A reader of my weekly column in Meridian Magazine recently wrote in asking for "an article regarding the men/women that are left behind after many years of marriage. A stage that many of us have never gone [through] before of being alone." It's a good question.
For me, the loneliness actually began before the formal separation as I watched my former wife disconnect and disengage. We actually lived in the same house, on different floors, for about 18 months. It created a toxic atmosphere that I found depleting both emotionally and physically. After I moved out of our home, it occurred to me that I had never really lived alone before. I grew up in a family. When I went away to college, I always had roommates except for a very brief period at the end of my freshman year. Then I went on a mission where I always had a companion. After my mission, I always either lived with my parents or roommates until I got married. I had a brief, unofficial, separation from my first wife about 3 years in that lasted for 2 months--and those months were a living hell. We had another separation for a couple of months about 7 years in and, again, I was deeply depressed. By the time my first wife and I separated for the last time, I had only lived alone for about 5 months in the past four decades. I wasn't used to it and I hated it. When you are used to living in a home full of people and activity, the silence is sometimes deafening. Sometimes I would just turn on the TV to create background noise when I wasn't actually even watching it.
I know how lonely many of you are. It is popular in the singles community to say "you have to get used to being alone and loving yourself before you are ready to love someone else." There is a point to that, and I sometimes coach on it. But even the most well-adjusted single is not living his or her optimal life. Let's be really honest about this.
Too many married people place responsibility for their happiness in their partner. That is not healthy either. But you will never find me preaching that people shouldn't get married until they stop feeling lonely. If you aren't married, it is natural to feel lonely--and I'm not trying to cure normal.
The fact is, however, that more than half the adults of our faith are single now. That doesn't mean that half of the marriages will eventually end in divorce. It means that one half of the adult population of the church is divorced, widowed, or not yet married right now. If you have been "left behind," as my reader put it, you are probably facing the most lonely and fearful time of your life. The good news is, there is a huge, albeit silent, majority of Latter-day Saints that need friendship and support just as much as you do.
1. Create a support system. If you have been through an unwanted divorce, you almost certainly know the thing Cathy and I call "the ache." It is an actual deep, hollow ache in the abdomen or the chest. My former wife used to call it feeling, "sick at heart." You are experiencing this feeling because you are empty and afraid. The best way to be relieved of this pain is to connect with other people in a meaningful way.
I cannot emphasize this enough. During my first marriage, I kind of let go of all my friendships and focused only on my wife and children. I didn't socialize beyond my family very much and I thought my family was all I needed. So when my wife checked out all I had was the kids. I spent a lot of time with them. But after we formally separated I only had them for a limited amount of time at first. And your kids should not be your support system. You should be theirs. In most cases, they are going through a very traumatic time too, and they need you to be strong for them. They do not need to be feeling sorry for you and hearing adult conversation they are not yet equipped for. You can't give out of an empty bucket, so you need the love and support of other adults who care about you.
I broadened my circle of friends to include a cousin who had been divorced several years earlier, several former mission companions, former college roommates and friends, and even a number of friends from my high school years. I was wise enough to know that I would wear any one person out with my story, and I cultivated a broad circle of friends. I will tell you that my faith and my friends were the two things that sustained me more than anything else through a period of major depression and loneliness.
You may feel bashful about reaching out to old friends who you haven't talked to in decades. Do it anyway. The comfort of old friends is one of my greatest discoveries in life. Not a single one of them complained that I hadn't contacted them in years and now I was only contacting them when I was needy. They just loved me. Virtually every old friend I contacted welcomed me back into their lives with open arms.
It is also important for singles to be together, and you can learn a lot from those of us who have been down the road you are now traveling. One of my former dating partners likes to describe those of us who have been divorced longer as the "brain trust" for those more freshly divorced. So join singles groups like this one on Facebook and make new friends. If you like hiking, find a singles hiking group and make more friends. Whatever you enjoy doing, find a singles group that is doing it and join it.
I know people are busy and aren't always available. I know it is scary at first to start reaching out to other people for emotional support. I also know that no group of friends will ever replace a spouse. But it is a whole lot better than nothing and will help you remedy the empty, afraid, and weak feeling that is inevitable when you are isolated.
I also know it takes time to develop friendships. That is one reason I suggest reaching out to old friends. With them, it just sometimes feels like no time has passed between you. They know you in a way your new friends don't. However, acknowledging that developing a support system takes time is a good reason to start right away.
2. Radical acceptance is a key to healing. Radical acceptance means accepting your situation for what it is--without trying to explain it away. There may be things you can do to make changes--such as proactively creating a support system. But there is a lot you do not have control over too. Guys, for about 95% of you, your wife is not coming back--ever. Say goodbye and move on. Accept the fact that she has made her choice and make healthy choices of your own. It might not be fair. You may not think it is right. But you have to stop playing that parlor game of asking yourself what you would do if she came back and asked for another chance. She's not going to. So don't torture yourself and waste emotional energy with questions to which there are no good answers.
If you are broke as a result of your divorce, accept the reality of your situation. The long-term solution to your problem is not in getting more child support or alimony. It is in gaining some economic value of your own. (I have seen severe economic hardship hit both men and women hard. I am personally still recovering.)
Accepting where you are does not mean that you resign yourself to always being single and broke. It does mean accepting the fact that you are single and broke now, that your former spouse is not coming back, and that your future happiness is largely up to you. It is no good saying things like "I don't want my kids to suffer because my marriage didn't work out" as you run your credit cards up to the limit. That is not good for you or your kids.
It is also not fruitful to keep repeating thoughts that your life was not supposed to turn out this way and that you didn't get married to get divorced. Of course it was supposed to turn out this way. Do you know why? Because it did. Radical acceptance means to accept that things are the way they are and stop lamenting the things that you can't change. When you do this, you can begin to focus on the things you CAN change--which is empowering. Ultimately, you will start seeing your life for its possibilities rather than for its disappointments.
3. Start creating your own identity. It is amazing how many little things we just give up when we get married. When my first wife and I separated, I hung fake zebra and lion heads on my bedroom wall. I got a new down comforter and covered it with a giraffe print duvet. I added some other African decor. I started collecting an eclectic set of dishes and kitchenware from the dollar store. Why did I do these things? Well, my former wife would never have allowed it. So I took a step out on my own and decided to start creating my own identity. I eventually tired of the African theme in my room and redecorated. However, isn't it curious that Cathy and I took our pre-honeymoon and got officially engaged on a safari in Africa. It almost feels like that bedroom with all of its African decor was a giant vision board.
I am not suggesting an eclectic collection of dishes or that you do your room up African. I am suggesting that you do a few things you want to do to begin to reclaim your own identity after a lengthy marriage. That can be anything from taking up new hobbies (or old ones you had given up) to redecorating your living space. Use your imagination and have fun with it.
4. Do fun activities. If your kids are grown or when they are with your former spouse, get out and be social and do fun things. Sitting home stewing about how unfair your divorce was is not good for anyone. Rediscover how much fun there is to be had in life. If theater is your thing, try out for a community play. If you love the outdoors, go camping and hiking. Is there something you have always wanted to try? Have you always wanted to learn to play the guitar? Go for it! There is no one in your life to tell you no except yourself.
5. Undertake a spiritual and personal development journey. Get good books like Intentional Courtship and other books that encourage you to live a more intentional life, to find meaning in the things you do, and to do the things you find meaning in. Spend some time in the scriptures and in prayer.
Sometimes when my divorce was fresh, I would close the door to my private room and put on hymns and just sing along. That would often give me a momentary respite for the deep, hollow ache I felt inside. One of the biggest things that may be keeping you sad is that you feel like your life has no purpose or meaning now that it does not fit into the "ideal" you once embraced. Again, this involves radical acceptance. It also involves growing and finding meaning in your life--imperfect as it may seem. This experience can make you bitter or better. Let it make you better by making you wiser.
Cathy and I were both very intentional about personal development during our mid-single years. That drew us together and created connection. Is it a surprise to you that we wrote a book together and created an organization to help mid-singles with personal development? One of the biggest tragedies of marriage in our modern world is that people get married and stop growing. If that sounds like you, order Intentional Courtship and start figuring out how to find inner peace. I promise you, it will pay huge dividends in your ability to live a more intentional life, develop more intentional relationships, and make more conscious decisions that lend themselves to your happiness. We actually give a number of good book recommendations within Intentional Courtship itself.
6. Face your finances. Divorce is a financial disaster for most people. I was so overwhelmed by this that I couldn't even open my mail. If you are in this situation of financial chaos and overwhelm, you don't have to solve it all at once. In fact, you probably can't. But the first step toward making it better is to assert some control over it. That means figuring out what debts you have and what bills you have to pay. Once you have this information, you can start creating a bigger shovel with which to dig yourself out of the problem. That may mean going back to school or getting a trade that pays better than you can earn right now. Every situation is different. However, if you are experiencing financial problems, the place to begin is in organizing it and resolving to improve your situation day by day and decision by decision. Trust me, even though it feels overwhelming, once you get organized you're going to feel a lot better, even if the picture it paints is not very pretty.
7. Date. I am not suggesting you should run out and get married or immediately replace your spouse with a serious girlfriend or boyfriend. You need some time to assess the unhealthy dynamics of your past relationship and strive to live a more intentional life going forward. If you are still in that emotional space of blaming your spouse, you are not ready for a serious relationship. You will just find someone else to blame.
So, at first, just date for fun. Let your partners know that you are recently divorced and still getting your life together, and you are taking things slow in dating. Most mid-singles understand this. I had a few tell me they did not want to date someone who was not ready for marriage, and that was probably just as well. But that doesn't mean you can't go out with an attractive member of the opposite sex, have enriching conversation and laughs, and dream a little. If nothing else, it is a little bit motivating to be more ready and more healed when you meet someone great.