Why is it that, even when you know what you should do, you don’t do it? You want to do it. You intend to do it. But at the same time, the very thought of doing the thing you know you should do (like, get a divorce) terrifies you. So you wait, turned into stone by your fear of divorce.
Meanwhile, you do nothing – except beat yourself up for being a miserable slug who just can’t seem to get it together.
If your fear of divorce is paralyzing you, you’re not alone.
Being Afraid to Get a Divorce is Normal
I get emails from people* every day who say things like:
I used to think of my husband and I as partners. But several years ago he got laid off and he hasn’t gone back to work since. I work upwards of 60 hours a week. I love my job, but I never thought I’d be the sole support of the family! Sure, my husband helps with the kids more now, and he brings in a little cash from handyman jobs. But he’s not even trying to get a job anymore. Meanwhile, I’m exhausted! I know I should give him an ultimatum. But I’m afraid that if we get a divorce my kids will hate me AND I’ll have to pay him alimony! What should I do?
I’ve been married for 20+ years. My wife and I haven’t been intimate for as long as I can remember. (Translation: it’s been years.) All my wife does is criticize me. We never go anywhere or do anything together. We don’t even talk much anymore. I know I should get a divorce, but what if I leave my wife and then never find anyone to be with again? And what if she turns the kids against me?
My husband and I have been separated for the past two years. He said he is in not in love with me anymore and now lives with another woman. My husband has been giving me money to help me pay the bills, but now he says he can’t do it anymore and wants a divorce. I can’t live on what I make. I’m hoping that he will change his mind and come back to me. I don’t want a divorce. Help!
The Hard Truth About Divorce
Getting a divorce sucks. It will change everything in your life, and about your life. What’s worse is that you have no guarantee when you start your divorce where you will be when it ends.
It doesn’t matter if you are the one spinning in circles trying to decide whether to get a divorce, or whether your spouse has made that decision for you. Either way, not knowing what the future will bring can make your present pretty freaking terrifying.
You’re worried about where you will live, and whether you will end up broke and homeless after your divorce is over. You’re worried about your kids, and whether your divorce will ruin their lives or turn them against you. You are afraid that you will spend the rest of your life alone.
You are afraid. Period. Full stop.
What Fear Does to You
As uncomfortable as it is to be afraid, fear is a normal human emotion. It's largely responsible for our survival as a
species. (If our ancestors weren’t afraid of the saber-tooth tiger that was racing towards them, they would have all been eaten!)
As a matter-of-fact, helping us survive is exactly what fear is designed to do.
Yet, as life-saving as fear can be, if left unchecked, fear can also be life-debilitating.
When we’re afraid, our bodies react differently. Our brain releases stress hormones that spike our blood glucose levels, raise our heart rate, and raise our blood pressure. Our breathing gets quick and shallow. We go into a state of hyper-arousal.
While all of those reactions are appropriate when you’re facing an immediate physical threat, when you’re dealing with a longer-term emotional problem, your body’s normal fear reaction becomes much less helpful.
Living in a constant state of fear, or hyper-arousal, activates our body’s stress response. As a result, we experience headaches, stomach upset, high blood pressure, chest pain, insomnia, and a host of other negative symptoms. Living that way for an extended period of time can directly and negatively affect our health.
So, not only does stressing out over whether you should get a divorce or not cause you emotional turmoil, but it can also take a toll on your health.
No matter how you cut it, dealing with your fear – and overcoming it – is vital to your well-being.
The bigger question, of course, is: How do you do that? More specifically, how do you overcome your fear of divorce?
How to Deal With Your Fear of Divorce
It’s easy enough for the gurus (and your friends) to tell you that, “You just have to face your fears and move forward!” They’re not the ones whose lives and families are about to implode.
The truth is that there is no magic pill you can take that will turn you into a superhero, or make dealing with your divorce easy or fun. No matter what you do, your life is going to be shrouded in uncertainty and ugliness for some period of time.
That will feel awful.
But, living in a horrible marriage, while you're worried about (or thinking about) divorce 24/7, doesn’t exactly feel fabulous either.
If you find yourself caught between the terrible marriage you know and the terrifying divorce that you don’t, these tips can help.
10 Tips to Help You Deal With Your Fear of Divorce
1. Get the Facts.
Once you start to make the unknown known, it stops being so scary. Take the time to educate yourself about divorce. Learn about the various ways you can go through a divorce. Find out how the divorce process really works. Investigate your financial situation and learn what your finances will likely look like if you get a divorce..
While you may be afraid that learning about divorce will only make you more scared of it, the opposite is usually true. The more you demystify the divorce process, and the more you understand what you are facing, the more confident you will be. The same thing is true for your finances. Even if your financial situation isn't great, you can't start fixing it until you understand what the problem is.
2. Connect With Your Power.
Everyone has a source of power that they can draw on when times are tough. Some people get strength from their faith. Others are bolstered by their connection to their friends and family. Still others become empowered by keeping their eye on a better future, and by remembering the reasons why they wanted a divorce in the first place.
Whatever your source of power is, tap into that. If you don’t know what your source of power is, now is the time to find it. What do you do that makes you feel strong and confident? If you’ve never felt strong or confident, try imagining what might make you strong and confident. Get into therapy. Go to a Tony Robbins seminar. Get yourself a coach. Work on yourself. The stronger you feel, the more you will be able to manage your fears and put them behind you.
Deep breathing has been scientifically proven to affect the heart, brain, digestion and immune system. It helps you relax and brings more oxygen into your brain and body. That, in turn, helps you feel better and think more clearly. Both feeling better and thinking clearly are vital if you want to deal with your fear of divorce in a productive way.
Many different types of breathing exercises will help calm your body and your mind. Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong all have breathing exercises you can use to get control over your body and fight your fears. You can also use a simple, belly-breathing technique. Just close your eyes, place your hand on your belly, and focus on breathing so deeply into your belly that your hand moves outwards as your belly expands. Breathing into your belly for as little as a minute or two will automatically make you feel better, calmer, and more in control of yourself and your situation.
4. Get Out of Your Head and into Your Body.
Your physical body – how you feel – affects how you think and how you act. When you find yourself in a mental and emotional twist over what the future holds, getting physically active does more than just distract you. It can actually change your mood and help see your life very differently.
No matter how down, depressed, stressed out, or confused, you feel, make the time to move! Exercise. Eat healthy foods. Get enough sleep. It’s way easier to face your fear of divorce when you are feeling physically strong and healthy than it is when you’re exhausted and overwhelmed. So when you fear and doubt have you feeling sick to your stomach or totally stressed out - MOVE! The harder you work out, the more you breathe, and the more you get your blood flowing, the better you'll feel.
6. Clear YOUR MIND
Facing your fears takes mental strength, clarity, and energy. While it may be tempting to try to take the edge off your fears by having a few extra glasses of wine at dinner, or a mixed drink or three afterwards, medicating yourself into a stupor will not help you deal with your real problems!
The same thing is true for prescription medication and food. While the right prescription drugs can help you sleep and deal with debilitating depression or anxiety, if your medication leaves you tired and fuzzy, it may be time to visit your doctor and readjust your medication. And while eating yourself into a food coma may help you dull the pain of divorce for a while, ultimately it will drag down your body and clog up your mind. None of that will help you in the long run.
6. Get Yourself Into Action.
There's a reason people say, “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” When you spend too much time obsessing over all the things that could go wrong if you get a divorce, it’s easy to scare yourself so badly that you do absolutely nothing. Ironically, allowing yourself to be paralyzed with fear only keeps you locked in that fear longer.
Instead of spending your time catastrophizing about what might or could happen if you do or don’t get divorced, try getting yourself into action. Start educating yourself about divorce. Actually look at your personal finances. Get yourself into therapy. Go talk with a lawyer or a financial advisor. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve actually decided to divorce or not. Just doing something will often help you move through your fears.
7. Think of the Best Instead of the Worst.
Part of the reason that fear controls us is that it makes us focus on all of the negative things that could happen while minimizing the positive ones. What most people don’t realize, especially when fear of the unknown has them in a chokehold, is that they can choose what they focus on.
Instead of thinking of the 10,000,000 ways your life will suck while you are going through a divorce, spend time thinking of all the ways that your life could be awesome if you were finally able to live it on your terms. If you could create the life you wanted, any way that you wanted (except by forcing someone else - i.e. your spouse - to do what YOU wanted!) what would it look like? Focus on that.
8. Minimize Your Downside.
What’s your biggest fear about divorce? Is it that you will end up broke and homeless? Or, that you will be alone for the rest of your life? Or, that your kids will hate you for the rest of their lives? Whatever it is, admit it. Say the words: “If I get divorced I’m afraid that I’m going to end up being a crazy cat lady, living alone in a tent under a bridge, while my kids spend the rest of their lives telling their therapist how much they hate me.” Now start thinking about what you can do to make sure that whatever it is that you’re afraid of doesn’t happen.
Think you will be broke? Talk to a financial planner. Map out a solid financial plan. Wrap your head around the fact that you might have to go back to work, or get a higher-paying job. Worried about your kids? Talk to a child psychologist. Make time to do things with your kids NOW and strengthen your relationship with them. Obviously, doing these things won’t guarantee that the worst won’t happen. But seeing that you can take action to make it less likely that your worst fears will materialize, can help you get past them.
9. Join a Support Group.
Surrounding yourself with people who have walked the path you are about to walk on, and have come out the other side, can be both inspiring and empowering. Plus, by talking to others, you will probably find that, before they divorced, they had the same kinds of fears that you did.
Divorce support groups exist in all parts of the country. There are local divorce support groups and online support groups. Some support groups work with religious organizations. Others are completely secular. Some support groups are just for women. Other groups are open to men and women. If you look, you will find a divorce support group that is a good fit for you.
10. Get a Good Therapist or a Coach.
Helping people manage and work through their fears is what therapists do. Helping people decide whether getting a divorce makes sense for them is what divorce coaches do.
If you have been tied up in knots for months (or years!), trying to get up the courage to file for divorce, working with a good therapist can help you untie yourself and move forward. If you keep going back and forth in your head about whether you should or shouldn't get a divorce, working with a good divorce coach can help you get clear on what you really want so you can make a decision and move forward. Either way, working with a professional can help you get past your fears so you can start living your life!
Bonus Tip: Practice Gratitude
Being grateful when you're going through a divorce seems like an oxymoron. How can you be thankful when you're going through hell and everything in your life sucks?
The truth is, though, that EVERYTHING in your life probably doesn't suck. You're just not looking at the things that are going well. You're not looking at the fact that you're alive, had food to eat, and had a roof over your head last night. Maybe you forgot that your kids are healthy, your friends are rallying around you, or you have the full use of your body and your brain. You're not a quadripligec or in a coma.
All of those things seem so basic that we all take them for granted. But what if you didn't? What if you actually felt grateful for what you DID have instead of miserable about what you DON'T (or maybe might not) have?
Making that small shift in perspective can make a BIG difference in how you feel. What's more, you can't feel thankful and fearful at the same time. So, even if you can only get yourself into a grateful state for 20 minutes a day, that's 20 minutes you WON'T feel fearful. Do that. Build on that. Soon you'll find that you're not nearly as fearful as you once were.
Moving Past Your Fear of Divorce
Being afraid to divorce is a very real fear. Denying it, or pretending it doesn’t exist, won’t help you move past it.
While using these tips won’t instantly turn you into a fearless superhero, they can be an effective way for you to start to manage your fear of divorce. Hopefully, they will help you can move forward through this tough time, and create a better life for yourself and your kids.
* These stories are based on real people, but they are composites of several people’s stories. I have also tweaked and changed the facts in each story to protect everyone’s identity. Any resemblance you may see between these facts and your life is just a coincidence. Really.
Revised and updated on May 4, 2022.