Divorce is hard -- even for those couples attempting to go through a friendly divorce. I know that when I divorced my high school sweetheart after 14 years of marriage, I thought my life was over. At the time of my divorce, I was in graduate school, I had tw0 young kids I still needed to raise and, most importantly, my ex-husband had just come out as a gay man.
Initially, this was a time of confusion and humiliation for me. How did I not see that I had married a gay man? I'm a smart girl -- I was currently in my first year of a doctoral program in clinical psychology, so it's not like I had missed a bunch of obvious signs that this person that I had known almost my entire life was hiding a big secret.
When people feel like the stakes are too high to share who they really are, they will go to extreme measures to hide their secret. In my ex's case, this meant that he desperately tried to play the part of the "classic" middle class husband -- complete with the great career, a house in the suburbs and an appropriate social life. Over time, however, my ex became increasingly disillusioned with faking his way through life and made the difficult decision to come out to me, which caused us to make the life-altering decision to divorce.
While there are many self-help books on how to successfully get through a divorce, there are no books with advice on how to pick up the pieces as a single mom raising two kids, all the while trying to figure out how to integrate a gay ex-husband into the picture. I had to figure out how to create a modern family all on my own and, over time, this experience has taught me some very important life lessons that can be used in any kind of difficult life situation.
1. You don't have to suffer in silence.
When I first separated from my ex, I was very discrete about the reason for our break up. People asked, but I just told them I didn't want to talk about it. I assumed that people wouldn't understand because no one else had gone through this situation before. Eventually, though, I started to open up to people that I trusted and I'm glad that I did because these friends shared stories of people close to them that went through the same experience. I even began to meet up with other moms like me which made me feel a lot less strange.
Once I started to see that I was not alone, I began to find solace in others' similar stories, as well as to learn from both their successes and their mistakes. This helped me to get out of the "victim" mentality and to take action on the life that I wanted for myself and my kids.
2. If you don't set the tone for your healing, then someone else will.
Once the news finally got out about the reason behind my divorce, I noticed that people tended to react in one of two ways: they either wanted to pity me or they wanted to use my situation to denounce the "gay agenda." I wanted no part of either situation.
I decided early on to take the power out of the hands of other people and to set the tone for my healing myself. When people attempted to pity me or to start a critique of the "gay agenda," I changed the subject to how well my kids are doing in school or I told them a story about how much fun we had with my kids' dad and his boyfriend during our latest family outing.
I respect that other people have an opinion about certain social topics, but I try to focus on the fact that my family has been able to create a functional, happy family. This is a huge accomplishment for my family and I do not want to minimize it by turning our hard work into someone else's political soapbox.
3. Being different might feel lonely and embarrassing at first, but eventually people start admiring your confidence and want to be like you.
I remember the horrible feeling I had during the first post-divorce family event that I attended with just the kids and without my ex. I went home and cried, and then did everything that I could to avoid school and Church functions for the next year so that I did not have to see other families having fun with each other.
Eventually, I knew this wasn't very healthy for my kids, so I started to venture out into family functions again. I began to realize that it wasn't the simple structure of the family -- the mom, dad and kids -- that created happiness, but it was the positive, engaging interaction between parent and child that determined true happiness. I resolved to make this the truth for my family.
I must have been pretty successful too, because I get parents asking me all the time to tell them my secret in creating a happy family. People see pictures of all of us on social media -- me, the kids and my ex and his boyfriend -- having fun together, and people ask me how I do it. I tell them to follow their hearts and don't worry about being like the other families around them. It doesn't matter if you have a traditional or a non-traditional family structure, as long as you are true to your family's individual passions, values and beliefs, you will find happiness as a family.
These three life lessons can be applied to any kind of crisis. As a psychologist, I find that many problems people go through are made worse when people try live up to certain expectations or lack confidence in their ability to solve their own problems. As a mom who overcame a very confusing and unique divorce, I offer you these words of wisdom: trust in your individual passions, values and beliefs to get you through your crisis. Don't be tempted to conform to others' expectations, but strive everyday to live up to your own standards.