Love, Longing, and Getting Back to Even: 5 Strategies to Overcome Relationship Distress During and After Divorce

You were swept off your feet by prince charming, but instead you married a frog. At first, he seemed to be everything you dreamed of; but after unwrapping the layers, you found a Narcissistic sociopath of a man with impulse control issues and a mommy complex.

She was the light of your life, a statuesque pillar of beauty that you had long sought to be with. She was everything you could ever want and more. But after seeing behind the beauty, there was a neurotic, critical, self-loathing shell of a person behind the mask of beauty she portrayed.

Does this sound familiar?

It may, or may not, dependent on your prior relationship experience. If you have never been exposed to the above scenarios, great. You are in a category of very few people, and hopefully you have found the key to your “happily ever after.” However, for everyone else, we have been exposed to relationship dysfunction, where, sometimes the traits we perceive a person to have at the beginning of the relationship differ greatly from the product we get as the intense feelings of new love die down, and the real work underlying relationships begin.

Whether we are exposed to these types of relationships personally or through the second hand experiences of friends or loved ones, we understand and become exposed to the dysfunction these relationships can cause. Buzzwords that combine mental health complexes and diagnoses such as narcissism, borderline, or more severe terms such as pathogenic, pathological, sociopathic, or even psychopathic seems to be the yardstick by which we judge our modern day relationships.  Has this always been the case? or is this somehow a new phenomenon in today’s more fast paced world. Either way, it seems that nowadays we judge our relationships based upon the way we perceive other people’s love lives to be. We simply focus on other peoples “happily ever after” at the expense of never creating our own.

In modern times, our personal relationships are distracted. We judge ourselves based upon the Hollywood glamour couple that walks the red carpet,tThe limelight reflecting from their eyes and dress, eliciting deep feelings of attraction, longing, and even envy. Even though they may seem individually radiant, something greater reflects from them as a couple, as we turn our inquisitive eyes to the picture perfect ideals they portray. We see them as they are portrayed, yet something within us allows us to create a picture perfect romance / family storyline by which we ultimately judge our personal relationship as well, “drab” in comparison.

A second example comes from the business couple, dressed to the nine. They are a picture to behold, wearing the newest and most expensive designer garments, driving the designer car, living in the designer house, having what seems to be even designer children. They are a snapshot of perfection as it relates to the American Dream. Is this reality they have created, in essence the truth? Or are the looks the media portrays misleading, or even worse, outright lies that hide the truth of what is behind the mask of what is perceived to be the socially acceptable “American Dream Family.”

It is human nature to judge ourself based upon what we perceive others to have. The Hollywood couple is broadcast to us in our homes. However the images portrayed show them surrounded by the limelight. We may, or may not yearn for this lifestyle, but nevertheless we begin to perceive a version of that reality as not being within our grasp, and may begin to focus on what we don’t have versus what we do have. We may see a power couple, business in their attire, walking to work, getting ready for a busy day. They may seem the picture of stability, intellectual prowess, and business disposition; but is their outer appearance truth, or what we perceive it to be as we pass immediate judgment on outer appearances. Or, even better, we may see an old couple, and yearn to have that experience in our lives. Don’t we deep down inside, all have the longing to grow old with another person. An example of longevity in relationship, a pillar of the human capacity to overcome feelings of isolation and loneliness and take a chance at love. Even though we may have no clue as to how to approach the work needed to assure that the relationship we seek can get past the first year, let alone the 1st through the 5th decade of the married life we foretell will be perfect, we nevertheless judge our life in a perspective that is not fully known nor can be known without simply having experienced it in all its grandeur.

The storylines in these scenarios play to the inherent human condition we as people have to judge ourselves based upon what we perceive to be the perfect lives of others. Good or Bad, Right or Wrong, Holy or Evil, Night or Day, Venus or Mars, Narcissistic or Borderline, our mind creates categories by which we not only judge our individual and relational lives, but also the individual and relational lives of others. While the ability to perceive and judge is foundational to the human condition, it does not have to be its demise.

In relationships, we find the capacity to be mirrored. For whatever reason, we seem to choose people that mirror the aspects of our life that are in need of the most psychological repair.  While marriages seem to come and go, and a majority of the relationship conflict seen within marriage and after is caused by this mirroring phenomena, we must nevertheless operate in unison with it in order realize the growth potential relationships offer us. While mirroring is a fundamental aspect of positive relationships, it can nevertheless point towards painful and even unwelcoming aspects of ourselves that we must face in order to become greater individuals.

I know, we do not consciously sign up for the above scenarios. We don’t choose the faults of our significant others, consciously that is. But those faults were there. If only your eyes could have seen the love blinding glasses that were present when you chose to overlook those same very faults that now lead to the break in your relationship. While the philosophy and the moral repercussions that surround divorce can be very complex, if looked at objectively, the lessons learned can be simple, engaging, and life changing.

  1. Grieve Your Loss – It is first and foremost important to grieve your loss. Whether the relationship was an intense flame, filled with passion, or a dud, give yourself time to grieve your loss. There will be fear of loneliness, anger, sadness, some more anger, fear of what will become of you, anger again, deep-introspection, sadness, a little more anger, sadness again, and eventually relief. Feel these feelings. They are the key to acceptance, moving on, and getting to know yourself as a single person. It is from this state that you can learn the lessons needed to move on with your life, and give yourself a shot at the happiness a future relationship can promote within your life.
  2. Learn Thyself. Only you are responsible for the way you feel. If you sought another person out of loneliness, you may feel that way even in your relationship. You are responsible for what makes you happy, and by choosing to be happy, you will do the things necessary to assure your happiness despite what anyone else offers within your life. Who knows, if you are having fun doing the things you enjoy in the first place, maybe, just maybe, you might meet someone that enjoys the same things you do. How would this be for at least one check off that old relationship checklist?
  3. Introspection – Reflect on what was. Play the scenarios out in your head, and see what YOU could have done differently. This is where emotional growth occurs, and can lead to areas where you find the need to bring about change in your life. Relationships are dynamic, and you brought as much to the table in its failure as your significant other has. The old adage, “It takes two to tango” is prevalent here, and you must take accountability for the mistake you made. By doing this, not only can you grow at the personal level, but you can also decrease the risk of falling into the same emotional trap that lead to the failed relationship in the first place.
  4. Learn From, Don’t Delete the Story of Your Life – Love, relationships, marriage, and life is a natural progression. You cannot hit the reset button on a relationship, any more than you can reset your life. You can experience, learn, and grow towards the ideal that you seek, but you cannot start over. Take the lemon of the relationship you have lost and turn its lessons into the sweet lemonade you wish to have in your next relationship. By making small changes in your perception, you can overcome past barriers to happiness, and promote wellbeing throughout your life.
  5. Engage A Happiness Habit – Again, we turn to all four prior lessons. Grieving, learning thyself, reflecting on what was, and learning from, not starting over leads us along a path where we can identify, practice, and master the art of loving oneself, the key ingredient needed for a life of happiness. By doing this, we can then begin to find ways to love another.

Relationships are a multifaceted, difficult to understand phenomenon that requires constant upkeep and a general willingness to push through the hard times to succeed. They are work, and unfortunately, for many, the happily does not come ever after. Whether you have been married, scared by love, or simply are yearning to find someone to spend life with, it is imperative to know yourself before taking this step. A therapist can help in this process, but you also have the power to engage the lessons needed to overcome past barriers, get to know yourself, develop deep, introspective love, and move on with your love life.

Dr. Thomas Maples

The Stockton Therapy Network