Days after my tsunami divorce, my mom turned to me and told me I would survive.
I actually got angry and responded rather strongly, "No, I will not survive. I will thrive. To do anything less is to remain his victim."
I saw surviving as the bare minimum, the mere intake of breath and food in order to go through the motions of life. I refused to settle for that. I wanted more. It felt insurmountable, yet the vision and hope remained intact.
Inspired by Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, these goals can serve to help you navigate the challenging path after divorce and take you from merely surviving to thriving.
The first tier of goals are about your literal survival. In the beginning, it is enough to simply focus on your next breath. And then the one after that. The goal is to keep you alive and functioning. These physical needs must be addressed first before any further progress can be made.
The first priority is your immediate physical safety. If you have been a victim of domestic violence or if you have concerns that your ex may become violent, seek help. The National Domestic Abuse Hotline can help point you to resources in your area. If abuse has not occurred, but you have concerns, contact your local police department. In my case, they graciously offered to do periodic drive-bys during the first few scary weeks.
Once your immediate safety has been secured, it is time to figure out your short-term or long-term housing. Consider all of your options carefully and make the choice that feels best for your (and your children's) long term health and happiness. I knew I could not stay in the marital home due to financial and emotional reasons. I also knew that I was not ready to live alone; it would have been too isolating. I was fortunate to have a friend and her family offer their guest bedroom to me for the first year. It wasn't ideal, but it was perfect.
Post-divorce, people tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to food. Some overindulge, using food as a way to soothe and self-medicate. Others lose all appetite and avoid food altogether. Neither approach is healthy physically or emotionally. Think of the food you eat as your basic input. You can't expect a quality output when you put in garbage or nothing at all. In those early days and weeks when people ask how they can help, ask for a healthy meal. It just might be the fuel you need to see it through.
Something about loss makes the nights seem endless, hours stretching further than any clock can convey. This is only amplified when you cannot sleep. I spent many nights sitting on the edge of my bed, legs shaking, tears pouring down my swollen face. Many nights where I arose never having slept. In the best of times, lack of sleep makes the smallest task overwhelming. During divorce? It makes it impossible. I resisted medication for weeks and then gave in when it became apparent that my body wouldn't turn off on its own. Sleep is a priority. If it doesn't happen naturally, seek medical help.
This is where your basic emotional needs are met. These goals take you out of survival mode and remind you what it feels like to be alive.
When you face loss, the chest has a tendency to tighten, bound by a corset of grief. The breath becomes shallow as struggle to hold on to anything, even the air held deep in your chest. Consciously work to invite the breath back into the body. I found yoga immensely helpful in teaching my body to breathe again, welcoming life back in to the body and mind.
Whether you were an avid exerciser before your divorce or you have always preferred the sedentary life, movement in some form is a key element in healing. Exercise reduces anxiety and depression, increases energy and builds confidence even as it builds muscle. It is a reminder of what it feels like to be fully alive, moving with energy and intention.
Humans are social creatures; we have evolved to touch and be touched. Friendly contact increases oxytocin, reduces cortisol and lowers anxiety. After divorce, it's common to be touch-deficient at a time when you need its benefits the most. One of the ways I met this need after my split was to prioritize monthly massage sessions. It was a safe way that I could receive touch without the expectancy of reciprocity. Those precious hours on that table helped to rebuild my sense of self and stability.
One of my favorite pictures of myself is one where my now-husband then-boyfriend captured me in the middle of a huge, belly-shaking laugh. That was the first instance where I truly felt alive again after my ex left. The first moment where nothing mattered except that for that single moment. Laughter is the sound of life. And practice makes perfect. Find opportunities to smile and embrace them. You may feel like you're faking it for a while. That's okay. One day, that smile will be real and unclouded by the past.
Once you've reentered life and mastered the basics of surviving, it's time for the advanced curriculum. These goals are the instruments that can elevate you to a new level of happiness and fulfillment.
Divorce has a way of shrinking your world, pulling back on the strings that connect you to others. The first step in thriving is to grow your world again. Open your arms. Tear down your barriers. Be vulnerable. Allow yourself to love and be loved. I know for me this was the scariest step. Connection means forming new bonds that can be broken. And I remembered that pain all too well. Yet I wasn't going to let the fear of heartbreak keep me in chains of my own making.
In my mind, thriving has always been linked with passion. It's approaching life head-on with unbridled enthusiasm and spirit. It's those moments and interests that pull you under and sweep you away. You can rekindle a former passion that you have let fall by the wayside or you can create a new one. In my former life, gardening was my passion; I would get lost in the palate of my plantings. My new life called for something new and I now paint with words rather than flowers.
Divorce is the destruction of a marriage and what better way to counter that force that with that of creation. Everyone I encounter who is thriving after divorce works at creating beauty in the world. Some are artistic, creating portraits in pastels or words. Others seek to create havens for others to feel safe and secure. Some strive to change the divorce process, wanting to create a better experience for those who encounter the courts. And many strive to create the best life possible for their children. Regardless of your medium, let the tear-down of your marriage become the foundation for something new.
The benefits of service are threefold: it reinforces your own gratitude, it helps you find peace with your past and it benefits others, spreading positive energy and interaction. Service can take many forms depending upon your gifts and strengths. Find a way to give back that is meaningful to you and helpful for others. There is no better way to feel fully alive than to help others live their best lives.
The road from survival to thriving isn't a straight one. Some days you will experience great progress only to be pulled back to first step again. But the twists and turns become easier to navigate as you become familiar with the path.
And before you know it, you'll spy a sign:
Welcome to The Thriver's Club.
A place to celebrate life after loss.
A place to share our joys and triumphs.
A place to bring hope to those still trying to find their way.
In order to be a member, all you have to do is share one example of how you have been able to thrive after divorce.
It can small or grand. A sign of truly moving on or as fleeting as a moment where the sun broke through the clouds.
Don't be shy; smiles are meant to be shared not hidden away.