So the divorce is done and you’ve signed up for online dating: check. Honed your profile to perfection: check. Gotten in shape? Check.
You’re finally ready to date.
But is your heart ready?
Here’s the difficult reality: some people get stuck in bitterness long after the ink dries on the divorce decree. Some never let go. “I’ve had clients who hung on to bitterness and anger for 30 years after a divorce,” says Sally St. Clair, Ph.D., a Dallas psychologist.
Unfortunately, bitterness erects big barriers to creating a happy, healthy, new relationship. Bitterness won’t make you feel any better, either. “Holding a grudge is a little like taking a poison pill and waiting for the other person to drop dead,” said Michael Zentman, Ph.D., director of Adelphi University’s postgraduate program in marriage and couples therapy. “When you hold on to bitterness, you only hurt yourself.”
View Singles on Match.com
The good news is that if you’re stuck, psychology and spirituality techniques offer tools that will help you address the “inner work” necessary to clear out bitterness and begin anew. You first face three big tasks: owning your feelings, processing them — and, finally, reframing them in a way that lets you move on.
Step 1: Own it
Dianna Gould-Saltman, a certified family law specialist in Los Angeles who’s worked with divorcing families for 25 years, says that divorced folks must acknowledge their feelings — even if they’re embarrassing or irrational. “Many people who are bitter deny that they are,” says Gould-Saltman. “Once your head is out of the sand and you acknowledge uncomfortable feelings, you can manage your own expectations.”
If you’re not sure how well you’re handling your anger, Dr. Zentman suggests asking a trusted friend for feedback. “If you ask, ‘Do I rant about my ex too much?’ and your friend says, ‘Well, maybe a little bit,’ then you know you’ve got to work on it,” says Dr. Zentman.
Getting over a divorce seems hardest for people who had high or inflexible expectations about their marriage, according to Gould-Saltman. The foundation on which they’d built their lives came crashing down: “They are so fixated on looking down at the rubble that they can’t get themselves to stand up and climb over it to move on.”
Gould-Saltman has observed divorcing spouses cycle through the same stages of grief that come with a death: fear, anger, sadness, bargaining and acceptance. If you’re still raging and ranting, chances are that you’re still stuck in the “anger” stage, and that could be a way of postponing the next stage, which is sadness.
Mark Silverman, a 58-year-old divorced man, found help on dealing with this process in a book by the Dalai Lama. “He says that the only way you’re going to really grow and flourish is when you finally get through the sadness,” says Silverman. “That’s the only way you can move on.”
Step 2: Process through your emotions related to the split
Still, you feel what you feel. If you’re angry, you can’t just magically brush it away. You need to process your feelings by clearing out the nasty, negative emotions cluttering both your heart and mind.
Dr. St. Clair recommends journaling — sitting down and pouring out your feelings, in all their raw ugliness, onto a piece of paper. Research shows that it works. University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker found that writing about anger, sadness and other painful emotions helps release the feelings and even makes the writer calmer and physically healthier.
Pennebaker suggests journaling daily in short bursts for about 20 minutes. Write quickly; if you’re stuck in anger, write about why you are so angry. If you’re sad, write about that. Other ways to process include talking to a therapist or a trusted friend. Prayer, meditation or yoga can help, too.
Step 3: Reframe what happened in a more positive way
Reframing is the last step in the recovery process. People who are stuck “can only see one perspective,” says Dr. St. Clair. “They keep nursing that wounded feeling.” Reframing means being able to rewrite your story, in your own mind, with an ending that reflects acceptance, compassion and forgiveness.
Dr. St. Clair herself found peace from an upsetting problem at a yoga retreat. “I realized that just because things didn’t turn out the way I thought they should, it wasn’t necessarily wrong,” she says. “It just is.”
Roger Little, a 48-year-old divorced man who lives in Dallas, struggled with anger over his ex-wife’s infidelity. Understanding her issues — she was diagnosed as bipolar – helped him reframe. “The turning point for me was when I stopped feeling angry and started feeling sorry for her,” says Little. Reframing led Linda Harris, 36, of Dallas to forgiveness, too, after her divorce. “I was angry at myself for letting the problems we had go on for so long,” says Harris. “I felt I could’ve done something.” In the confessional, her priest told her that God had forgiven her and so had her friends. Now she needed to forgive herself. “I realized I wasn’t perfect,” she said. “And nobody else is, either.”
Forgiveness is hard work, but you don’t need the spiritual strength of the Dalai Lama to do it. You don’t need to forget, condone or excuse whatever misdeeds were committed against you. Instead, find a way to view the situation with compassion for all involved, including yourself. Dr. Fred Luskin, author of Forgive for Love, puts it this way: “Forgiveness is becoming a hero instead of a victim in the story you tell about what happened.”
Mary Jacobs is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other publications. Now re-married, she met her new husband on Match.com in 2008.