from and "get over" your divorce loss. You must continually remind yourself that leaning toward, not away from, the pain that accompanies this major life transition will actually make your eventual healing easier.
Misconception: When the grief and mourning of your divorce are integrated into your life, the painful thoughts and feelings will never come up again.
Oh if only this were so. Divorce is a process, not an event. As your experiences have probably already taught you, grief comes in and out like waves from the ocean. Sometimes when you least expect it, a huge wave comes along and pulls your feet right out from under you.
You may have your divorce decree, but that does not mean these waves stop rolling in. Sometimes heightened periods of sadness may leave you feeling overwhelmed. These times seem to come from nowhere and can be frightening and painful.
You will always, for the rest of your life, feel some aspects of grief and loss over the ending of your relationship. However, these feelings will one day no longer dominate your daily life or be the center of your life. Yet, they will always be there, in the background, reminding you of the person and the relationship you were once connected to.
Usually, the capacity to be supportive without judging is most developed in people who have been on some kind of grief journey themselves and are willing to be empathetically present to you during this difficult time.
If you find yourself around people who believe in the misconceptions outlined in this chapter, you may feel very alone. If the people you are closest to are unable to support you without judging you, seek out others who can offer nonjudgmental love and support.CHAPTER 3
Embrace the Uniqueness of Your Divorce Experience
"Whether a marriage fractures with one quick snap or dies a slow death, a powerful bond is broken."
David B. Hawkins
The wilderness of your divorce experience is your wilderness. It is a creation of your unique self, the unique person you were married to, and the unique circumstances of your divorce.
Despite what you may hear about what the divorce experience is like for someone else, you will encounter it in your own unique way. Consider taking a "one-day-at-a-time" approach.
This Touchstone invites you to explore some of the unique aspects of your divorce experience — the "influences" on your journey through this wilderness.
The circumstances of the divorce
There are many circumstances that can make each divorce unique. Some couples come to divorce after years of alienation, constant fighting and neglect. Or you may have felt you still loved your spouse, yet he or she suddenly announced he or she wanted a divorce. Or, perhaps you lived with your spouse for a long time after learning you were no longer loved by him or her. Maybe you realized early on in your marriage that one day it would end; you just didn't know when.
Regardless of your unique circumstances, the ending of a relationship is a naturally difficult rite of passage to a life that will be very different than before. Whether your marriage died a slow death or experienced an unexpected crisis that created an end, whether you were the "leaver" or the "left," you are now faced with a need to mourn what once was.
Your unique personality
What words would you use to describe yourself? What words would people use to describe you? Whatever your unique personality, rest assured that it will be reflected in your response to the divorce experience and the way you mourn this major life change.
If you tend to run away from stressful aspects of life, you may have an instinct to do the same thing now. If, however, you have always confronted crisis head on and openly, you may walk right into the center of the wilderness.
Other aspects of your personality, such as your self-esteem, values, and beliefs, also impact your response to divorce. In addition, any long-term problems with depression or anxiety will probably influence your grief.
The people in your life
How are the people around you supporting you at this difficult time? Mourning lost relationship dreams requires mourning, and mourning requires the outside support of others.
Without a stabilizing support system of at least one other person, the odds are that you will have difficulty doing your work of mourning. Healing requires an environment of empathy, caring, acceptance and gentle encouragement.
Excerpted from The Wilderness of Divorce by Alan D. Wolfelt. Copyright © 2008 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Center for Loss and Life Transition.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsAlso by Alan Wolfelt:,
Introduction and Welcome,
TOUCHSTONE ONE - Open to the Presence of Your Loss,
TOUCHSTONE TWO - Dispel the Misconceptions About Divorce and Grief,
TOUCHSTONE THREE - Embrace the Uniqueness of Your Divorce Experience,
TOUCHSTONE FOUR - Explore Your Feelings of Loss,
TOUCHSTONE FIVE - Recognize You Are Not Crazy,
TOUCHSTONE SIX - Understand the Six Needs of Divorce Transition,
TOUCHSTONE SEVEN - Nurture Yourself,
TOUCHSTONE EIGHT - Reach Out for Help,
TOUCHSTONE NINE - Seek Integration — Not Resolution,
TOUCHSTONE TEN - Appreciate Your Transformation,
About the author,
ALSO BY ALAN WOLFELT,