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Loneliness and Divorce

"I feel so alone." One of the many reasons divorce stinks is the crushing loneliness that so many of us experience when we go through it. It sneaks up on you. You think you're okay. You think you're going to make it. Then you hear a song that was important to the two of you, or you see a couple holding hands, or you hear a dumb joke about divorce on TV. And loneliness descends on you like a cloud of nothingness. You can hardly breathe. You are paralyzed. Then you get angry with yourself.

For Jim, the nights were the worst. "I just lie there, and it's like somebody's piling dirt on my coffin. I can't wait for daytime so I can get up again. I'm exhausted, but at least I'm not alone in the dark."

Ellen felt most alone when she was with other people (which is not at all uncommon, by the way). "I was standing in a group of people at work and I realized everybody there but me had a stable somebody. I felt so alone. I felt like a reject. Why am I not good enough to hold on to a man?"

Show me somebody who's gone through divorce without feeling deep aching loneliness and I'll show you somebody who never felt love. It doesn't matter if you're male or female. If you're the leaver or the left. If you've committed adultery or been pristine in your faithfulness. You're going to feel loneliness, and it's going to hurt.

So how do you cope? First, you need to acknowledge that you're lonely. You can probably survive loneliness without acknowledging it, but it will take longer and hurt more. So why beat yourself up for no good reason. Go ahead and admit it to yourself: "I'm lonely. I feel alone."

Once you acknowledge that you feel loneliness, I think there are three basic strategies you can use in dealing with it. None of these is any better than the others, and none of them is exclusive -- that is, you may choose to deal with loneliness by using some combination of two of these, or even using all three. Remember, you're in control.

Wait It Out

It may seem impossible now, but time really does heal the wounds of divorce. Plan on somewhere around three years. That doesn't mean you won't start the healing process immediately, and it doesn't mean you'll have forgotten all about your exspouse three years after separation. But in rough terms, most of the healing work for a spouse who's gone through a typical divorce is complete within about three years.

It is a totally legitimate strategy to simply endure the loneliness you feel. It really won't kill you unless you decide to kill yourself. You can just decide to live with it, knowing as you do that it won't last forever.

Benjamin came to see me four years after his separation, because his wife wanted to increase child support. He really didn't mind paying more; his small business was doing better, and he understood that the child support guidelines called for an increase. He was pleasant, businesslike, and task-focused. We figured his child support quickly, and I asked him how he was handling the divorce. "Oh, I'm in good shape now," he said. "It was rough there for a while, but you know it really is true what they say: time does heal all wounds."

I didn't need to remind Benjamin of what a basket case he was during his divorce. He remembered.

Or maybe he didn't. Maybe time not only helps us heal from the pain of divorce; maybe it also helps us forget just how miserable we were when we were in the middle of the crud. Maybe we truly don't remember just how bad it was. I don't know. Benjamin was doing so well that I didn't want to ask, so I didn't.

One caution: there are some of us for whom time is NOT the answer. Fallana in Atlanta told me that she was still lonely and unhappy four years after her divorce. Here's some of what she said:

If ONE more person tells me that "love will find me when I least expect it" or that "if I were single, I'd be after you in a heartbeat," I'll slug that poor individual. And that punch will be fueled by all the anger and resentment of the past four years.

I honestly feel as if life is just passing me by.  I go to work, and I come home.  Nobody seems to want my love, and I have nothing but love to give. I get no support whatsoever from anyone.  . . .

I HAVE been through years of therapy, by the way.  It really didn't help.  I was STILL alone when I left the session.  Is this living?

Thank you for reading this.  Please realize that things do NOT necessarily get better for everyone after three years.

Fortunately, most of us are not Fallana, but some of us are. That's why the next two strategies are so important.

Fight It

You can take loneliness on directly and resolve that it's not going to beat you. My favorite is Priscilla, who told me "I just decided to grab my loneliness, and I stuffed it in a bathtub full'o'water and held it there 'til it croaked." Colorful. May not be my style, but it got my attention.

You may choose something a little more subtle. If you're working to fight your loneliness, your main task is to move beyond yourself. Transfer your focus from yourself to others. You're already way ahead of me, aren't you?

Get some help. Counseling is always helpful in dealing with loneliness. A therapist can help you analyze what causes you to be lonely, and the more you understand it the less threatening it is. Counseling also works because of the simple truth that shared pain is half the pain, shared joy is twice the joy. 

Here's a web site dedicated to helping people fight loneliness, whatever the cause. Click here to go to www.stoploneliness.com.

Help other people. Volunteer your time at a homeless shelter. They're nearly always hungry for people, and you'll quickly realize that things could be worse.

Visit your aunt in the nursing home. She'll be glad to see you, and you'll immediately see what a difference you can make.

There are any number of other places where your hands, your feet, and your heart can make a difference. Here's a quick list:

Finally, I cannot overstate the support you can offer -- and receive -- at Helping Each Other -- the DivorceInfo discussion web. I'm proud of the tenderness and compassion that's developed at Helping Each Other. You can make a positive difference there too.

Embrace It

Let me first point out that this whole concept of embracing loneliness has a faith component. If you've spent time on DivorceInfo, you probably already know that my faith is important to me. You probably know as well, however, that I will not impose it on you. If you're prepared to forge ahead, welcome.

Precious little about divorce is good. But the chance to embrace loneliness can be among the sweetest discoveries of this whole cruddy process. That's why I list it as one of the good things about divorce. Divorce is an opportunity to explore and develop new relationships, including the relationship you have with yourself and the relationship you have with God. 

Can you rediscover what good company you are for yourself? Try this. In your next extended moment of loneliness, find a place where you can be quiet and alone. Sit quietly and close your eyes. There's no need to hurry. You've got time. In fact, maybe you could try it now.

Relax. Listen to your own breathing. Without moving, feel each part of your body. Your toes, your feet, your ankles, you know the routine. Work your way up all the way to your ears and eyebrows. Remember, there's no need to hurry. You've got time.

Take a walk outside. If the weather's nasty, don't let it deter you; just dress for it. Listen for the sounds, and identify each one. If you see a dog, tell it hello. The dog's probably lonely too.

When you come back inside, find something to read. Doesn't matter what. Whatever you like. Do you get the idea? You may want to read Melinda's note to me about her struggle with loneliness.

Can you discover (or rediscover) your relationship with God?

Sit quietly just like we talked about above. This time, though, focus your thoughts on God. Simply ask, "Are you with me, God? Can I be with you, God?" This is not about praying for anything; it's just about being with.

God comes to us when we are desperate for help and at our wit's end. God also comes to us when we are quiet, patient, and attentive.

At some point, when you get back on line, e-mail me and tell me about your experience. I thrive on this stuff.

 

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