Everyone who is going through (or has ever been through!) a divorce has their own unique divorce story.
Some stories are heartbreaking. Others are shocking. Still others are infuriating.
But some are different. Some are inspiring, empowering. Some are stories of growth and rebirth, instead of bitterness and anger.
What separates the empowering stories from the agonizing ones?
Most of us believe it’s luck, or fate, or destiny. In fairness, all of those things probably influence a divorce to some extent. But none of those things alone explains why some people go through horrific divorces and come out with stories that inspire us, while others go through seemingly ordinary divorces and become bitter for the rest of their lives.
So what really makes the difference between the painful divorce story and the inspiring one?
Fundamentally, it’s the story itself.
Let me explain.
A Story is Just a Story … Or Is It?
What we say affects how we feel and what we believe. How we feel affects our physical bodies, including our brains. Since our brains create our thoughts, in a very real sense, what we say determines both what we think and how we feel.
Most of us believe all of that is true … when it comes to what other people say to and about us.
For example, when someone is screaming at you, swearing at you, or calling you names, how do you feel?
Chances are your stomach is in knots. Your jaw is clenched, your heart rate is racing, and you are in full-on fight or flight mode.
You’re probably thinking about what a jerk that person is. Or you may be trying to figure out a way to calm the other person down, or get out of the situation that you’re in.
Your thoughts and your feelings are both reacting to the negative words the other person is saying to you.
What you may not realize, however, is that your body and your brain react just as much to what YOU are saying as they do to what other people are saying.
The Science Behind the Power of Words
In the 1990s, Japanese scientist Masaru Emoto conducted a series of experiments with water and words. He found that when he froze pure water, it formed beautiful ice crystals that he could see and photograph under a microscope.
Curious about the effect that words would have on the water, he placed the water into several different vials. Then he wrote the words Fool and Thank You on separate pieces of paper. He wrapped one of the pieces of paper around each vial.
What he discovered was that the water that had the words Thank You wrapped around it formed beautiful hexagonal crystals. The water that was covered with the word Fool, on the other hand, produced crystals that were fragmented and malformed.
Human beings are up to 60% water. So, just like the water crystal’s in Dr. Emoto’s experiment, we are affected – changed – by what is said to us.
What most of us don’t think about, though, is that NO ONE says more to us or about us then what we say to ourselves. And, when we talk to ourselves, we do it in stories.
Why Human Beings Tell Stories
As far as anthropologists can tell, human beings have been telling stories for as long as we’ve been on this planet. Story-telling exists in every culture that ever existed at any time.
But, what is a story?
Fundamentally, it’s a pattern of information. It’s a pattern that our brains recognize and use to create meaning. We use that meaning and those patterns to make sense of our world.
So, in a very real way, story-telling is an essential part of simply being human.
What’s more, as researchers discovered in a famous experiment in 1944, the impulse to tell stories in humans is so strong that we create stories even when they don’t exist.
In the 1944 experiment, researchers Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel showed subjects a short film. The film showed several geometric shapes moving on a screen.
Interestingly, the vast majority of the subjects who watched the film saw way more than random shapes moving on a screen. Instead, they saw characters (with emotions!). They observed the characters in conflict. They created a plot, and they even created a resolution to the story.
We all do the same thing in our own lives every single day.
What Stories Are You Telling Yourself About Your Divorce?
To make things a little more concrete here, let’s consider an example.
Let’s say you’re getting a divorce and your spouse drops the kids off late on a Sunday. What’s more, they’re totally wound up. Now you’re going to have to calm them down, get them bathed and put them to bed.
You’re also going to have to deal with them being crabby and exhausted tomorrow morning when they’re too tired to get up for school.
What story do you tell yourself about what happened?
If you tell yourself that your spouse dropped the kids off late on purpose just so that you would have to deal with them bouncing off the walls, you’re going to be really mad at your spouse.
The same thing will be true if you believe that your spouse was late simply because s/he lost track of time … again! If that’s the story you tell yourself, not only will you be mad that you have to deal with wound up kids, but you’re also going to be furious that your spouse never seems to be able to respect your time!
On the other hand, if you tell yourself how wonderful it is that your kids had a good time with your spouse, and you’re glad that they seem to have adjusted well to living in two houses, you’re going to have a very different emotional reaction.
All three of those stories involve exactly the same facts. But they’re very different stories. And each of them makes you feel very differently.
Without realizing it, then, the stories we tell ourselves create our emotions and our thoughts. In other words, our stories create our reality.
The Power of Story
In his book, The Power of Story: Rewrite Your Destiny in Business and in Life, Dr. Jim Loehr explains the way stories affect us.
As human beings, we continually tell ourselves stories — of success or failure; of power or victimhood; stories that endure for an hour, or a day, or an entire lifetime. We have stories about our work, our families and relationships, our health; about what we want and what we’re capable of achieving. Yet, while our stories profoundly affect how others see us and we see ourselves, too few of us even recognize that we’re telling stories, or what they are, or that we can change them — and, in turn, transform our very destinies.
Brené Brown echoes Dr. Loehr’s sentiment in her book Rising Strong. She notes that human beings are wired for story.
When we hear stories, our brains release powerful chemicals – cortisol and oxytocin. Those chemicals trigger our ability to connect, empathize, and make meaning of our world. In a biochemical sense then, stories make us human.
The challenge is to realize that the things we tell ourselves – about ourselves, about our kids, and about our exes – ARE stories.
That doesn’t mean they’re fake or made up.
It just means that, like every other human being on the planet, we take the information we get through our senses and we filter it through the lens of our own experience. Then we put that information into a story and we tell ourselves what it means.
We tell ourselves stories about every event that happens in our lives … including divorce. So, whether we choose to admit it or not, every divorcing (and divorced) person has a “divorce story.”
The question is: what does your divorce story mean? Perhaps more importantly, is your divorce story helping you or hurting you?
What Does Your Divorce Story Mean?
If the story you’re telling yourself about your divorce is that you’re getting screwed, the divorce system sucks, and that your life will never be the same again, I can guarantee you that you’re not feeling good about your divorce … or yourself!
On the other hand, if the story you’re telling yourself is that this divorce is the most painful experience of your life, but that you’ll get through it and be stronger in the end, you’re probably feeling very differently about your divorce. You may not be doing the happy dance, but at least you’re not bitter and broken either.
That’s the power of looking at your divorce as “a story.” You and you alone write your story. And you alone decide what your story means.
If you interpret your divorce story as meaning that you’re a failure, a loser, or a victim, you’re going to feel like garbage. When you feel like garbage, you’re not in a great headspace to make major life decisions – the kind you will have to make in your divorce all the time.
Even if your divorce is already over, feeling bad about it will keep you miserable and stuck. It will get in the way of your relationships, will affect your job performance, and will keep you from creating the life you really want.
On the other hand if you interpret your divorce as being the catalyst that helped you take control of your life, then you’re probably feeling pretty good right now. You may be proud of the courage it took for you to do the right thing even when it was really hard. You may be empowered by seeing all the things you never thought you could do, that you have now done.
The bottom line is that the divorce story you tell yourself, and the meaning that you give that story, will dramatically affect the way you go through your divorce and how you feel about your divorce afterwards.
Change your divorce story, change what it means to you, and you change your life.
The question, of course, is: How?
3 Tips For Changing Your Divorce Story
1. BE the Author of Your Story
An author creates his/her story. S/he controls who’s in the story, how the story develops, and how the story ends.
Having the courage to BE the author of your story gives you enormous power.
It also takes tremendous courage.
Understanding that you are creating your story makes you responsible for what you created.
Being responsible for the good stuff is easy. But when your divorce isn’t going in the direction you want, it’s hard to admit that somewhere along the line, you screwed up. It’s much more comfortable to see yourself as the victim.
You may see yourself as being the victim of your spouse’s bad behavior. Or you could think of yourself as the victim of the divorce system or of a crappy divorce lawyer. Or maybe you just think you’re the victim of circumstance.
Unfortunately, being a victim of anything robs you of control.
Victims are powerless. Victims stay miserable.
If you want to take back your power, you also need to take back your responsibility. While that may be scary, and it definitely won’t feel good when things are going badly, it’s the ONLY way to turn things around.
Being the author of your own divorce story is the only way you can ever change what feels bad now into something that feels good in the end.
2. Separate Fact from Fiction
Before you can begin changing your divorce story, you have to know the truth about your story. That means you have to separate fact from fiction. That starts by forcing yourself to take a long hard look at what’re really true.
Many times what we THINK is true turns out to only be what we BELIEVE is true. But the evidence and the data doesn’t really support our beliefs.
For example, a lot of people tell themselves all kinds of crazy stories about what their divorce will do to their kids.
They tell themselves that getting divorced will ruin their children’s childhood. They convince themselves that their divorce will turn their kids into delinquents or drug addicts.
But is that really true?
Scientifically speaking, no.
Research shows that even though divorce affects children, most kids adjust to their new family situation pretty quickly. So, while your divorce will affect your kids, it’s not likely to destroy your kids.
Of course, if you fight your way through your divorce as if your spouse was evil incarnate, your kids will suffer. Research has consistently shown that conflict hurts kids. (By the way, that’s true regardless of whether you and your spouse get a divorce or not!)
Knowing the facts – i.e. that conflict, not necessarily divorce, is the problem — gives you power. It puts the source of your kids’ happiness back in your hands.
If you know that the more you and your spouse fight, the more damage you’ll do to your kids, you can dial down the conflict. You can try to divorce amicably. That may not be easy, but you can do it.
Separating fact from fiction, then, is an important step in changing, not only your divorce story, but everything about your divorce as well.
3. Decide How You Want Your Story to End
Authors decide how they want their stories to end.
While you may not believe that you have the ability to control how your divorce ends, if you examine that belief closely you will soon see that it’s just a belief.
It’s not a fact. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be a fact.
Sure, you’re never going to be 100% in control of what happens in your divorce. There are way too many players involved to even think you can be in complete control.
But just because you’re not in total control of the outcome, that doesn’t mean you can’t affect the outcome.
If you are willing to take ownership of your divorce you WILL affect the course of your divorce in a way that you will never be able to do if you just sit on the sidelines, let your attorney run the show, and hope for the best. But everything starts with you.
If you believe that nothing you can do will affect the outcome of your divorce, you won’t do anything. You won’t even try to direct your divorce toward the ending that you want.
When you do nothing, nothing happens.
So you end up with a crappy outcome.
If, on the other hand, you decide how you want your divorce story to end, and you make goals that matter to you, you give yourself a much better chance of achieving those goals.
As Steven Covey says, you have to start with the end in mind.
The Benefits of Changing Your Divorce Story
When you change your story – the things you tell yourself about your divorce – you change how you feel about your divorce. That, in turn, changes how you think about your divorce.
When how you think and how you feel about your divorce changes, you make different decisions in your divorce. That changes your outcome.
Will changing your divorce story guarantee that your divorce will end exactly as you want it to end?
Of course not.
But it just may get you closer to the happy ending that you want in your life.