Moving on after divorce 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) badmouthing 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 ok, 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 pang of grief still grips your heart.
Abigail Trafford, author of Crazy Time says that after a long marriage it takes at least five years to truly move on. She's right on the money. It's been more than five years for me and I think I've moved on as much as possible considering that I have to interact regularly with my ex on co-parenting issues. I expect that when my daughter gets older it will get easier 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 email 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 etc--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 divorcees, I realize how far I've come. I totally empathize, but am so grateful not to be there anymore.
Erica Manfred is the author of He's History You're Not: Surviving Divorce After Forty.