Over the last several years in my coaching practice, I have spoken to women at all stages of the divorce process. What I have heard from many of them is that they still love their ex-husband very much.
This is often after they have recounted the details of their relationship with him during marriage and the unpleasantness that was the end process.
How can you still feel this way?
At first, I found it very hard to reconcile what I was hearing about their lives and the fact that they were still so devoted to this man. As an observant outsider, it seemed to me that she would thrive so much more without this other person who was frankly holding her back from loving herself and living her ideal life.
However, knowing that there is no set particular way anyone “should” feel and looking back on my own experience to understand the pain and the process that each of these women was feeling, I held space for them to find their way out of this emotional maelstrom.
I quickly came to realize the depth of how they felt and the causes of it. This is grieving…and there are no set rules.
Amy came to me after her divorce and the end of her 33-year marriage. She was 53 years old and had been with her husband since her senior year in high school. She told me that he was, “the love of my life”. She described her ex-husband as a wonderful man. An excellent husband and father.
She went on to share the details of their life together. While they had been together she felt that she was often walking on eggshells as he was easily upset if she gave an opinion he didn’t like or was “too pushy” as she put it.
It never went to the level of physical abuse, but he would call her names on a regular basis. He had been through a couple of infidelities and she had been able to forgive him and move past that because she loved him.
She worked full time and was the major breadwinner of the family. She also did all the day to day tasks around taking care of the home and looking after their two children when they were younger.
Then a year ago he announced that he wanted a divorce and moved out the next day. She soon came to find out that he had moved in with a woman from his work and her son.
When I asked her what she saw as her main challenge of living her new life, her answer was very simple. She said, “I still love him so much. I cry every day, I can’t get any motivation to do my work or try anything new in my life. My friends keep telling me that he doesn’t deserve me, but they just don’t understand.”
It seems so obvious, but what is “love”?
For some of us reading this, it is crazy to think that she could still feel such strong feelings towards a man who had treated her this way for such a long period of time. I suppose one of the questions we have to ask ourselves is what is “Love” and how does it change as we go through a long relationship?
We all know the idealistic view of romantic love. The lightheaded feeling, fluttering in the chest, the excitement when you hear from or even think about that special person. If you are lucky- or choose wisely- enough, that can continue and add comfort, feeling of respect and knowledge that this is the most trusted best friend you will ever have.
However, when someone has been in a long relationship, the first flush fades out and can be replaced by the familiar, the status quo, the “this is good enough for me”.
When Amy got married, she was thinking that this was going to be the most wonderful relationship that was going to carry her through the rest of her life. This man was the love of her life. This idea is a very hard one to let go of. As she looked back on her marriage, I heard her pushing forward the details of his good qualities.
When she had something negative to say about his infidelities or verbal abuse, for example, she would offer an excuse for why that had happened and downplay the significance.
Amy was hanging on in her mind to the vision of who she wanted her ex-husband to be. That is the man that she wanted to still be married to and who she could not let go of. Her perfect vision of what she wanted her marriage to be like, in hindsight was what she wanted and cried for every night.
You need time to grieve the loss of your love
Amy did not know that her marriage was going to end and therefore did not think to start on the process of not being “in love” with this man until he told her that it was over.
The prevailing thought in our society is that when you are married, you are in love with your spouse. That perception is in itself very powerful. Amy was still in need of time to come to terms with not being married and not being able to say that she was in love with her husband without being judged by others.
If you have been divorced or had a relationship end, you are definitely familiar with friends and family “helping” by telling you all the faults of that other person, saying that you should “get over it”, or just suggesting that there are plenty of others out there and it’s time to set up your online profile.
It is human nature that the more you feel something being pulled away from you, then the more you are determined to hang on to it. Once you get into the defensive mode and have to justify to others why you still love your ex so much, it is reinforcing all the reasons that you simply can’t let go.
You need time to grieve the loss of your life
Of course, it is still normal and totally appropriate for Amy to grieve the end of her relationship and her marriage. There are so many emotions that are going to come up when this happens. Sadness and anger being two of the biggest of these.
These are very powerful emotions and it isn’t reasonable to think that they can easily be dismissed, no matter what well-meaning friends may say to you. The thing is, you are not just grieving for the loss of the man you married, but also everything that went along with that.
When you get divorced your whole life is in an upheaval. Friends, family, finances, and children are all in play once a divorce occurs. That life that you had, and the one that you thought you were going to have, is suddenly gone. That is a huge shock to the system.
No wonder Amy sees her ex-husband as the personification of this life that she thinks she has lost forever now. If she is still in love with him, the door is open for everything to reset. Maybe he will come back and the life that she is grieving for will return as she had known it.
Suddenly your future is unknown and this brings up fear
Along with the sadness and anger is a very powerful dose of fear. Fear of the unknown that is coming in your life now. While Amy’s life was probably far from perfect in her marriage, it was definitely something she had grown comfortable with.
She knew pretty much where life was heading and what her identity in the world was. She had a predictable social life, living situation, and financial outlook. She had a companion to share her life and bounce ideas off, (even if her opinions were largely dismissed.).
Now, there was a whole slew of new things that were causing her anxiety and sleepless nights. The thought that she was being judged by family and friends for “failing” in her marriage. Added to this was the judgment that was piling on herself!
She was endlessly circling the idea that she should have been able to prevent this in some way. Now all that Amy felt was left was a feeling of failure and a future that stretched out alone.
Because Amy was so anxious about her future, she was holding on to the past to head off all these other fears and decisions that she needs to make. That way that she is being kept in a “comfortable” and familiar space.
Looking to her ex-husband’s faults or any thought that their marriage was not always ideal and wonderful would be a way to start to break those ties to the past and begin to wonder if there was a good version future that she could move on to after her marriage.
So what do you do now?
Having a reason for the way you feel does not mean that you can logically say, “Oh I see, so I’ll stop feeling that way now.” If only it was that easy! In how many areas of our lives do we know the exact thing that we could do right now to solve a problem, yet we just don’t see it or do it?
Treat yourself as kindly as you would a friend going through this difficult time
Feeling healthy is an easy example. You know to eat better food and get some exercise. But knowing and doing are two completely different things.
Fortunately, knowing is a first, and quite significant, step. Along with this is the relaxing of the judgment that you are directing towards yourself. Being kind to yourself and being very aware of what you are saying to yourself is a key step in moving on and thriving after divorce.
The fear that you need to hold on to that past is partially based in the way you feel about your own ability to be able to handle the future. Believing that you can do this, having strong self-love, self-worth and feeling of self-confidence will allow you to relax your need to grip on to the known and take the leap into the new.
Forgiveness is a very powerful tool
In this case, self-forgiveness will go a long way to healing the relationship that you have with yourself. Forgiving yourself will help you to end the inner dialogue of blaming, doubt and criticism that you are directing towards yourself.
Remember that this was a relationship involving two people, and we have no control over what others feel, or do. If you truly see that you had a “fault” in this, then use it as a learning opportunity to take with you into the next part of your life.
Let it help you decide what kind of woman you want to be moving forward, and how you will enter into another relationship in the future.
Stop focusing on what your ex is doing
So, if you still love your ex, don’t beat yourself up about it, or allow anyone else to make you feel bad about it either. You do need to step away as much as possible. Stop the cyberstalking or gossiping with friends about his latest romances. That serves for nothing but to fuel all your negative emotions. It also reinforces that you are not good enough, that someone else is better than you because he chose them.
Instead, spend time on developing positive friendships. Spend time finding out what you love to do and do it. Find out what your passions are. Focus on the goals you want to reach. Take a step every day to move towards those goals, even if that is only taking five minutes in the morning to write in your journal.
Take the time to love yourself!