What I wish someone had told me about getting divorced
Hindsight is 20/20
While the great lockdown of 2020 forced us indoors and stole our freedom, Ishita Singh* found hers. “People have gone on and on about how it was the worst thing to happen to them and their marriages, but it was during the lockdown that I realised how important it was to live life, and not compromise.” After 10 years of marriage, preceded by a four-year courtship, Singh decided to file for divorce. Those looking for salacious details of infidelity and other betrayals would have been disappointed. According to the mother of one, they had just grown apart.
What came next was, well… confusing. Friends couldn’t understand her decision, so they kept their distance. Her ex-husband came to her “with a business proposal, and asked if I was open to us working together.” And contrary to a dramatic excision, he continues to be close to Singh’s family, especially her mother.
Divorces in India have doubled in the past decade, according to a report by the United Nations, but it’s a life experience we remain woefully underprepared for.
“I don’t know a single person in my life who has openly shared or even mentioned that they’ve had a discussion about “What if things don’t work out?” with their family, before marriage,” says Garima Nagpal, who filed for divorce earlier this year. In fact, anyone mentioning the possibility of a prospective marriage not working out in the future is made to shut up – “Shubh shubh bolo.”
Lawyers and financial advisors may be able to guide you through the splitting of assets, liabilities and, in some cases, custody battles, but what about the parts that aren’t captured on paper? Which, according to psychologists, can rival the stages of grief experienced when a loved one passes away.
“Shock, denial, numbness, anger, guilt, pain, and depression are emotions that you are likely to feel, in no particular order,” explains psychologist Ankita Gandhi.
While every couple’s experience is unique, there are some commonalities that can be identified. And they offer the kind of lessons that only come with hindsight. The women and experts we spoke to shared bravely their experiences, in order to smoothen the ride for others.
As Nagpal says, “We do better when we know better.”
What no one prepares you for when getting divorced
You might fall in love with someone else almost immediately
Exiting a marriage leaves behind a void, which we subconsciously try to fill. “As soon as you file for divorce, there is a strong possibility of falling for another man. But don’t act on impulse or attach any meaning to these feelings,” says Akriti Dayal*. The newfound freedom, coupled with the sense of loss, might push you towards a new relationship, which she cautions against.
According to dating coach Lori Gorshow, there’s a high chance that the new relationship will have many of the same problems as the marriage. “We choose our partners based on our level of comfort and ease. The problem arises when we realize that the same issues, concerns and behaviours of our ex are eerily similar to that of our new partner.”
Use this time to pay attention to yourself, and focus on your needs and wants. Once you feel like you’ve dealt with the emotional trauma of going through a divorce, and your feelings for a person are not a consequence of moving on from a relationship, you’re ready to re-enter the dating pool.
The people closest to you might not show up
When Simgh filed for divorce, she looked for support from people she relied on the most. But most friends couldn’t understand. They’d remind her that “he’s such a nice guy” and ask her to give her marriage another shot.
Your friends and family might be so invested in your marriage, that they feel like staying in it is the best thing for you. When all you need is someone to nod along, and back you up.
“You might expect a village to show up in your support, but in reality, it really is a handful of people who give you the kind of support you need when getting divorced,” explains Neha Vyas, who experienced it firsthand.
According to psychotherapist Rhea Kishnani, identifying people who give you adequate psychosocial support is imperative – “You can’t do it all on your own, you need people to fall back on, and if that’s not working, then seek professional help. Just like a dentists can’t do his or her own root canal, you can’t be your own therapist.”
Your partner might ignore boundaries
Singh says her husband was expecting them to be a divorced couple straight out of the movies. “He actually came to me with a business proposal, and asked me if I was open to us working together.”
She refused, and understandably so. “I decided to spell it out for him. It was impossible for us to be best friends or even close friends for that matter.”
“Give yourself time to process your emotions, and then create a structure, to know what is okay, and what is not okay,” suggests Kishnani, when talking about healthy boundary setting. Ask yourself questions like ‘What did this marriage mean to me?’ ‘What do I feel in the present moment?’ ‘What is going to protect and safeguard me in the future?’
This means regulating your own behaviour too.
In Singh’s case, her mantra was “Don’t engage in things that aren’t in your control.”
Her mother and ex-husband have a great relationship, and are still close. Simgh was initially uncomfortable, but soon realised that this was between them, and she could remove herself from the situation.
Common friends also fall under this umbrella. If staying friends with your ex’s friends is making you uncomfortable, draw a boundary. Similarly, if you need to ask your friends to stop including your ex in plans, spell it out for them.
Go furniture shopping
“I decided not to take anything from my old home because it would be a constant reminder of something that was. I wanted my new space to be hopeful,” says Vyas. “My ex-husband didn’t like seeing books around the house, so I would store them in a carton. Just the act of buying a bookshelf and displaying them in my home felt liberating.”
According to environmental psychologist Susan Clayton, your home plays a role in defining who you are, and acts as a tool of self-expression.
Gandhi believes this is a way to dissociate with the past, and move away from negativity. “It makes letting go, and healing, easier,” she explains.
Expect a lot of drunk phone calls
“My friend who recently filed for divorce said that this was one of the most helpful pieces of advice she received,” says a colleague.
It’s not just about being prepared to receive drunken confessions of love, after your ex has had one drink too many, but the flood of emotions that follows. “Should we reconsider the divorce?”, “Do I still love him?”, “Maybe he wants to give it another shot?”.
But when we’re met with brutal negotiations the very next day at the lawyer’s office, and your ex behaving colder than Ladakh in December, you’ll be conflicted to say the least.
Explains Gandhi, “You’ve been intimate with this person, and shared a large chunk of your life with them. These relapses mean that you want to go back to some sense of normalcy, which is completely natural when you are feeling distressed. But must not be misconstrued for love.”
She encourages people to remind themselves why they filed for divorce in the first place. If the reasons still hold true, you’ll know these feelings are just coping mechanisms.
People will try to define your narrative for you
“As long as you are sure, what other people think does not matter,” was the common response we received from all the women we spoke to.
You can choose who you explain yourself to, and the rest of the world will just have to live with not knowing what happened.
“How I wish that divorces were looked at as empowering decisions,” says Nagpal, but unfortunately, more often than not, that’s not the case. And you are more likely to be met with hordes of insensitive, and even absurd pieces of advice.
Singh once had a relative compare her marriage to a spoilt car – “When a car gets spoilt, we don’t throw it away, do we? We work towards fixing it.” Instead of justifying her actions, she decided to go along with the approach and retorted, “Well, after you’ve tried to repair it multiple times, you do get rid of it.”
As she points out, “No one else knows what’s good for your marriage other than you. So do what you have to, and cut off the people who might come in the way. It’s okay to be selfish.”
*Name changed to protect privacy