When Theresa’s husband of 15 years announced he wanted a divorce, she was devastated. She says, “I couldn’t believe Alex threw our life away. But I’m strong- I got through it. I’ve moved on and put it behind me.” But has she?
Six years later, Theresa and Alex parallel-parent, each doing as they wish with little communication between them. When asked about Alex, Theresa becomes tight-lipped and drawn. She still blames him. Now remarried, she and her new husband, Tad, have a good relationship, but they fight about the same issues that plagued her first marriage.
Barbara has a similar story, but different ending. Her husband’s departure sent her on a roller coaster of rage, depression, blame, and self-pity. But a year later, she began to reconstruct her life. She went back to school for accounting, redecorated her home according to her own tastes, and went to therapy to learn about herself and her role in the marriage.
Three years later, Barbara’s life is rich and full. She and Dan have settled into an amicable co-parenting relationship. She loves her bookkeeping job and is practicing new relationship skills in a budding romance. She says the divorce “turned out to be a surprisingly positive change for my life. I wouldn’t have chosen this path, but Dan’s leaving was the push I needed to ask the tough questions: what did I want? What was I good at? What could I learn from my marriage to help me have a better relationship in the future? The divorce was the catalyst for my own personal growth.”
Barbara is what Dr. Mavis Hetherington calls an Enhancer. In her book For Better or For Worse, Hetherington describes Enhancers as those who use their divorce experience to grow. Based on 30 years of research, Hetherington says that about 20% of divorcing people fall into this category.
Theresa is a Survivor, one of the 40% who rebuild their lives successfully, but find the same issues and frustrations follow them to the next relationship and phase of life. Survivors move on, but they miss the opportunity to learn about themselves or enrich their lives.
If you are traveling the road of divorce, you may be wondering: what are the keys to being an Enhancer rather than a Survivor?
Based on my research and the experiences of those in our Journey of Divorce workshops, there are four key elements to being an Enhancer:
- Set your compass, by answering the “one question”. Your one question may go something like this: What do I want the divorce experience to contribute to my life? What do I want to learn? Who do I want to be when this is over? Reflecting upon these questions (and answers) will keep you on a path of learning.
- Accept Responsibility. For your self, your life, and your part of demise of the marriage. You can’t learn if you don’t accept responsibility. “Victims” don’t become Enhancers.
- Find Support. The John (and Jane) Waynes who want to solve their problems alone don’t do well in divorce. Enhancers seek support from friends, family, clergy, therapists – people who provide comfort plus objective feedback, and who challenge them when they succumb to ex-bashing or self-pity.
- Repeat. The experience of divorce is a rollercoaster – one day you feel strong and capable, the next overwhelmed and depressed. Enhancers repeat steps 1-3 many times over the course of their divorce journey, sometimes daily. Resist being discouraged by the downturns in the rollercoaster. Return to step 1.