I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t dream of long, white gowns and tulle veils as a child.
My father left my mother for another woman shortly after I was born, and the litany of men my mother brought back to our Northern Italy home, when we had one, were the antithesis of husband material.
Unsurprisingly, my first two marriages were defined more by their brevity than by their beauty: unaccustomed to tranquility, order, compromise, affection—the hallmarks of a solid marriage—I went out of my way to destroy them.
But I was a different person when I met my third husband—at least this is what I told myself. I had gone through years of intensive therapy. I had left behind my tumultuous past in Italy for the brighter shores of California. I had learned English and found success in the high-tech world; I even owned a home in the center of ultra-pricey San Francisco.
Whatever trauma I carried with me from childhood seemed to give me an edge, not a fragility. I was, from the outside looking in, a woman emphatically on top of her game.
I have no doubt that this is what attracted my husband—my first genuine love, at the age of 35—to me. And for the first 21 years of our marriage, this is the side of me that dominated, if not dazzled. We had our heartaches—some profound, like our stillborn second child; some quotidian, like our conflict of interest when it came to movies. But, for the most part, we were a solid, successful couple with the accouterments to show for it—from the zip code to the vacation pics to the circle of cultured, accomplished friends.
But another side of me emerged after our equally solid and successful daughter left for college.
Marooned in a house that suddenly seemed offensively (and oppressively) large, the old wounds I’d kept at bay for two decades reopened. Turns out I was fragile as hell, and still desperate for the love and attention my parents had so spectacularly failed to show me. At the same time, my husband grew even more obsessive and preoccupied with work. I fought for love and comfort; he fought for space and silence. After years of unhappiness, our separation felt less like a devastation than a huge, exhilarating, even promising relief.
Call it the pink cloud of marriage recovery. Call it hormones. Call it a survival mechanism. What mattered was that the first nine months of our separation offered more thrills than tears.
After the honeymoon phase of singlehood ended, however, the grief of our separation (and, subsequently, divorce) set in with a strength that floored me. And though I was given advice from friends, strangers, bank tellers, and baristas—ranging from “you’ll get over it” to “try Tinder”—I mostly just wanted someone to commiserate with. Someone to offer me the truth of what they had experienced—and of what I could expect. Misery doesn’t just love company, after all; it also offers a particular kind of guidance.
With that in mind, I’ve pulled together the top five things no one tells you about divorce—but what you may want to know if you’re in the throes of one yourself.
1. Insomnia is inevitable.
Chances are, unless you and your partner reached the point of no return and were sleeping in separate beds for months before your split, you were accustomed to bedding down next to your spouse. Not happily, mind you, but within close enough proximity to provide you with a sense of comfort. Likewise, you were probably also habituated to a nightly routine that may not have overjoyed you but certainly kept you grounded.
When these are taken away, sleep may become—as it did for me—close to impossible. Without another human being breathing beside me, I heard only my heartbeat knocking about in my chest and couldn’t get my mind to stop racing; when I opened my eyes, I felt like I was staring into an abyss.
The cycle this created was unnerving: I’d sleep in late the next day and then find myself cocaine-alert while the rest of the world was slumbering. Loneliness reigned. I also looked like sh*t.
It wasn’t until I created an evening routine—and stuck to it—that sleep became normalized (and less terrifying). That, and I more or less handcuffed my cat to the pillow beside me. The sheer presence of another being’s breath and heartbeat can modulate your own and prove to be calming. (And who said that being had to be human?)
2. You’ll call every single thing about yourself into question.
Suddenly living alone after nearly three decades of co-habitation created more restless, agonizing hours than I thought conceivable. And I say agonizing because they were—when we’re alone, the negative voices in our head become amplified.
Rather than filling my time in my new, girly apartment with things I’d long dreamt about—writing poetry, reading all those novels I’d put off for years, watching rom-coms my husband would have ridiculed—I ruminated. I obsessed over spots on my hands, wrinkles on my face, hairs on my head. I questioned every choice I’d made and every compliment that had ever been given me. These were wasted, lamentable months, for which I have nothing to show besides empty boxes of chocolates; meanwhile, my self-esteem felt shredded to pieces.
Avoiding long spells of isolation (and the inescapable picking yourself apart that comes with it) should be rule number one for the newly single. Sure, give into those chocolates here and there, but remember that you’re grieving a relationship, not yourself.
3. You will be very angry.
The freshly divorced tend to be painted as melancholy souls walking their dogs alone in pine-filled, foggy parks—or tear-stricken women gazing out at the moon and pondering love letters. This may be true for some but it certainly wasn’t the case for me.
Wine-soaked, punching walls, screaming at cupboards, crafting nasty emails to my ex, leaving irate messages on his voice mail, thisclose to thrashing him on social media, accusing family members and mutual friends of betrayals (here’s another truth: friends and family members do, and will, take sides)—that’s more like it.
If you, too, are more prone to spiteful texting than contemplative bike rides, know that you’re not alone. Moreover, know that this anger is actually a vital part of the process.
According to Susan Pease Gadoua, L.C.S.W. and author of Stronger Day by Day: Reflections for Healing and Rebuilding After Divorce, feeling hatred is not only normal in divorce but also needed: “Some people need to feel this hatred in order to justify leaving the relationship. Their intense anger is used to separate (or even repel) them from their spouse.” Didn’t do the leaving? “When we are hurt,” she explains, either through your spouse’s dissatisfaction, rejection, or betrayal, “one natural reaction is to become angry. Hate stems from this anger.”
While I’m still susceptible to acute, god-awful, I-hate-everyone-and-everything bouts of anger, I will say that they’re arriving less frequently (and are becoming easier to overcome when they do emerge). I’ve discovered this not through walks through pine-filled, foggy parks, but through really recognizing the roots of my rage.
Divorce fundamentally dysregulates our nervous system because our two most basic needs—safety and belonging—are thrown into hazardous territory.
Even if I realize that I am safe, that I belong, that I am indeed loved (by my daughter, by my friends, by my family, even by my ex-husband), my nervous system doesn’t. The awareness of this alone has a soothing effect; it also builds compassion.
4. You will relentlessly compare every new interest to your ex.
At the behest of close friends—and, let’s be real, out of pure loneliness—I began dating someone shortly after my separation.
Physically, it was fantastic. Mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, it left me vacant. This new man I was suddenly sharing meals and bodily fluids with was the exact opposite of my husband—open, talkative, demonstrative, needy, flexible, excitable. And a part of me hated him for it, even if these qualities were precisely the things I wanted more of in my ex.
In time, I realized that there wasn’t anything wrong with my new lover, but, rather, that I was still distraught over my collapsed marriage. Unless you meet just the right person after your separation—and good on you if that’s the case—dating is totally futile when you’re grieving. Plus, you aren’t quite sure who you are in the absence of your significant other—a person who has borne witness to your life, probably played cheerleader on your personal sidelines, and, if it wasn’t an abusive relationship, supplied you with security, comfort, and, well, definition. (Who are you, just you, without this?)
Which brings me to my next point:
5. You will have to learn to love yourself.
It’s such a cliché—I know it.
But the old adage—you can’t love someone else until you love yourself—has never been more true than for people who have endured the pain, shame, distress, and shakiness that unavoidably arrives with a separation.
You will have to take care of yourself in ways you probably never conceived of because they seem so basic, from going to bed at a decent hour, to watching how much you drink and eat (it’s amazing how savage we can become when alone), to practicing the essentials of self-care even when you don’t’ give a flying f*ck what you look or smell (or are behaving) like, to sitting with your emotions, oftentimes in solitude.
And the more you practice these tasks, the more they turn into a routine, and the more you discover about yourself—and learn that you are so worth loving.
Because here’s another thing no one ever tells you: Divorce cultivates resilience like few other calamities—leaving you with a fortitude that’s far more beautiful than any long, white gown or tulle veil out there.