Welcome to our series, The Divorce Diaries. In our past instalments over the last year we’ve covered everything from the effect of lockdown on divorces to whether they’re contagious and have now spoken to dozens of women – including one whose husband announced he was leaving her to have an open relationship with a 19-year-old and another who was quite literally ghosted by her own husband.
If you have a topic you’d like to discuss, share your thoughts, experience or advice about, drop a line to [email protected] with ‘Divorce’ in the subject line. All stories that are published will win a Dermalogica BioLumin-C Moisturiser, valued at $119!
This week we’re embracing the new year – a time when many people cast their thoughts to what goals and dreams might lie ahead for them. As we make a fresh start, some singles might be thinking about getting into the dating world – but, for those who have been through a divorce, or messy split, the idea of opening their hearts to someone new can be terrifying. Here, we speak to a woman who has been there, and is now just weeks away from walking down the aisle for a second time – something she had completely ruled out. Then we speak to Divorce Coach Bridgette Jackson of Equal Exes for expert advice on how to navigate new relationships!
Maria doubts she’ll ever forget what her father said to her when she told him that her husband Steve had left her.
“He said, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that, darling. But you know what they say: plenty more fish in the sea.’
“Man, that made me mad! I knew he’d never particularly liked Steve, but still… it was the last thing I wanted to hear. It wasn’t like it was some date that didn’t work out. I mean, we’d been married for 12 years and had two kids! Moving on was the last thing I was thinking about. I didn’t want another fish! I wanted that one!”
Maria’s husband had – quite out of the blue – sat her down one evening once the kids had gone to bed to say that he felt their relationship just “wasn’t working”. Maria was shattered, but optimistic.
Steve had just turned 45 and she figured he was having some sort of mid-life crisis and would soon be back, begging to come home to her and their two sons, aged nine and 13.
Except, just a few months later it became very obvious a magic reunion wasn’t on the cards. By that time, he’d already moved in with another woman – someone Maria suspects he’d been seeing while they were still together. Then, by the end of the year, she learned he was expecting another son with his new love.
“It was hands down, the most excruciating thing I’ve ever been through,” says Maria. “There was so much denial, then grief, then anger, then despair and it felt like I just swung between those emotions for months and months and months, while I tried to function for the sake of my sons. I wouldn’t want to wish it on anyone.”
So, understandably, the idea of ever getting into another relationship – at any stage of her life – sounded absolutely insane to Maria. How would she ever be able to trust someone fully again? How could she open her heart up again?
“All I wanted to do was to protect my heart – and my kids’ hearts – from ever being hurt like that again.”
But then, three years later, while she was picking up her youngest from rugby, she ran into a guy who she went to university with. She’d always had a crush on him, but they’d never been single at the same time and then he’d moved to the UK. But now, here he was, back in NZ, divorced, and bringing up a son who was a year younger than her youngest.
“I definitely felt some butterflies seeing him again, but then that icy heart of mine kicked into gear and shut off seeing him like that,” she says.
But, then her old crush – Mark – sent her a Facebook friend request that night, which she decided to accept. Before long, the two were messaging back and forth – although Maria soon made it quite clear that she wasn’t looking for a relationship. Mark said that was a bit of a disappointment, because he’d always kicked himself that he didn’t make a move while they were at university, but that he completely understood and respected that – but would still like to be friends. “I don’t have many people I can talk to about this divorce shit and being a solo dad,” he messaged her, “but you really understand so I hope we can keep talking. I hope I can be a shoulder for you too.”
Mark became someone Maria spoke to on the phone and messaged often. Her friends noticed too. So much, that one day one of them asked if she was dating Mark, and when she said, horrified, “of course not! We’re just friends!” she then asked, “Ok, well, he sounds great – can I go on a date with him?”
“It was the push I needed, I think,” says Maria. “I realised I’d be hideously jealous if Mark did start dating someone.”
So she decided to take the plunge and see a therapist.
“It was hands down the best money I’ve ever spent,” she says. For years, she’d felt like what was holding her back was that she just couldn’t seem to find it in herself to forgive her ex-husband for what he did.
“I never got closure,” she says. “He never admitted to what he had done – although other people knew that he’d been having an affair. It was humiliating.”
But, through therapy, she made a startling discovery. It wasn’t an inability to forgive him that was holding her back, it was the fact that she couldn’t forgive herself.
“I thought I had all this anger towards him, but I was actually so angry at myself – angry I didn’t see the signs, angry I let myself get hurt, angry I let the kids get hurt, just angry that I’d let myself get in that state. And I didn’t trust myself to not make the same mistakes again!”
But after this all came to light, she began the process of beginning to forgiving herself. It wasn’t easy, but her therapist helped her to see that she deserved it. Yes, she might have made some mistakes, like we all do in relationships, but, really, should she be haranguing herself for falling in love and committing herself to someone she thought shared the same feelings as her?
“I gave someone my trust and love and support, because that’s what I promised to do in our vows,” she says. “I loved him and had his back, and thought he had mine. I wasn’t perfect in that relationship, but I didn’t deserve to be punished for just opening my heart like that.”
And, it turned out, she was capable of opening up her heart again. Mark had begun to give up hope that Maria might change her mind, but when she suggested they go on a proper date, he was thrilled. They took it slow – very slow – but they’re now very happily living together with their three boys and due to get married later this summer, with their boys making up the wedding party.
“Starting a new relationship was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” says Maria, “but it’s also one of the very best things. I’m just really lucky that Mark understood where I was coming from and was prepared to wait, then take it slowly. He’s the kindest man I’ve ever known – he understands my insecurities, fears and triggers, and we’re able to talk about them openly. Seeing a therapist has definitely helped me be able to bring up some of those more difficult conversations, and thankfully, he’s always very open to talking things through. Sometimes he picks up on things that I haven’t realised I’m doing or thinking! I haven’t wanted this relationship to be in some way marred from my fears of what happened in my first marriage, but it’s the opposite – this one is stronger because we’ve both learned so much. We appreciate each other so much, and don’t take each other for granted, ever.”
Divorce coach Bridgette Jackson of Equal Exes has seen plenty of women (and men) in Maria’s position and says that while it can be incredibly difficult to dip your toe back into the dating world after a divorce, there are things you can do to put your best foot forward and Maria definitely played it right in many aspects.
Bridgette says Maria and Mark’s approach of taking things slowly played in their favour – those who rush in after the hurt of a divorce, often don’t succeed. As did taking what they learned from their previous relationships and approaching the new partnership mindfully, with plenty of communication.
Bridgette says she encourages all her clients to really understand and listen to their new partner and get a good grip on what they believe in and what their values are. She has a list of 50 questions she encourages all new – and not so new! – partners to ask each other. “It’s important to remember that there will be different views on subjects and topics,” she says. “You find out a lot about each other and the 50 questions is a good way of finding out what each other believes in.”
Her 50 questions cover a range of aspects, from asking “what is the best quality you like in people?” to “would you take on the responsibility of taking care of your parents when they retire?” through to “what do you regard as infidelity and how would you deal with it?” and “what is your favourite sexual memory of us so far?”
TIPS FROM THE EXPERT
Bridgette Jackson has more tips for starting a new relationship after a divorce:
- Do not rush in.
- Take what you have learnt from your previous relationship and practice in your new relationship.
- Do not settle for less, it is better to be alone than in a relationship than one that is not serving you well.
- When it comes to future relationships and finances it is a good idea to have an agreement in place such as a Property Sharing Agreement, a Prenup and/or a Contracting Out Agreement. Talk about the hard stuff and ask yourself, “If we were ever to end our relationship what would it look like for our children and our relationship property?” It is hard to do, but necessary to be prepared and have a strategy for when emotions are running high.
- Learn how to manage your emotions.
- Practice logical problem solving rather than reacting defensively.
- Identify your emotional triggers/words and actions – I recommend writing them down when you notice them pop up and develop a strategy to manage your emotions. This can be with affirmations, role playing, calming statements, whatever you find works for you. And don’t take the emotional triggers personally.