September 25

How to Let Go When You Want to Hang On: 7 Tips for Moving Forward

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coping with divorce, divorce emotions, divorce recovery


Beautiful woman lookin up from the bottom of a stairway, signifying how to let go.

Like most people, you really believed your marriage was going to be forever. You thought you would beat the odds. But you didn’t. It’s over. You know it in your head. But your heart just can’t seem to adjust. No matter what you do, you can’t figure out how to let go.

Letting Go in Divorce is HARD!

When your marriage ends, so does your intimate relationship with your spouse. That’s heartbreaking. But in divorce you lose so much more than just your spouse.

When you get divorced, you lose your partner, your lover, and sometimes your best friend. You lose at least half of your net worth, maybe your financial security, possibly your home, and probably your lifestyle. You lose a big chunk of time with your kids. Most likely, you also lose a bunch of your friends.

More than any of that, when you get a divorce you also lose your identity. You are no longer a married person. You are no longer somebody’s husband or wife. Your role and your future become instantly fuzzy.

As if all of that weren’t enough, when you get a divorce you probably lose one of your biggest life dreams, too. Like most people in our society you probably dreamed of living “happily ever after” with your spouse.

When you get a divorce, your happily ever after ends.

Black and white 1920s woman who can't let go staring at torn picture of her man.

Why is Letting Go So Hard?

The other reason that letting go after divorce is so incredibly hard is that ending a marriage stirs up a tsunami of negative emotions!

It goes without saying that you’re sad and upset that your marriage is over. But you also may be angry at your spouse for treating you the way s/he did. You may be hurt by your spouse’s cheating or embarrassed by some of his/her bad behavior.

You also probably feel like a failure. After all, you couldn’t make your marriage work. So you must be a failure, right? (WRONG! Being divorced does NOT mean you’re a failure!)

As if all of that wasn’t enough, you also probably feel a lot of blame, shame, and sorrow. You blame yourself for not trying harder. You shame yourself for not being good enough. And, you feel sorry for yourself and your kids for not having the perfect family.

With all of those heavy emotions dragging you down, it’s no wonder that you can’t figure out how to let go!

Giant hand with woman hanging on to a finger. She doesn't know how to let go.

Taking Stock of Where You’re At

You can’t let go of your past until you know where you’re at right now.

If your spouse just told you that s/he wanted a divorce last week, it’s unrealistic to expect yourself to be ready to let go and move on today. That’s especially true if you were married for a long time.

You can’t even start to get over your ex until you give yourself the time to properly grieve the loss of your marriage.

What’s more, grief doesn’t follow a rigid timeline. Different people process grief differently. Just because someone you know was able to “get over” his/her divorce in just a few months does not mean that you can do the same.

That having been said, though, you can take grief too far.  If your divorce has been over for years and you’re still pining away after your ex (or you’re still spitting mad or totally devastated) that’s not healthy!

The bottom line is that “letting go” takes time. Trying to rush through the process just so that you don’t feel the pain of where you’re at right now, NEVER works. It actually makes letting go much harder.

Cute, small girl showing how to let go of a balloon.

Motivating Yourself to Let Go

Assuming you’re ready to let go, the first step in learning how to let go after divorce is to understand what’s holding you back in the first place.

Obviously, you know that you need to let go of your ex. (And, just in case you don’t, everyone in the world will remind you that you do!)

You realize that you can’t move on with your life until you let go of your past. You also realize that hanging on to your spouse after you’ve been divorced for years is wildly unhealthy.

The last thing you want is to be that person who still has their wedding pictures hanging in the bedroom years after their divorce!

At the same time, knowing that you should let go is dramatically different from actually being able to let go.

If you find yourself struggling to let go of your ex, try asking yourself these questions:

Questions to Ask Yourself When You Want to Let Go, But Can’t

If it is, great! Chances are, though, if you’re still obsessing over your ex long after your divorce is over, your life isn’t nearly as great as it could be.  

1. Is your life where you want it to be right now?

Think about how your life would change if you let go of your grief, sadness, and anger.  What is hanging on to your ex costing you?

Are you happy?

2. What are you gaining by holding on to the past?

No matter how painful hanging on is, if you can’t let go, you’re getting some benefit from hanging on. I know that may be hard to believe. But if you weren’t getting some emotional benefit from holding on, you wouldn’t cling to the past like a passenger on the Titanic clinging to a lifeboat.

Maybe hanging on makes you feel secure. Maybe it makes you feel like your ex may still come back (… in spite of all evidence to the contrary!). Or, maybe hanging on gives you a story to tell.   

Once you understand what you’re getting by holding on, you will also understand better what you need to do to let go.

3. What will you gain if you let go?

There’s an old proverb that says you can’t fill a cup that’s already full. Hanging on to the past gives you no room to create something new and beautiful in the future.

What could you have in your life if you were willing to let go of your ex? Would you start a new life? Find a new love? Get a better job?

If even thinking about those things terrifies you, are you surprised that you don’t want to let go?

Once you understand your reasons for holding on, you’re ready to tackle step #2: Learning how to let go.

7 Tips for How to Let Go

Sad woman sitting against a brick wall.

1. Grieve your loss.

You can’t let go of feelings you still haven’t allowed yourself to feel. There is no short cut.

You’ve got to let yourself be sad, mad, disappointed, and everything else that you feel. The longer you stuff those feelings down and pretend they don’t exist, the longer they will stay with you. Like it or not, the only way out is through.

2. See a therapist.

If you want to work through your feelings more efficiently, work with a therapist. S/he can help guide you through your pain and problems. A good therapist can also help you understand the role that you played in the demise of your marriage and forgive yourself.

Taking responsibility for your actions and forgiving yourself (and your spouse) for what happened in the past is an essential step in working through your feelings so you can move on to a better future.

3. Project where you want to be in 3 – 5 years.

According to Sasha Von Varga, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in psychotherapy, mediation and Collaborative Divorce, creating a vision of the future can help you let go of the past.

Ask yourself, what would have to change in order for you to be able to get to where you want to be?  (HINT: Make sure that whatever has to change is something under your control. Trying to go backward in time and un-do your divorce, or change your ex, is not going to work.)

4. Make an “Expectation Box.”

If you’re still angry or upset about your divorce, chances are those feelings are coming from your unmet expectations.  Maybe you expected your spouse to treat you differently. Or maybe you think s/he “should” have tried harder. Hanging on to those unmet expectations is a big part of the reason why you can’t let go and move on.  

To deal with your unmet expectations, visualize yourself placing those expectations in a beautiful box in your mind.  Close the lid. Know that you can examine those expectations whenever you want to see if they still serve you.  Know, too, that you can consciously change those expectations, or let them go, whenever you’re ready. There is no pressure. Your unmet expectations will be in your “box” until you let them go.

Woman with Pinnochio nose. Be Honest

5. Be Honest With Yourself.

If you’re torturing yourself about letting go of your marriage because it “wasn’t that bad,” STOP! Spend an afternoon remembering what your relationship was really like.  It wasn’t perfect.

Remember the hard times, and the bad times. If you were blindsided by divorce because you thought your marriage was fine, but your spouse didn’t, be honest about that! Clearly, your marriage wasn’t what you thought it was. Maybe your spouse wasn’t the person you thought s/he was. Do your best to take off the rose-colored glasses and see your marriage for what it was.

6. Clean Your Space.

If your home is filled with mementos from your marriage, get rid of them! You don’t have to throw them out. Just put them away so that you don’t have to see them all the time. (If your kids want to keep pictures of their other parent around, let them keep them in their room.)

Once you’re done, buy yourself a few new things. Re-arrange the furniture. Paint the walls. Re-claim your space so that it reflects your new life.

7. Visualize Life on Your Terms.

If you could create whatever life you wanted (without your ex!), what would it look like? See that. Feel that. Let yourself dream.

If you can’t imagine what kind of life you want, think about the life you had before you were married. Think about the things you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done yet. Maybe you want to travel. Maybe you’ve always wanted to write a book or paint a mural. Start working on those things. Even if you only take one small step forward, that’s okay. Baby steps count.

Be Patient

Hand letting go of a stone into water.

All of these tips can help you gradually let go of your pain and your past. But, they’re not magic.

It’s not as if you can say to yourself, “Okay. Now I’m going to grieve the loss of my marriage. Then I’ll be done. Forever.” Human beings just don’t operate that way!

No matter what you do, or how hard you try, you’re going to go back and forth with yourself. Some days you’ll feel better. Other days, you’ll feel like all you’ve been doing is spitting in the wind.

Don’t give up.

You didn’t get to where you are today in just one day. You’re not going to get to where you want to go in just one day either.

If you mess up, and you find yourself balling your eyes out over some romantic comedy you knew you shouldn’t have watched, it’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up. Let yourself cry.

Just don’t let yourself do the same thing tomorrow.

Letting go is a process. It takes time. But you can do it. Your heart will heal. You will go on. When you do, you will open yourself up to loving and finding love again.

______

Letting go isn’t the only thing you have to do after divorce. Click the button below to get your FREE Post-Divorce Checklist and discover the 21 things you need to do after your divorce is final!

Click Here to get your FREE Post-Divorce Checklist NOW!

This post was originally published on October 5, 2017, and updated on September 25, 2019.

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  • After two long years of mediation, our divorce was finalized two weeks ago. I couldn’t wait for it to be “over” but now I find myself practically back to square one with my emotions. I don’t want him back, but now that it’s official, I feel like I’m still clinging to one more thread that I know I need to cut, but can’t or I might float away into oblivion. What will become of me then? Because now it’s real. Now I really am on my own. Now he can marry his mistress. Now I really am financially insecure and second-guessing our agreement. This article was very timely for me and I plan to use all of this advice to finally break free. I’m terrified, but I know it’s what has to be done. Thank you for writing this exactly when I needed it!

    • You’re not alone! So many people think that as soon as their divorce is over, their lives will be perfect! But, life doesn’t always work that way!

      Everything worthwhile takes time.

      Being alone, especially if you haven’t been alone for a long time, can be terrifying! But, you’ve made it this far. You will make it past your fears and on to a better life. Just don’t give up!

      Karen

  • Hi Karen
    I keep reading your material as I find certain articles so very helpful such as this current one about letting go. Divorce is such a difficult process for those people who are compassionate and caring yet want a better life for themselves and greater intimacy that cannot be obtained in a current marriage. It is a very difficult journey to say the least. It challenges ones courage and values. Personally I have been in therapy with a great life coach for over a year and to go down this road without that support would have extended my confusion and pain by years if not decades. Reading articles such as yours helps a lot. Men quietly suffer so much in divorce. Your wisdom and experience combined with your clear writing and attention to subject matter helps tremendously. Thank you.

  • Our marriage was long over and we only shared living space as roommates. We never even ate together or shared social activities. There was nothing to get over as regards a relationship of any sort.
    The hardest part has been dropping out of the middle class. I went from a nice house in the suburbs to renting a room in the inner city. Meanwhile, I pay 100% of my ex’s expenses to live in a luxury two- bedroom with her cats in a fancier suburb than we lived in while married. I was forced into chapter 7 bankruptcy and can’t have credit cards for 7 years.

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