6 Lessons surviving divorce is teach-I-N-G me...

Perhaps this is my most important blog.  A blog I would have never seen coming 15 years ago--10 years ago--5 years ago--2 years ago.  I could not imagine that I would become all the things I am now—divorced, co-parent, counselor and blogger! But here I am, blogging about co-parenting—AS a co-parent. How did I get here?

In terms of the blog post, I signed up for a blogging webinar with

Practice of the Practice and the instructor, Joe Sanok challenged participants to write 10 blogs in one week. I decided to write my 10 blogs on one of the primary focus of my counseling practice, co-parenting. However, I did not plan to incorporate my personal journey or experience as a co-parent.  I intended to keep a safe distance from my readers by avoiding personal disclosure—a boundary most often considered wise and necessary in my profession. But after writing the first 9 blogs, I could not deny the internal demand to share my own experience, strength, and hope.

This blog became an opportunity for me to share lessons learned about myself and my co-parent as we negotiated our own painful transitions and disappointments embedded in the process of divorce.  It is

hard work to get through the heartache and find new ways to be hopeful and happy as a family on the other side of divorce.  What I share with you now are some of the lessons I am learning on my own journey as a co-parent.

1.  We are BOTH broken.

When we separated we did so for good reason. No one blamed us.  Six months later we decide to move forward with a divorce. Though we agreed on the decision, I held tightly to the hope that we could put our family back together, but my former spouse was clear in his decision to divorce. As the possibility of reconciliation faded the more I wanted him to admit it was his fault, especially to our children.   I wanted to put him in a place where he took the blame. He was the Fall Guy. Well...he took it. Readily. He fell on the sword for our family and became the guy that broke our family apart. I thought this would bring me more satisfaction and relief than it did.  If he was the villain and I was the victim, it would make things better for me.But it did not.  As I have done my own work, I have realized I am just as broken as he is. I couldn’t see it then. I hurt too much, but I can clearly see it now.  We bothcontributed to the deterioration of our marriage. And regardless of my accounting of rights and wrongs that left me in the black and put him in the red, we were both responsible for the bankruptcy of our family.  While that was a humbling and deeply painful realization, it was also incredibly freeing.  This new understanding of shared brokenness has helped me have more compassion and less (judgment) for myself and my co-parent.

2. Be slow to judge.

In our marriage, the roles were always clear.  I was the stay-at-home mom and acted like a good martyr with my family. He was the provider and workaholic. He started his own business, while I raised our children.  The longer our marriage lasted the more polarized those roles became. In starting my own business, I realize the pressure involved and the excitement of creating something new. I often cannot stop thinking about the responsibilities and possibilities with my counseling practice. I want to work all the time and find myself having a hard time being present with my family and my friends. My to-do list is increasingly work related. I know there are details in my life that need attention, but I can’t see them right now. I am consumed with my business. I go to bed thinking about it and wake up thinking about it.  The irony is now undeniable.The very thing I spent years loathing in him, I have become.  For years I judged him, but now realize I misunderstood him.  Now that I have walked a mile in those shoes, I understand his choices better and resolve to be much slower to judge others, especially him.

3.  Trust yourself.

Since the divorce, I have questioned my decision-making process in relationships.   I have doubted whether or not I should have married him, but just because a marriage ends does not mean it should have never begun.  When I think about the man I chose, he was above all, a good friend.  I admired his flexibility, creativity, sense of humor and appreciation for all things beautiful.  He was a good choice, but as I said above we are BOTH broken. It did not work out in the long run, but that does not mean I cannot trust myself.  After all, even on this side of divorce, I have a co-parent that respects me as a mother, listens to my concerns and advice regarding our girls, consistently provides, and makes our girls needs a priority.  Though there is still frustration and hurt to sort out, we remain friends.  We always have been and I trust we always will be.  This truth is evidence that I can trust myself.  I do choose good people to be in a relationship with, even if the nature of the relationship changes.

4.  Feel it to heal it.

Divorce unleashes a flood of feelings, and while my instinct was to take cover, I knew I needed to wade into the depths of the emotions engulfing my life. Sadness, anger, guilt, shame, loneliness, relief and regret all had something to show me—to teach me. I had to find a way to let them speak to me instead of trying to keep them silent.  Suppressing my feelings was not an option I chose because I realized I had to feel my feelings if I wanted to heal.  Slowly, I identified friends that were comfortable letting me process often and without filters. I needed people that were willing to be patient as I tried to understand how I felt about the past, present, and future.  My counselor helped me name my feelings and coached me through them, so I did not become their captive.Self-pity could have easily taken me hostage if not for these on-going interactions with people that comforted, challenged, instructed and encouraged me along the way. It was tempting to ignore my feelings for the sake of keeping up appearances, taking care of my children, figuring out finances or getting control over the chaos of divorce. However, it became apparent to me that ignoring my feelings would not help our children or me move past the pain and disappointment of our fractured family. Our girls needed to learn how to feel and cope with their feelings in a healthy way, and I was their teacher. I often reassured our girls, "Mom is having a hard time, but I'm going to be OK.  We are going to be OK".  I am still learning how to be honest about my feelings and honor what they teach me about myself, but I know the effort is worth it. Identifying your feelings and dealing with them can be a challenge, but if you want to get better instead of bitter, you have to feel it to heal it.

5.  Strength is a series of choices.

I always considered myself to be a confident, competent woman, but as my family unraveled, I did not believe I had the strength to survive a divorce. I was convinced that I could not do life alone.  I didn't want to be single. I certainly did not want to be a single parent. I did not want to manage a visitation schedule with my children or do holidays or vacations alone.  My early experiences only confirmed that my resistance was justified. The first Christmas after our separation was excruciating. I felt such a sense of accomplishment that at least I had survived Christmas! One week after Christmas, I walked into CVS to quickly pick something up in the fog of grief and accomplishment only to see the card aisle filled with...Valentines Day cards! I stared at them in utter horror thinking, “I can’t do this!” Everything about divorce felt wrong—being alone, being with the girls without him, being with the girls with him, none of it worked and all of it left me feeling defeated and powerless. However, I survived! And with every holiday that passed—Christmas, Valentines, Easter, birthdays, anniversaries, and Thanksgiving—I got a little stronger, a little more creative, and eventually I am able to look forward to and delight in the holidays (and my everyday life) again. It took awhile for the difficulty to become manageable, but I have an increasing confidence that I CAN do this.  It is still messy and awkward at times, but I keep moving forward, one step at a time. And at some point, I realized that I am strong and that strength is a series of choices I make…one at a time.

6.  All things work together for good.

Divorce was terrifying for me on many levels- emotionally, spiritually, financially and socially. Life, as I had known it for 15 years, was over and there was nothing I could do to restore what was now lost. I never dreamed that divorce would be a part of my story, but this chapter was now written so I was left asking “why me?” and “what now?”.

For a long time, everything seemed so unfair, and I resented all of the changes that divorce was imposing on me. I did not want to go back to school, back to a full-time job, back to figuring things out on my own. It felt like I was being punished, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I had done to deserve such a severe reprimand. There were many days I spent pouting about my circumstances and praying for someone to wake me up from this awful dream. I felt I had been unjustly sentenced to this life and I wanted a retrial.

Slowly, I am finding the grace to accept my reality. I think God waited out my childish antics and was ready to respond when I raised my white flag prayers of surrender. God reminds me often that He works all things together for my good, and so I chose to believe that whatever is going on in my life is not happening to me, but is happening for me. With this new perspective, the very things I resist become opportunities for growth and blessing

In the process of my own divorce, I saw a great need for additional resources and support for separated and divorced families. Naturally, I began thinking through how our family’s experience could have been improved, and then my thoughts began including other families and how to help them.  One idea lead to another, one opportunity opened up another and now I have my own counseling practice, Sparrow Counseling. Now, as I work with families of divorce, it is a gift to offer the support and guidance to them that I wish we had experienced in our own time of pain and loss.  Every day I go to work it’s a reminder that all things do work together for good.

I hope these lessons are a source of hope and encouragement for you.  My lessons from divorce are far from over or complete.  I often think that divorce has many new lessons to teach us and re-teach us, and I am in no way a master yet.  I have been schooled in them.  I am open to what the lessons are teaching me- most days, but I am a work in progress and often for the progress to go deep, it goes s-l-o-w.

Everyone’s story is unique and yet there are undeniable themes that echo in the fracturing and rebuilding of divorcing families.  I trust you to take what is challenging and comforting to you at this point in your own story and to leave the rest for another time or forever.  Whatever the details of your situation, I urge you to listen to the lessons in your own life and allow them to lead you to a more peaceful and kind experience of yourself, your children and your co-parent.

In the spirit of collaboration, I co-wrote this blog with one of those beloved souls I mentioned in #4, my friend, April Robinson.  I am so grateful for her help in organizing and articulating my thoughts and feelings in a way that I believe is authentic and candid. I also shared this post with my co-parent and published it only with his blessing.  I truly believe, that we are all better together, and even this blog post is a testament to that truth!

For more information on co-parenting, check out my other 10 blogs on co-parenting!  Click here to do so!

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If you are stuck and need help moving past the pain of your divorce, counseling with me can help!   Please email at sara@sparrowcounsel.com or call me at 205-538-3978 or go online to schedule an appointment.

Sara Dungan, M.Ed, LMFT, ALC, NCC, Certified Parenting Coordinator, Divorce and Family Mediator (Domestic Violence Trained) has her private practice called Sparrow Counseling in Birmingham, AL.  She specializes in Parenting Coordination, Co-Parenting Counseling and Divorce and Family Mediation.  Her passion is helping parents learn how to become successful co-parents, so their children can thrive after their divorce.  Contact Sara at sara@sparrowcounsel.com.

Sara is an Associate Licensed Counselor (ALC) under the supervision of H. Hobart (Bart) Grooms, M. Div, MEd, LPC-S, LMFT-S, Supervising Counselor.