Finding My New Normal After Divorce

By:  Lianne Johnson, LPC

I have seen, and personally experienced, a tendency to overlook the impact of relational trauma on our functioning. Why is it that even when our life circumstances change – we live through a relational trauma or betrayal, we are separated from our spouse, we unexpectedly become a single-parent, we go through a divorce, we discover abusive realities in our partner – Why do we keep living (or pressuring ourselves to live) as though these changes haven’t happened?  Why do we keep living as though our bandwidth for interacting with life hasn’t changed?

Sometimes when I realize I am pressuring myself to live as though my life hasn’t radically changed, I just sit and shake my head at myself.  I ask myself in these moments, “Why am I pressuring myself?  What am I fearing?”  The answers to these questions are usually the same, no matter the circumstance.  Part of the answer is that I desperately want to live like I was living, before my life changed without my permission.  I want my normal back.  I want what was known to me.  The other part of my answer is that it saddens me to feel like I am letting people down by no longer being able to perform as I had been.  I fear others won’t understand, or won’t care to take the time to learn, the basic equation I now have to live by: My life radically changing when I experienced trauma and betrayal in my marriage + an unexpected long season of separation and suffering + ultimately getting divorced + being a single mom + running a business = having less bandwidth for life.

For a long time, I angrily fought the equation I now had to live my life by.  I didn’t fight it by taking on more than I could, I fought it by being angry with life and retreating.  It wasn’t until I started to accept my new normal that I started to enjoy life.

Part of accepting my new normal was learning to like the person I am now.  To accept the me I am now.  I am different.  My traumatic experience changed me.  Learning to be a single mom, a divorced woman, changed me.  I am not quite sure how I could live through all of that unchanged.  But I guess the biggest thing I had to learn to do was accept the new me, my new normal, and learn who I had now become.


Sometimes Fighting For Your Marriage Means Separating

Sometimes fighting for your marriage means separating for a period of time to allow the marriage to heal.


Side note – This post is not an invitation to debate whether or not separation is a good or bad thing. What it is about is how to do a separation well. I have been counseling for many years and I have seen couples thrive and reconcile after having a structured separation.  I know it works when done well, and when the couple truly desires to reconcile to one another and remain married.

avenues counseling

Some essential things to keep in mind when considering a marital separation –

1.  You will need a third party to help you and your spouse develop the structure for your separation of which all parties must agree to.  This role is best filled by a counselor, pastor, or some other subjective/impartial third party.

2. Assess your motives for the separation – are you separating to be “free” from your spouse knowing all along you want a divorce or is your goal reconciliation? As you assess your motives please know that to desire reconciliation is not to say it absolutely will be the outcome of the separation.  When a couple arrives at the place of considering separation there is likely to be much hurt, pain, and relational items to be resolved.  So to desire to reconcile with your spouse is not the same as “you must reconcile.”

3.  Structure, structure, structure – any separation I oversee has structure.  I have found this is easiest to achieve by sitting with the couple and creating a contract (or you may call it a covenant) together.  The purposes of the contract are to outline what the arrangements, expectations, and commitments each promise to during the separation.  It is a document for each spouse to sign as well as the third party you have asked to oversee your separation.  Some items to include within this agreement are the length of the separation (I begin the separation with any couple recommending a 6 month separation), amount of contact the couple will have during separation, expectations for what each spouse is to accomplish during this time, an agreement of how each will handle their finances, where each will live, how to handle visitation with children (if it applies), how the couple will communicate their separation to family, friends, and their children (if applicable), and individual and couple counseling frequency.  It is also important to ask each spouse what they feel like they need for themselves during this time of separation and to incorporate their needs into the contract when healthy and support the ultimate goal of reconciliation.

Some tips for a time of separation –

1.  Don’t do it alone

Create a team (counselor(s), pastor(s), trusted friend(s), etc.) of support.  Think of this team as your triage team.  This team will be available to you to assist in nursing your marital relationship back to health.  Be sure to put people on this team who are for your relationship and not those who will be negative about your spouse.

2.  Separation means you separate

Take a relational break from one another and stick to it. Remember the goal is reconciliation … so honoring the separation is essential for this time apart to do its job.  Defining the level of contact you will have with one another should be one of the items addressed in your separation contract.

3. Focus on you and your “stuff”

This is not a time for you to focus on your spouse’s issues.  Focusing on the issues your spouse needs to work on will not help you address the areas you need to change. Worry about you only and what you need to focus on. If your focus remains solely on what your spouse needs to change and how they are wrong, this should be an indicator to you that you are ignoring some things in your own heart.  Pray for them and your marriage, but don’t fixate on how your spouse needs to change.

4. Honor the contract you signed

Do what you agreed to do in the contract you signed. Your separation is not a time to play or to ignore your marriage. It is a time of relational reprieve to allow each of you to focus on your own heart and mind and to ultimately bring about change and healing within your marital relationship.  This time is essential for the future of your marriage. Take it seriously.  I’m not saying you can’t have fun during this time or still enjoy life, but I am saying that if you see your separation as a chance for fun then this points to a bigger heart issue. If this is you, be honest about it with yourself and your team.

5.  Don’t hide

Do not hide your fears, concerns, or your feelings of hopelessness for your marriage.  For your separation to have its best chance at allowing you and your spouse to reconcile, you must be committed to honesty and openness.

6.  The kid factor

Being separated without kids

Just be thankful you don’t have kids because being separated with kids is hard.

Being separated with kids

Being separated and having your children remain one of the top priorities is hard.  You are in the midst of your own confusion and pain, and your stress level is most likely very high.  Parenting while living through this hard time of separation may be one of the hardest things you ever do.  You must (and I mean must) purpose every day to think about your children and how to protect their little minds and hearts during this time.  Just think, if this time is hard and confusing for you, how much more is it for them?  A lot more.  I would like to suggest you ask, and re-ask, this question to yourself daily, “In all of the decisions I am making while separated about our family, arrangements, how I talk about my spouse, etc., am I making decisions based on what is best for them?”  I am not saying that your children should be prioritized over and above reconciling your marriage, but what I am saying is that you need to be keenly aware of where “your stuff” begins and ends and not let it interfere with how you and your spouse care for your children during this time of separation.

-Lianne Johnson, LPC

Presents verses Presence

By:  Lianne Johnson

Thinking back on my own separation and ultimate divorce I realize I needed people to offer me both presents and presence.

As I look back to these hards years for me I remember that I was unable to “give” anything to others. If a friend was in crisis I had no energy left to offer a meal, take her kids and give her a break, run errands for her, or just sit with her, etc.  I had nothing to offer because I was trying to get through my own day – get the kids ready for school, remember to pack their lunches, remember what time school actually started so they were on time, get to work and make sure to shower since I hadn’t in days, oh and then I needed to feed them dinner at the end of the day. It took all of my energy to get done the mundane, everyday, habitual tasks that were before me as a newly single mother who was (and still am) in the midst of trying to make sense of my new life situation and heal.

As I look back on this season of my life when I was in crisis – being separated for a year and a half and then divorcing, coming to grips with the reality of things that had taken place, I was broken.

I realize now that I needed two types of people during my own crisis – those who offered “presents” and those who offered their “presence.”

By “presents” I mean people who could offer me help with – food, errands, my kids, dishes, cleaning, laundry, etc.  Sadly, when I was in my crisis I was unable to function.  Perhaps you have experienced something like this yourself.  Life moved slower then it ever had before.  It was like my life had become a movie put on pause but then someone pushed play, but it was slow play.  You know, when the movie still plays but the frames move slower…and for about a year or so my engagement with life was s…l…o…w.

The other type of friends I absolutely needed were those that offered me their “presence.”  They sat with me.  Sometimes for hours they simply sat with me as I cried or stared blankly at a wall.  They watched movies with me, ate with me, they were present.  Nothing was required of them but to simply “be” with me.  Sometimes we talked but most of the time it was quiet.  I desperately needed these friends while in my crisis just as much as I needed those friends who fed me, and helped me get through the mundane necessary tasks in a day.

So perhaps you are in a hard season of life and you have no “presents” to offer, and that’s okay.  Offering your “presence” to your friend may be the very thing they need.

 Or maybe as you read this you are in a season in which you cannot offer either “presents” or “presence,” and that’s okay too.  Trust me as I speak from experience – this season will pass for you and slowly you will be able to give to others.