Some experts assert that it takes a year for every five years of marriage to recover. That was about right in my case, and I've heard from many women that it took that long for them as well. This doesn't mean you are going to be miserable for the entire time. You may go through every emotion in the book, from despair to exhilaration.
There are three stages in the divorce recovery process. During the first phase, you flit from one thing to another. You may date different people, get rid of old friends and make new ones, travel to new places, try out new jobs. Abigail Trafford, author of the divorce classic, Crazy Time, calls this the Hummingbird phase. "Hummingbird people aren't able to reestablish themselves as new entities because they never allow themselves to confront the pain and anxiety of divorce or a new life. Their wings flutter too fast," she says. My Hummingbird phase included a long detour from grieving with Internet dating, which became an obsession.
The next level is foundering. You fall apart emotionally, you lose your job, your new romance breaks up, you can't seem to make enough money to get by, you despair that things will ever get better. Some people never stop foundering. We all know women (and men) who are still hanging on by their fingernails ten years after their divorce, bouncing from job to job, man to man, shrink to shrink. This is the stage where you can get stuck in cynicism and bitterness.
Moving on for real is the phoenix phase, where a new you rises up from the ashes of divorce. You've gone through all the pain and misery, moved past your anger, forgiven or not, whatever feels right to you. You've gone through the final stages of grief and let go of your marriage. You've become a separate, self-motivating individual who doesn't depend on a man to make a good life for yourself. Most importantly, you accept yourself as a flawed human being; you forgive yourself for screwing up your marriage. You finally become who you really are, even if that's a very different woman from who you were when you were married, or who you ever expected to be.
Moving on doesn't happen in neatly defined stages. It's an imperceptible process that happens while you're doing other things. It's halting--two steps forward, one step back. One day you think you've moved on and then you regress--over and over again. The most important thing to remember is to keep forgiving yourself at each stage. If you regress and do dumb things, like sleeping with your ex (it happens), bad-mouthing him to the kids, or making a scene at a family event, pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start all over again. Remember to tell yourself it's okay, you've been through hell and you deserve to screw up--once, twice, or a zillion times--until you're ready to stop screwing up.
One day you look up and realize you haven't thought about your ex or your marriage for a whole hour, then a whole day, a whole week, and so on. You get involved with other things; you catch yourself thinking about the project you're working on, or the guy you're involved with, what to invest your money in, how to help a friend, how your kids or grandkids are doing, redecorating your living room, buying a new house, a trip you've always wanted to take. Life, in all its complexity, just takes over. Your marriage recedes into the past, seeming almost as though it happened to someone else. You realize that you're doing things you never would have done when you were married and you congratulate yourself. The pain gets smaller and smaller, taking up less room in your consciousness.
This doesn't mean you will never again feel the pain and rage you initially felt. Triggers will come up and you'll be right back there. In a divorce support group I went to immediately after my husband left, when I was totally consumed with my own anguish and desperate for some relief, I was horrified while listening to a woman who had been divorced twenty years ago. She talked about all the old, bad post-divorce feelings coming up recently because her ex-husband had died. However, when I expressed my dismay that she still had those feelings, she reassured me that she had long ago moved on; it was just that her husband's death had brought up a lot of unfinished business and bad memories that she needed to process. I was greatly relieved but still uneasy. I couldn't imagine then how you could actually move on and be back at square one twenty years later at the same time. Now I understand since I'm in both places regularly. It's like grief for a loved one. You mourn, you move on, but when something reminds you of that person a fresh pang still grips your heart.
Co-parenting can complicate the moving-on process. If you still have to interact regularly with your ex and if that interaction is hostile, you can get stuck repeating the past. I expect that when my daughter gets older, it will get easier for me to totally disconnect. Still, most of the time my mind is on other things--my writing, my friends, my house, my health, my finances or lack thereof (don't get me started on that subject)--not him. Every once in a while, though, when he does something to really piss me off, I'm right back in that place where I feel helpless, hopeless, and homicidal. Thank goodness we have finally reached a truce of sorts, where we avoid e-mail flame wars and communicate mainly through my daughter's therapist.
You may also sink into feelings from the past when you run into him at those unavoidable family functions such as weddings, graduations, and so on--especially if he's with a woman twenty years his junior--but those feelings will pass quickly. When I listen to the excruciating pain of recent divorcées, I realize how far I've come. I totally empathize, but am so grateful not to be there anymore.
Please trust me on this, girlfriend. The divorce journey is long and arduous but it does end, it really does.
To the guys: I'm not ignoring you. I write for women but this article is equally valid for men.