A reader of my weekly column on Meridian recently commented asking for “an article regarding the men/women that are left behind after many years of marriage. A stage that many of us have never gone [through] before, of being alone.” It’s a good question, and this article is the response.
For me, the loneliness began before the formal separation as I watched my former wife disconnect and disengage. We lived in the same house, on different floors, for about 18 months. It created a toxic atmosphere that I found depleting both emotionally and physically. After I moved out of our home, it occurred to me that I had never really lived alone before. I grew up in a family. When I went away to college, I always had roommates except for a very brief period at the end of my freshman year. Then I went on a mission where I always had a companion. After my mission, I always either lived with my parents or roommates until I got married. I had a brief, unofficial, separation from my first wife about three years into our marriage that lasted for two months–and those months were very hard on me. We had another unofficial separation for a couple of months about seven years into marriage and, again, I was deeply depressed. By the time my first wife and I separated for the last time, I had only lived alone for about 5 months of the past four decades.
I wasn’t used to living alone and I hated it. When you are used to living in a home full of people and activity, the silence is sometimes deafening. Sometimes I would just turn on the TV to create background noise when I wasn’t even watching it. I know how lonely many of you are. It is popular in the singles community to say, “you have to get used to being alone and loving yourself before you are ready to love someone else.” There is a point to that, and I sometimes coach on it because the most important thing you can bring to a new marriage is a happy self. There are no happy or unhappy marriages—only happy or unhappy people. Looking for a marriage to make you happy when you are miserable is usually a fool’s errand. But even the most well-adjusted single person is not living his or her optimal life. Let’s be very honest about this.
As God Himself said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him” (Genesis 2:18). You can talk until you are blue in the face about how you don’t need a partner, your kids are all the company you need, you are fine on your own or whatever. But you cannot break the truth. You can only break yourself against it. And the truth is that we are created and designed to live together with a partner. Monogamous marriage is the norm in virtually every country in the world at almost every period of history. So, teaching people to be happy being alone has its place. But being happy alone is not the ultimate answer either. If you aren’t married, it is natural to feel lonely–and I’m not trying to cure normal.
More than half the adults of our faith are single now. That doesn’t mean that half of the marriages will eventually end in divorce. It means that, right now, one half of the adult population of the church is divorced, widowed, or not yet married—not even accounting for those who will divorce in the future. If you have been “left behind,” as my reader put it, you are probably facing the most lonely and fearful time of your life. The good news is, there is a huge, albeit silent, majority of Latter-day Saints that need friendship and support just as much as you do.
I have a few suggestions as you begin this journey:
1. Create a support system.
If you have been through an unwanted divorce, you almost certainly know the thing Cathy and I call “the ache.” It is an actual deep, hollow ache in the abdomen or the chest. My former wife used to call it feeling, “sick at heart.” You are experiencing this feeling because you are empty and afraid. The best way to be relieved of this pain is to connect with other people in a meaningful way.
I cannot emphasize the importance of connection enough. During my first marriage, I kind of let go of all my friendships and focused only on my wife and children. I didn’t socialize beyond my family very much and I thought my family was all I needed. So, when my wife checked out, all I had was the kids. I spent a lot of time with them. But after we formally separated, I only had them for a limited amount of time at first. I should also mention that your kids should not be your support system. You should be their support system. In most cases, they are going through a very traumatic time too, and they need you to be strong for them. They do not need to be feeling sorry for you and hearing adult conversation they are not yet equipped for. You can’t give out of an empty bucket, so you need the love and support of other adults who care about you. Don’t neglect your own happiness with the excuse that, “I am just focusing on my kids.”
I broadened my circle of friends to include a cousin who had been divorced several years earlier, several former mission companions—one of which was divorced, former college roommates and friends, and even a number of friends from my high school years. I was wise enough to know that I would wear any one person out with my story, and I cultivated a broad circle of friends. I will tell you that my faith and my friends were the two things that sustained me more than anything else through a period of major depression and loneliness.
You may feel bashful about reaching out to old friends who you haven’t talked to in decades. Do it anyway. The comfort of old friends is one of my greatest discoveries in life. Not a single one complained that I hadn’t contacted them in years and now I was only contacting them when I was needy. They just loved me. Virtually every old friend I contacted welcomed me back into their lives with open arms.
It is also important for singles to be together, and you can learn a lot from those of us who have been down the road you are now traveling. One of my former dating partners likes to describe those of us who have been divorced longer as the “brain trust” for those more freshly divorced. So, join singles groups like our Love in Later Years group on Facebook and make new friends. If you like hiking, find a singles hiking group and make more friends. Whatever you enjoy doing, find a singles group that is doing it and join up.
I know people are busy and aren’t always available. I know it is scary at first to start reaching out to other people for emotional support. I also know that no group of friends will ever replace a spouse. But a great circle of friends is a whole lot better than nothing and will help you remedy the empty, afraid, and weak feeling that is inevitable when you are isolated.
It takes time to develop friendships. That is one reason I suggest reaching out to old friends. With them, it just sometimes feels like no time has passed between you. They know you in a way your new friends don’t. However, you also need the support of other singles and creating that kind of support system takes time—which is a good reason to start right away.
2. Radical acceptance is a key to healing.
Radical acceptance means accepting your situation for what it is–without trying to explain it away. There may be things you can do to make changes–such as proactively creating a support system. But there is a lot you do not have control over too. Guys, for about 95% of you, your wife is not coming back–ever. Say goodbye and move on. Accept the fact that she has made her choice and make healthy choices of your own. It might not be fair. You may think she chose something wrong. But you will be happier when you stop playing that parlor game of asking yourself what you would do if she came back and asked for another chance. She’s not going to. So don’t torture yourself and waste emotional energy with questions to which there are no good answers.
If you are financially broke as a result of your divorce, accept the reality of your situation. For both men and women, the long-term solution to your problem is not in getting more child support or alimony. It is in gaining some economic value of your own. (I have seen severe economic hardship hit both men and women hard during divorce. I am personally still recovering.)
Accepting where you are does not mean that you resign yourself to being single and broke forever. It does mean accepting the fact that you are single and broke now, that your former spouse is not coming back, and that your future happiness is largely up to you. It is no good saying things like “I don’t want my kids to suffer because my marriage didn’t work out” as you run your credit cards up to the limit. That is not good for you or your kids.
It is also not fruitful to keep repeating thoughts that your life was not supposed to turn out this way and that you didn’t get married to get divorced. Of course, it was supposed to turn out this way. Do you know why? Because it did. Radical acceptance means to accept that things are the way they are and stop lamenting the things you can’t change. When you do this, you can begin to focus on the things you CAN change–which is empowering. Ultimately, you will start seeing your life for its possibilities rather than its disappointments.
3. Start creating your own identity.
It is amazing how many little things we just give up when we get married. When my first wife and I separated, I hung fake zebra and lion heads on my bedroom wall. I got a new down comforter and covered it with a giraffe print duvet. I added some other African decor. I started collecting an eclectic set of dishes and kitchenware from the dollar store. Why did I do these things? Well, my former wife would never have allowed either of them. So, I took a step out on my own and decided to start creating my own identity. I eventually tired of the African theme in my room and redecorated. However, isn’t it curious that Cathy and I took our pre-honeymoon and got officially engaged on a safari in Africa. It almost feels like that bedroom with all its African decor was a giant vision board.
I am not necessarily suggesting an eclectic collection of dishes or that you do your room up African. I am suggesting that you do a few things you want to do to begin to reclaim your own identity after a lengthy marriage. That can be anything from taking up new hobbies (or old ones you had given up) to redecorating your living space. Use your imagination and have fun with it.
4. Do fun activities.
If your kids are grown or when they are with your former spouse, get out and be social and do fun things. Sitting home stewing about how unfair your divorce was is not good for anyone. Rediscover how much fun there is to be had in life. If theater is your thing, try out for a community play. If you love the outdoors, go camping and hiking. Is there something you have always wanted to try? Have you always wanted to learn to play the guitar? Go for it! There is no one in your life to tell you no, except yourself.
5. Undertake a spiritual and personal development journey.
Get good books like Intentional Courtship and other books that encourage you to live a more intentional life, find meaning in the things you do, and do the things you find meaning in. Spend some time in the scriptures and in prayer. Sometimes when my divorce was fresh, I would close the door to my private room and put on hymns and just sing along. That would often give me a momentary respite for the deep, hollow ache I felt inside.
One of the biggest things that may be keeping you sad and stuck is that you believe your life has no purpose or meaning now that it does not fit into the “ideal” you once embraced. Again, radical acceptance can shorten the period of your grief. Your journey involves growing and finding meaning in your life–imperfect as it may seem. This experience can make you bitter or better. Let it make you better by making you wiser.
Cathy and I were both very intentional about personal development during our mid-single years. That drew us together and created connection. Is it a surprise to you that we wrote a book together and created an organization to help mid-singles with personal development? One of the biggest tragedies of marriage in our modern world is that people get married and stop growing. If that sounds like you, order Intentional Courtship and start figuring out how to find inner peace. I promise, it will pay huge dividends in your ability to live a more intentional life, develop more intentional relationships, and make more conscious decisions that lend themselves to your happiness. We give a number of good book recommendations within Intentional Courtship also.
6. Face your finances.
Divorce is a financial disaster for most people. I was so overwhelmed by this that I couldn’t even open my mail. If you are in this situation of financial chaos and overwhelm, you don’t have to solve it all at once. In fact, you probably can’t. But the first step toward making it better is to assert some control over it. That means figuring out what debts and bills you have. Once you have this information, you can start creating a bigger shovel with which to dig yourself out of the problem. That may mean going back to school or getting a trade that pays better than you can earn right now. Every situation is different. However, if you are experiencing financial problems, the place to begin is in organizing it and resolving to improve your situation day by day and decision by decision. Trust me, even though it feels overwhelming, once you get organized you are going to feel a lot better, even if the picture it paints is not very pretty.
I am not suggesting you should run out and get married or immediately replace your spouse with a serious girlfriend or boyfriend. You need some time to assess the unhealthy dynamics of your past relationship and strive to live a more intentional life going forward. If you are still in that emotional space of blaming your former spouse, you are not ready for a serious relationship. You will just find someone else to blame.
So, at first, just date for fun. Let your partners know that you are recently divorced and still getting your life together, and you are taking things slow in dating. Most mid-singles understand this. I had a few tell me they did not want to date someone who was not ready for marriage, and that was probably just as well. But not being ready for marriage doesn’t mean you can’t go out with an attractive member of the opposite sex, have enriching conversation and laughs, and dream a little. If nothing else, it is a little bit motivating to be more ready and more healed when you meet someone great.
Cathy and I have compassion for everyone who finds themselves newly single and feeling lost. That is why we wrote Intentional Courtship and started LILY. These suggestions include some hard-won wisdom about where to start. However, the journey is still mostly up to you. Will you take it from here and implement it? Will you read good books and do fun activities and alter your thinking and face your finances and make friends? The choice is yours.
About the Author
Jeff Teichert and his wife Cathy Butler Teichert are the founders of “Love in Later Years,” which ministers to Latter-day Saint mid-singles seeking peace, healing, and more joyful relationships; and the authors of the Amazon bestseller Intentional Courtship: A Mid-Singles Guide to Peace, Progress and Pairing Up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jeff and Cathy each spent nearly a decade in the mid-singles community and draw on this experience to provide counsel and hope to mid-singles and later married couples. Jeff and Cathy are both certified life coaches and have university degrees in Family Science. They are the parents of a blended family that includes four handsome sons and one lovely daughter-in-law.
Purchase Jeff & Cathy’s book at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09KMXXJN7?ref_=pe_3052080_276849420
You can connect with Jeff & Cathy at: