Divorce is an increasingly common experience: among people who are age 20 or older, about 34% of married women and 33% of married men will part ways with their spouse. But while there’s plenty of conversation around the heartache stemming from a marriage falling apart, the difficulty of the first breakup after divorce often goes unexplored.
“Research on how grief is processed in the brain explains the various physiological changes that occur when we have a loss—whether that is through death or divorce or some other form of separation. In the case of unprocessed grief following a divorce, a subsequent breakup can reactivate the initial unresolved grief,” explains Aurisha Smolarski, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California. Unprocessed grief from your divorce can muddle your current relationship. And thus, when your new partnership comes to a close, it can feel like a double dose of loss. “You may cycle through denial, sadness, anger, guilt, fear, and shame,” adds Smolarski.
Michelle, a Boston resident who asked to be identified by her first name to protect her privacy, has experienced this particular flavor of heartbreak firsthand. “When I finally exited the marriage, I was looking for my first serious relationship post-divorce to be a validation that breaking up my marriage and going at it alone would be worth it for my son and me … I was dreaming of that Brady Bunch scenario, and then the hard decision I’d made would play out to be worth it,” she says. But things didn’t quite go as she’d hoped. Her son didn’t mesh well with her new boyfriend’s kids, and eventually, the pair decided to end things. “Post-divorce, people may better know what they’re looking for in a partner, but the baggage can make it harder to succeed in a relationship,” she says.
According to Savannah Miller, licensed clinical social workers and senior manager of therapy services at Headspace Health, this baggage comes in the form of two inner narratives: “I’m scared I will get hurt again” and “I don’t trust myself in love anymore.” “Even in the most supportive divorces, there is a sense of loss of the dream you created with your partner, the romantic relationship, and a realization that even with the best of intentions, not all marriages are able to succeed,” says Miller. So when the breakup happens, it can feel like all your worries were completely valid—and the cycle continues.
You may also no longer trust that you’re worthy of love—and that feeling seeps into your next breakup. “[A] first heartbreak after divorce can feel like an internal ‘I told you so’ moment,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Emily Simonian, head of clinical learning at the counseling platform Thriveworks. “They may be flooded with negative beliefs about themselves or relationships—beliefs that they worked hard to disprove, only to feel like their fears have been realized.”
To remedy these damaging (but totally normal) feelings you may have after your first post-divorce breakup, it’s important to prioritize your healing before “getting back out there.” Below, experts offer their best advice for caring for your well-being.
1. Lean on your people (including a therapist)
If you have the monetary means and the time to attend family therapy, make it a priority. However, if that’s just not in the cards for you, tap your network for support. “Whether or not you choose to try therapy, this is an important time to reach out to supportive friends and family,” says Smolarski. “If you have kids, plan some play dates or get a sitter or family member to watch your kids so you can go out with a friend and have time to vent, cry, and get some much-needed hugs.”
2. Engage in activities that brought you joy before your breakup
Smolarski is also a big advocate of getting back to the things that make you happy regardless of your relationship status. “This could be hiking, camping, dancing, yoga, drawing, playing music, or painting. Whatever it is, go do it. You want to get those endorphins activated in your brain,” she says.
3. Try to find objective ways to look at what happened
“It’s too easy to become self-critical or to feel rejected, but there is usually another way to view a subjective reality. For example: Just because it didn’t work out with [that person] doesn’t mean I’m unlovable/won’t find someone that is a better match,” says Simonian. You can also try writing these truths down—and returning to them when your inner critic gets too loud.
4. Carefully curate the media you’re consuming
During this time, you’ll want to be extra careful about what content is making it into your brain. For example, if your social media feed is a trap for comparing yourself to others, Smolarski recommends shelving Instagram and TikTok (for now).
Your newfound free time will make time for self-improvement podcasts and other forms of media that truly bring you joy—something that Miller loves recommending to her clients. Whether that means you watch The Great British Baking Show or listen to an entire season of Brené Brown’s podcast, your mental health will thank you.
5. Create routines that give you a sense of stability
Whether you’re practicing mindfulness, writing in a journal, or taking a walk every single day on your lunch break, Smolarski is a big fan of making one new habit that will be a steady, unwavering force in your life. This will offer you a sense of consistency at a time when things may feel like they’ve gone haywire.
6. Remember that there’s still a chance for love—if you want that
“In July of 2020 I ended up meeting a new guy who I’m still dating now. He’s a great person, and our relationship is going great,” says Michelle. “The jury is still out, but I’ve moved beyond the breakup to a much better place.” Keep taking care of yourself—and you will move on, too.
Our new weekly Impact Report newsletter will examine how ESG news and trends are shaping the roles and responsibilities of today’s executives—and how they can best navigate those challenges. Subscribe here.