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.
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.
It wasn't until a neighbor started sharing his own story about a difficult divorce that Wood felt comfortable enough reciprocating with his own woes -- and finding it incredibly cathartic. "You've got to open up," he says.
While emotional support helps people navigate the initially painful hurdles of divorce, the importance of shoring up assistance for practical purposes post-divorce cannot be overstated. Even before the clouds of her divorce lifted, Susan Perrotta knew she had to be a strong presence for her children, who were barely school age at the time. She made immense sacrifices to be there for them, sometimes pulling all-nighters to complete art projects for clients, then seeing her children off to school in the morning.
A single mother with no family in town, Perrotta essentially raised her children on her own. But she strategically sought and took advantage of support resources available to her. "I made friends with teachers and administrators at my kids' schools. They were fantastic," she tells WebMD.
She also chose to move to a close-knit neighborhood where she could call on neighbors for help in a pinch. She used her pediatrician as a sounding board, recalling him as "a wonderful pediatrician who knew the kids well." And she looked beyond differences with her ex-husband to get him involved. "I pulled him in when I needed his help. I made him work with me," she says.
2. Redefine Yourself
Going through a divorce means no longer being part of a couple, a reality that can come as a relief or a frightening prospect. "For the person who sees him or herself as multifaceted, it's generally a lot easier. But if someone has been nothing but a spouse and saw that as the most important role, it can be pretty crushing," Coleman tells WebMD.
Looking at this time as a period of self-exploration is one way to overcome feelings of isolation and fear. "Take up new hobbies, activities, interests -- expand yourself. Stay busy in a constructive way," suggests Patricia Covalt, PhD, a Denver-based licensed marriage therapist.
Exploring untapped interests can be both a place to positively let go of the grief brought on by divorce and a way to redefine yourself. Wood, devastated by not seeing his children on a daily basis, threw himself into starting and cultivating a community garden. "It was a big help. I'd physically exhaust myself working there. It kept my mind from wandering," he says. Taking ownership of the garden also served as a productive hobby, in which Wood grew not only seasonal vegetables and fruits but also stronger friendships with other community members.
3. Minimize the Impact on Kids
While coping with divorce, pain is inevitable -- but soon-to-be ex-spouses have the power to minimize the pain their children feel by keeping things as amicable as possible.
"You're dealing with a lot of grief and personal feelings. But always avoid criticizing the other parent in front of the children," says Jennipher Cole, LPC-S, a marriage and family therapist with the DePelchin Children's Center in Houston.
She has seen the poor outcomes of clients who ignore this advice: in younger children, regressive behavior like bed-wetting; in older children and teenagers, low self-esteem and risky behavior.
Cole also warns against pulling children into any conflict with an ex-spouse, a scenario that provokes "taking sides."
Others echo her sentiments. "If you put your kids in the middle, it's a short gain with a long loss. I'm much more interested in maintaining a long-term relationship with my kids," Michaels says.