Dear Divorce Coach:
With the new year here, I want to start it off right. Over the past few years, I finalized my divorce, tried to pick up the pieces, balanced (not well) single-parenting with a full-time job, and in the process, I feel like I’ve lost sight of me. What tips or advice do you have to help me go into this new year with a plan?
– New Year, New Me?
Dear New Year, New Me?,
It may sound cliche, but January still remains a perfect time to reflect and assess what you hope to accomplish in the coming year. This time of year signals fresh starts, new or redirected focus, and the promise of a brighter future. And I encourage my clients to actively spend some time planning for the next year whether they’re considering divorce or like in your case, post-divorce.
Self-awareness is critical to defining your future success
A common mistake I see clients make is skipping right over self-reflection and taking accountability for their part in the divorce. Self-awareness is key to (re)discovering who you are and a big first step to moving forward. But it can be very scary to look inward – we are afraid it will hurt too much or we won’t like what we see. But as painful or scary as it may seem, the benefit of self-reflection on your marriage and your divorce provides you with little nuggets of perspective and insight that can serve as the foundation for whatever is to come next.
It may be a bit overwhelming at first to look within so I’ve suggested a few questions below that can give you a place to start:
- What are some positive qualities about myself?
Take a moment to identify and celebrate the things you and others love about yourself. This step might feel awkward and silly, but it will help with your concern about losing yourself. These are going to be your pillars that you’ll build the next year around. You’ll refer back to them to ensure you’re staying true to who you want to be.
- What are some negative qualities about myself?
Equally as important in self-reflection (and certainly more difficult) is documenting the behaviors or actions that you want to leave in the past. Were there moments you were too impatient, too short-tempered, or judgmental of others? Did you dismiss other’s feelings, make something all about you, spend too much time glued to social media or TV? Understanding where you have some work to do is really hard for people which is why sometimes therapy is beneficial; a therapist is a neutral party who can help unpack your feelings and actions, often leading to a better understanding of what makes you you, both the good and the bad.
- Was I my best self in my relationship? Where might I have stumbled?
When you take a little time to really reflect on your marriage, you might find that there were things you could have done differently that might have made a difference in the marriage. You might realize that you traveled too much for work or you relied too much on your partner to manage the household. You may have been carrying all the weight of managing the children’s schedules and unknowingly become resentful; you may have stopped communicating gradually which made fights bigger and more damaging. This question is so important because you will uncover some behaviors you could have handled differently that could have perhaps created a different path, and you can use this knowledge for future relationships.
- What type of partner was I?
Another tough, but important one, this question will help you understand how balanced your relationship with your partner was and the role you can play with future relationships to share the weight.
- Were you content to let your partner carry most of the workload in your marriage? It is possible in some marriages that the bulk of work is carried by one partner – this can take the form of day-to-day work like childcare, finances, managing household chores. If you see yourself in this camp, assess why these tasks fell to your partner and ensure that in your future relationships you communicate early and compromise on what you will take on to create a healthy, balanced relationship.
- Were you in the other boat where all the work of managing your lives fell to you while your partner coasted along? Did that imbalance result in feelings of resentment, frustration and bitterness? What drove this imbalance? Do you want to be in control of most things, especially important ones? Was your partner just lazy and unwilling to share the load? Did you ever ask or surface the frustration? Be sure you spend some time recognizing why you were the one contributing the most. This step will be important so you can avoid repeating this in the future.
- What do I need to do (or not do) to ensure balance in my relationships?
Whatever side of the coin you found yourself on, identify what role you need to play to find the balance. For instance, if you weren’t really a contributor in the past, in what ways can you help so your partner feels supported? Be concrete with your examples; they don’t have to be big, but perhaps you handle or split the household chores or they manage finances but you manage childcare responsibilities to the best of your ability (doctor’s appointments, pick-up/drop-off, etc.). If you were the one who managed everything, what are you comfortable sharing; can you be a better communicator to say when you’ve taken on too much so you can mitigate those feelings of resentment before they start?
- What could I have done differently?
This question is probably one of the hardest for my clients to ask and answer. I’ll be blunt with you here though: if your answer is “nothing,” then you have not put in the time and work on self reflection. What are some changes you could have made to get along better, communicate more freely, find compromises, ensure you were on the same page? You’re not looking for what could have saved your marriage because there isn’t one magic bullet, but you are looking for what specific actions or reactions you had that contributed to the problems and ultimate dissolution. The more you hone in on what they are, the better equipped you are to work on them. This reflection may be more difficult if there was infidelity or abuse in your marriage; I recommend therapy in those situations because they’re complex and painful to work through alone. Ultimately though, this exercise is meant to be helpful and surface a new perspective for you to carry forward. You’ll learn about yourself, what you want, what you need, and what you can offer to someone else.
If you skip this self-assessment phase, you risk repeating the same behaviors – and as a result, your next relationship will be far more likely to end. We want a bright and happy future for you.
Once you’ve looked to the past, begin to shape the future you want
The best way to get what you want out of life is to build a plan towards it. You should start though with spending some time figuring out what exactly you want and then in the spirit of resolution, you should make a firm decision to take action towards achieving that vision of you. How many of us spent our youth daydreaming about our future and as we aged, we made choices that solidified what we thought we wanted. Sometimes we forget to dream as we become bogged down in the day to day of “adulting.” The benefit of those dreams though is they frame out a vision (albeit broad or a bit out of reach) of a different life than the one you’re currently living. And post-divorce is a really great time to contemplate your current self while determining where you want to be in 12 months, 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, and so on. I suggest chunking it out because often “the future” seems so big that you can easily get lost in it. By setting time milestones, you can fairly easily start to define steps to reach that milestone.
- For example, maybe in 12 months you want to have a new job that gives you greater work-life balance. Steps to get there: assess if you want to stay in your current career or explore something new, update your resume, meet with a recruiter, research companies of interest, reach out to your network, etc. In just a few minutes, I’ve provided you with 5 tangible steps to set you on your way towards realizing your 12-month milestone.
A common and understandable question I receive is what happens when the inevitable wrench is thrown in? There are a couple of ways I think about this:
- You can account for a majority of the unknowns: Believe it or not, by clearly defining your plan, you can anticipate some of the roadblocks you may encounter along the way and figure out how you’d react to them. I work with my clients to talk through how they would manage different scenarios should they be faced with them as they work towards their goals.
- Yes, there will be scenarios you can’t foresee or plan for. In those cases, I work to provide tools to handle the “pop-ups.” A plan is just that, a plan, and therefore not set in stone. I work with clients to adapt how they handle change more broadly. We workshop how they can learn to be more flexible and accommodating to the unknowns; whether it’s through their emotional responses or through an acknowledgement that there are multiple ways to arrive at a destination. By understanding how you respond and react to changes when you encounter them, you can prepare yourself for when they occur.
It is important that you take time in the new year for honest self-evaluation and reflection. But be wary of making a resolution in the traditional sense because they often set us up for failure. How many times have you set a resolution and within the first few weeks abandoned it? It’s okay to admit it; I’ve done the same thing. What I’d prefer you to do is contemplate who you are, who you want to be, and what led you to where you are right now so that you can formulate a plan to make positive changes in your life and congratulate yourself for your triumphs. Whether your self reflection leads to significant revelations such as that you don’t want to get married again or that you want to have more children even though you thought you were finished, or minor revelations such as realizing you need more time for self-care or you want to take a week’s vacation by yourself, you are on the right track by looking inward and ahead. Once you get to know who you are and what you want from your life moving forward, you can begin taking action to pursue your dreams.
Set some small and big goals – and hold yourself accountable
So now you’ve spent time with your past and defining who you want to be with some timestamped milestones, it’s time to establish some goals within those time horizons. I recommend you start by making a list bucketed under a few categories: personal and professional can help you start to focus. You can further refine personal into: self and family (if you have children). Within these groups, do a brain-dump of some goals you want to accomplish starting in the next 12 months (or 6 if that’s too overwhelming). A goal should be something that has a clearly defined outcome and a time table by which you can hold yourself accountable. I’ve mocked up an example below:
- Start an exercise program at least 2x per week (small)
- Find a therapist in the next 2 weeks (big)
- Clean out closet and donate unwanted/unused items (small)
- Find a new apartment in the next 6 months with an extra bedroom (big)
- Meet with a financial advisor in next month (big)
Here I’ve outlined five personal goals with “due dates” for when I hope to achieve them; some may be small steps with big implications and others are small goals that will be complete when I finish them.
The next step is to prioritize these and if needed, define mini-goals within them. For instance, there are many steps that may need to be taken before you can move out of your current living situation. You may actually need to meet with that financial advisor (step #5) before you start step #4. Taking the time to define and prioritize your goals gives you a little roadmap for the next several months; you can check off and celebrate your accomplishments as you complete them. Over time, you will see how much you’ve grown and achieved, and I believe you will find you in that process.