When Mia Levitin’s marriage ended, she initially focused on falling in love again. It was only when she didn’t meet another partner that she learned to build a life on her own terms. Here, she shares her experience and the divorce advice she gives to friends who are divorcing...
I was never one to stage weddings in the Barbie Dream House, preferring to play with my Star Wars figures and GI Joes. It surprised everyone, then, when I was the first of my friends to get engaged, in my early 20s. First in, first out: I was the first to divorce, too, 13 years later.
When my marriage ended, I figured I had chosen the wrong partner but didn’t question for a second that a relationship was a prerequisite to happiness. Hell-bent on hunting down Mr Right 2.0, I embarked on dating armed with an Excel spreadsheet and a love-coach-to-the-stars. Despite my can-do attitude, it hasn’t happened yet. If you had told me then that I would still be single after111 first dates over about five years, I would have found it unfathomable. But truth be told, I’m grateful for the time alone.
It turns out that when you let go of one path, your life opens to other avenues of joy.
Since divorcing, I’ve ticked destinations off of my bucket list (Japan, India, Peru), cultivated kick-ass friendships and launched a career in writing that gives me more profound pleasure than I had ever dreamed possible from a job. Added bonus: I am a far better mother now than when I was harbouring an ever-present resentment about what I thought my ex-husband should have been doing to make me happy.
Sometimes, we’re better off not getting what we think we want. The author and screenwriter Nora Ephron once told a story about an inheritance she had been anticipating from an uncle. He died while she was struggling with the screenplay for When HarryMet Sally. ‘Phew,’ she thought. ‘Now that I’m an heiress, I can afford to bag this project.’ It turned out the uncle had lost his fortune in a bad investment. Back to the drafting she went, and out came one of the best rom-coms in the history of film.
Just as Ephron found the need to feed herself to be a driving force for creativity, for me, taking responsibility for my own wellbeing was the fuel I needed to build a full single life. I used to think I needed a partner’s support – a personal pep squad – to bolster my self-confidence. But I suspect that if I’d had a boyfriend these past few years, I would have been less motivated to dig deep for the resilience to pitch editors in the face of rejection. Chances are I would have stepped into a supporting role in his life rather than relying on my own resources to realise my ambitions.
Divorce requires letting go of a joint narrative. I had envisioned growing our family and growing old together – as my parents, who were high-school sweethearts, are doing. A rupture recasts not only your imagined future but also the shared past. The brain edits the memory reel of the relationship and, with it, your sense of self. If over a decade of my life was in some sense a lie, who am I now?
It’s not always about missing the person as much as mourning the fantasy of marriage, sometimes held since the days of the Barbie Dream House. Women are conditioned to put their faith in romantic love. Even without the influence of Disney princesses, part of me had staked my happiness on a man. That’s not only a lot of responsibility to put on someone’s shoulders, but why are we so quick to give our agency away?
The word divorce shares a Latin root with divert: ‘to turn in different directions’. One of the hardest things about adjusting to a divorce is no longer being on the same team as the person you were (or thought you were)building a life with. And yet that turning away can be freeing. In a relationship, we tend to focus on the overlapping almond in the middle of a Venn diagram of interests, putting aside those that aren’t shared. A breakup allows you to rediscover those pieces of yourself that you’d compromised, sometimes without even realising.
After separating, to paraphrase the poet Derek Walcott, I learned to feast on my life. I delight in doing the simplest things my way:spending a stormy Sunday reading; inviting people over for pasta instead of the dinner parties we used to host together; and gleefully wearing clothes my ex would have despised (think jumpsuits).I’ve cranked up the volume on my self, having muted it during my marriage so gradually that I didn’t even notice it was happening.
THE DIVORCE ADVICE I GIVE MY NEWLY SINGLE FRIENDS
After my divorce, some of my friends eventually began to follow suit. The advice I give them?
- The faster you let go of seeing yourself as a victim, the better off you’ll be – no matter how appalling the behaviour of an ex. Own a part of what went wrong, even if that part is just a sliver.
- If you feel you’ve been at fault and are experiencing remorse, work on self-compassion and forgiveness (I recommend checking out the work of Kristin Neff and Tara Brach).
- Resist the temptation to badmouth your ex to your children or mutual friends: it will always, always comeback to bite you.
- Get a handle on your finances. Despite a degree in finance,I had not only passed the monetary reins to my ex but procrastinated looking at the figures when it came time to discuss them. Being on top of your finances increases your feeling of control over your life.
- Date if you find it boosts your morale, but don’t set your hopes too high and avoid rushing into another relationship before you’re ready.
- Don’t spend too long alone with that Ben & Jerry’s. Research shows that the people who cope best with any change are those with a strong support system.My most meaningful connections weren’t necessarily fellow divorcées. More important than shared circumstances was a willingness to open up.
Awakening to a new life, I felt vulnerable at first, like a newly hatched chick. Your eyes dart around, excited to discover this brand-new world, yet you’re still oh-so fragile, with bits of shell stuck to your head. Since my social circle consisted mostly of my ex-husband’s friends, I found myself isolated, as most of our mutual friends didn’t reach out. This turned out to be a blessing in the end, as it forced me to make my own, more authentic friendships, but at the time, it felt like a betrayal: it was hard to come to terms with having been valued only as ‘the wife of’ for so long.
As an only child and an introvert, I don’t mind spending time alone. Holidays, however, were the pits. The first time I handed over my son on Christmas Day, it felt like my heart had been ripped out of my body. While my ex settled down with a new partner quickly, after each dating disaster, I resented having to go through the rigmarole only to find myself alone.
The best advice I received to weather the transition was to practise ‘exquisite self-care’. (In my friend’s defence, this was long before the annoyingly ubiquitous hashtag.) For me, that meant prioritising sleep, exercise, a meditation practice and walks in the park with friends. As mundane as that may sound, it was key to maintaining my equanimity. Self-care is a moving target of tuning into yourself: sometimes it involved skipping spin class to cry into the requisite pint of Ben & Jerry’s while blasting Beyoncé on repeat. (And yes, a bath with essential oils and a scented candle can’t hurt, but you didn’t hear it from me...)
I once asked a couples’ counsellor her advice for sustaining a long-lasting marriage. ‘Make yourself happy,’she told me. As I’ve become more practised at scripting my own life story, it looks more and more like a plotline I like. And if a leading man does wander on set, he’ll encounter a more vital version of me. Either way, the happy ending is mine to write.
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