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Life After Divorce: 3 Survival Strategies

How ex-spouses and their kids can cope after divorce and move beyond the pain.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sixteen years and three children into her marriage, Nancy Michaels' husband dealt her the blow of a lifetime. Out of the blue, he told her he wanted a divorce -- but he wouldn't tell her or their kids why he was leaving. Months later, a sudden and unexpected medical problem found Michaels close to death.

Unable to take care of her children while she was hospitalized, she risked losing custody of them permanently.

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Now, less than four years later, with her health back, Michaels has risen from the depths of emotional despair brought on by the blow of an unexpected divorce, regained primary custody of her children, bought a house of her own, and begun a web site exclusively for women over 40 going through divorce. 

Without question, coping with divorce can be one of the most difficult challenges a person faces in a lifetime. Mental health experts say the pain it causes rivals grieving the death of a loved one. But as Michaels' story illustrates, surviving divorce is possible.

WebMD spoke with the pros -- adults who have been through a divorce, as well as counselors who help people survive the effects of divorce -- to learn what coping strategies work to help people through this trying time.

1. Seek Out a Support Network

No single strategy will ease the pain and loss that divorce brings. But time and time again, when asked how best to weather the effects of divorce, respondents say this: lean on a support network.

"Recognize your support network. If it's not strong enough, build it up," says Jennifer Coleman, EdS, NCC, a life transition coach who works with divorce clients of the Rosen Law Firm in North Carolina.

For Michaels, her support network while surviving divorce initially consisted of one good friend. "She has a great sense of humor," Michaels tells WebMD, recalling how she went from crying alone in a movie theater as she watched a romantic love story to laughing out loud afterward when her friend insisted they go to dinner together.

At the suggestion of the judge who oversaw her divorce case, Michaels then expanded her circle of support to include the group Women with Controlling Partners. She's glad she took him up on it. "When you get divorced, most of your old friends run. They're no longer thrilled to have you in their house; there's a dynamic that shifts considerably," she tells WebMD. That hasn't been the case with women in the support group. "We have Friday night pizza with our kids. We'll give each other a ride to the airport if we need it. It really has saved my sanity," Michaels says.

Finding support is not just for women. While women tend to seek and find support rather easily while coping with divorce, men are more likely to hesitate to reach out to others, despite having equally strong emotional needs. Consider David Wood, a handyman who recently went through a bitter divorce. "I was embarrassed, even ashamed. I thought people would think less of me," he says.

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