You Need Help: Post-Divorce Feelings

Q:

I’ve been divorced for about 5 years. We were together for over 10. Overall I’m about as happy as could be to be divorced. What seemed at the time like it was catastrophic and humiliating turned out to be a real blessing. But I’ve also noticed that I’ve picked up some trust and commitment issues that I don’t think I had pre-marriage and that I’ve held on to some strong feelings of anger and betrayal that very occasionally pop up. We still have to communicate pretty regularly because we share child custody. It’s an amicable situation. But now that I’ve figured out I haven’t let go of some feelings, how do I start to do that? I don’t think my ex needs to be involved in this process — I probably said most things to her at the time that I needed to, and if I didn’t, it doesn’t seem like it would be worth it to drag her back through it because I’m struggling. My instinct is to ignore the feelings and hope they go back away. I’m assuming my instinct is wrong. Ideas? (My health insurance sucks so counseling isn’t really an option this year.)

Feelings

A:

Hi Feelings,

First: your feelings are so valid and understandable. Divorce can be so hard. If you didn’t have trust and/or commitment issues after your divorce, that would probably be strange! Any time a relationship doesn’t work out, it’s going to affect the way we feel and approach relationships in the future. Feelings of anger and betrayal are also often par for the course.

But, they aren’t always helpful when we move to future relationships! It’s so important to learn lessons from past loves without them negatively affecting or preventing us from being able to give our all to future loves. How to do that, though, is so difficult, and I guess is the work of being human. Common advice — represented in plenty of pop songs and media — suggests “loving like you’ve never been hurt,” which honestly isn’t super helpful, because our hurt should inform us and help us grow! What would it be like if we never learned any lessons from our past relationships and kept making the same mistakes over and over? Well, it would be terrible.

Ignoring the feelings and hoping they go away is not usually a great option. I agree that your ex probably doesn’t need to be involved, especially since you’ve already talked everything out and said what you need to say. You indicated that insurance-covered therapy is out, but if you can find a sliding-scale therapist or a free/low-cost peer counseling resource, that would be a great option (there’s one in the Bay Area at the Berkeley Free Clinic, for example, and if you live near a major metro area there might be one near you!). Having someone dedicated to listening and helping you process through these feelings can be essential. A trusted friend, who is experienced with either emotional processing or just non-judgmental listening so you can bounce ideas off of them would be a great option, too. Some people not only excel at this, but would be glad to offer their emotional labor to you, sometimes for free (you can always compensate them if you want, though, in whatever way seems to work best for y’all. I usually make food or take my friends out to dinner when they’ve done a lot of emotional labor for me). If therapy is still inaccessible, though, here’s what you can do.

You’re going to have to do some deep dive introspection around your feelings. Journaling some long-form answers to some of these questions could be helpful: Where is your anger coming from? What’s causing it? At whom are you angry? Anger can be a very useful tool and isn’t generally a bad thing to feel, as it can help us to understand ourselves better. Anger and betrayal go hand in hand, usually; we often get angry because of perceived (or actual) injustice or unmet expectations. What did you expect and how weren’t your expectations met? How do you feel you’ve been betrayed?

It may also help to deconstruct some damaging internalized relationship tropes you might have. It’s important to try and figure out what kinds of foundational expectations we have been taught to have about romantic relationships, and to rethink which kinds of trust and commitment are healthy and which are unreasonable. Making a commitment to loving each other forever, for example — an idea suffused throughout our culture, and which is often expected in marriages — is honestly kind of unreasonable. We can commit to always treat someone with dignity, caring, and respect, but we can’t expect someone (or ourselves) to feel a certain way about anything (or anyone) for any particular length of time. Were your unmet expectations related to this kind of unreasonable romantic commitment? Did you trust your ex to do something impossible and feel betrayed when they couldn’t? Is that what’s made you angry? Are you angry at yourself that you couldn’t “keep them” or something along those lines, or some other unreasonable standard you’re holding yourself to?

All of these are just questions to get you started, and guesses about what could be going on; I don’t have enough information from you to offer much in the way of specific ideas. But asking yourself (or getting a therapist to ask you) these kinds of questions, about all of those feelings, is one of the only ways to really get at the heart of them. You might need to rethink some of your expectations around commitment and trust in relationships. And then, if you come to some conclusions, be gentle with and forgiving of yourself, especially if you made some mistakes along the way. And be gentle with and forgiving of your ex.

Those are typically the only ways to let go of feelings — dig deep down and understand what they are and where exactly they’re coming from, potentially look at them in a new light, and say goodbye.

By the way, if you were cheated on, that would be an entirely different reason for feeling betrayal, anger, and commitment issues, but I figure you would have mentioned it if that was part of your situation. Hopefully that’s not the case, and this advice helps!


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Abeni Jones is a multiracial black trans woman artist, educator, writer, and graphic designer living in Oakland, CA. Follow her on Twitter @abeni_jones or check out her website at abenijones.net. Support her work on Patreon here!.

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7 Comments

  1. This is really advice! Cheating and/or abuse totally and radically alter what I’ll say here, but a few notes:

    I’m also five years out from a divorce. Time is weird in that distance, while allowing healing, can *also* allow us the space to safely feel some really deep shit that we didn’t maybe feel comfortable feeling in the immediate aftermath, or when going through the thick of a situation. And you have a child that you’re co-parenting (wow), so I can’t imagine how much more mental and emotional stamina that situation required.

    Abeni wrote some really beautiful words here, but I’ll just add that healing isn’t linear. Sometimes things come up later – a lot later, long after you thought they’d been put to bed. And that’s okay. There’s no timeline that you “should” be on. You’re self-aware, you’re taking steps to take care of yourself, and that’s what matters. <3

  2. Good on you for knowing you need to face this- you can’t move on from the feelings, generally, until you’ve felt them and let them move through you.

    One possibility for addressing unresolved feelings without involving your ex is a three-letter exercise. Depending on where you are with everything, you might just do the first one for now, and come back for more later, when you’re ready/interested. But the general idea is: first, write a letter to this person, as long or short as it needs to be. Whatever’s been coming up, whatever you never got to say or need to say again, get it all out there. The second letter is a response, written by you, from your ex. This might bring some insight that helps you process some of what you’re feeling. The third is you again, saying whatever you need to say to close it out. You might find it therapeutic to burn these after, as a kind of ritual of putting it behind you (or if you’re a journaler, maybe you want to keep them- whatever works).

    Good luck to you. Fellow (gleefully) divorced parent here, offering solidarity- I wouldn’t trade my kid for anything in the world, but I sure am not a fan of having emotional buttons pushed again and again instead of, you know, never seeing my ex again, like lots of people get to do when they break up.

  3. 4 years here! 4 years have been a rollercoaster of healing, lemme tell you! The thing that has helped the most for me is accepting (like, actually accepting) that i will probably never have ‘closure’ and I will definitely never feel the same as I did before the betrayal and hurt. I thought for a long time that to be truly healed, I had to be at peace with what happened and more importantly, I had to be at peace with her and “wish her all the best”. For me, healing actually looks like not wishing anything at all for her. It looks like the pain or anger cropping up at random moments and me saying “yep, that’s there” and then letting it pass through me.

    I find that if I focus on resolving the anger, I feel guilty for being sad or upset in the first place. So I just let it be and it comes to visit me less and less often.

    This advice does come from a place of having been cheated on, etc!

    • I think I need to get to this place, maybe. I don’t know if I need to process my feelings or just accept them. I feel like it would be wrong to start a new relationship though whilst having feelings I can’t seem to get over.

  4. This is all good advice but I am 3 1/2 years post separation from my ex wife who I was with for 12 years and I am a little freaked out that people are struggling 4-5 years later because I want to have moved on already!

    I’ve had another relationship since then and it’s since that ended I’ve felt worse about my divorce. I am happier single than I was with either of them and I am holiday by myself at present and having a great time, but I feel like a failure.

    My ex wife cheated on me but I became emotionally more distant before that and I feel both angry and guilty. My ex gf was someone should wasn’t right for me but I feel like I have messed her about and I feel guilty now for having a relationship when retrospectively I feel like I should have dealt with stuff re my ex-wife, but at the time I thought I had.

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