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How To Survive A Divorce

In the years since my divorce, I have learned a thing or two about surviving the breakup of a long-term marriage. Not from self-help books, but from my friends.
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I did not buy my home on my own. It was bought several years ago by my then-husband and me, as we looked to the future and decided that we wanted a house on the California coast to retire to. We got a fixer for a great price, and spent the next couple of years working on it so we could rent it out as we waited for those golden years of retirement to roll around.

As you can probably guess, that's not what happened. Well before the housing market sprung a leak, our marriage did. And what was going to be a dream vacation home waiting for our habitation became a half-finished crash pad that I moved into when it was clear I needed to leave.

In the years since, I have learned a thing or two about surviving the breakup of a long-term marriage. Not from reading books on the subject -- I stay away from most self-help books like the plague. My friends were the ones I turned to, kvetched to, and leaned on throughout the seemingly endless divorce process.

The principles I learned and practiced got me through those four years, and continue to serve me well in my new, post-divorce life. So on the off-chance that someone else is in the same predicament, here are the five most important principles I learned for surviving a divorce.

1. Know what you are in for. Because many of my close friends had also been through bad breakups, I learned a surprising amount from them about what to expect. But the best road map came from a therapist who said, "it takes four years to get through a break-up." I protested when she said this -- who wants to hear after two months of sheer agony that there are 46 more to go?

She continued: "The first year is awful. But the second year is worse, because while things are just as hard, you're exhausted from doing this for a year already. By year three the drama has calmed down a bit, and you start getting your new bearings. And the fourth year is the clean-up year, taking care of details you let go, and moving on with your life."

I have to say, she was right. Like it or not, it does take about four years to get through the whole thing. (Not including co-parenting, of course, which is a lifetime gig.)

2. Always face the dragon. During a divorce, there are so many days when you just want to do nothing. And of course, you need lots of down time. But often you want to do nothing because there is one thing you really need to do that you just dread. Maybe it's talking to a financial adviser, or filling out a complicated form. Maybe it's having a difficult conversation with your ex. Whatever that one dreaded thing is, you have to do it. I call this "facing the dragon."

Whenever I felt miserable, I went over in my mind all the things that were feeding my misery. Usually there was one task I really didn't want to do, and my rule was that I had to do it. I could avoid everything else on the list, but that one thing I had to attend to. And you know what? It saved my ass. It was grueling and painful, but I showed up prepared when I needed to be prepared, and handled important things in a timely manner. I am thankful every day for all the effort I put in when I really didn't want to get off the couch.

3. Hunker down. When you're not facing the dragon, you do get to collapse sometimes. Do things that give you pleasure, or at least take the edge off, and bow out of anything you're doing that isn't helping you survive. Social events that you've lost interest in? Let them go. Friends that leave you feeling drained? Take a raincheck.

Be responsible, especially if you've got kids to take care of, but aside from that take stock of the things you no longer want to do, and drop them. Instead, take advantage of the opportunity to re-shape your life by staying focused on what is important and letting the rest fall away.

4. Sometimes, it's good to watch The Godfather. That was the advice of a trusted friend who listened to me complain one day about the injustices I was dealing with. I laughed, but she repeated herself: "No really, go and watch it. I can't explain it, but you'll feel much better."

I decided to humor her and rent the movie, though I didn't think it would help. But once I hit the video store I ended up in a near-trance walking down the aisles, and I left the store with not one but three DVDs tucked under my arm: I'd rented The Godfather, but I also got V for Vendetta and The Corpse Bride. When I emerged from the next two days of cathartic movie-watching I realized my friend was right: I did feel much better.

5. Give yourself room to grow.
My half-finished crash pad had the beginnings of a lovely garden, and after a few months of neglect I realized that if I let it all die, it would very quickly be the most depressing-looking house to come home to. I resolved to replace the dead plants right away, and make sure all of them were hooked up to water.

As I was planting them, I followed the instructions and left what seemed like a ridiculously large amount of room around each plant. Apparently those little starts would grow quite big someday. I doubted it, but gave them room anyway.

Meanwhile, I had a house with a cavernous bedroom to furnish, and I had to decide what size bed to get. Should I be frugal and get a double or (shudder) a single? Or should I buy a large bed that was the right size for the room, and that said rather strongly that I planned to stay here and did not intend to sleep alone forever? Maybe because I had been so optimistic with the plants, I decided to get a big bed, with the best quality mattress. Every night for a long time I went to sleep alone, but in the most comfortable bed I had ever slept in.

The next year, my little plantings filled out in the garden and were very happy I'd given them the room they needed. And after all those difficult years, I am so very grateful now that I chose to be optimistic about my bed and other things, and gave myself enough room to grow.