My wife divorced me last year after I worked hard for a few years trying to fix some serious mistakes I made in our marriage. I didn’t want her to divorce me, so I’m not sure how to move on when I wasn’t really given a choice. How do I move forward when I worked so hard for the last few years trying to fix things, but they only got worse? The reason I’m asking is because I’ve met an amazing woman and we have a good relationship. I don’t want my past to blow it up, but I can’t get my ex-wife and my family out of my head.
I can hear both devastation and hope in your question. You worked hard to hold your marriage together even though it ultimately ended. Now, you’re hopeful but nervous about the future. You’re living in a world of opposites right now, which can feel disorienting. If you want to heal from the loss of your marriage while embracing this new reality, you’ll need to learn how to make peace with these conflicting feelings.
Sitting with opposing emotions is nothing new for you. Since you have children, then you already know what it’s like to experience conflicting emotions. For example, think about when your first child was born. Like all new parents, you were feeling a mix of conflicting emotions such as fear, excitement, anxiety, insecurity, relief, joy, and love. In fact, that mix of emotions doesn’t entirely disappear as our children grow up and experience different stages of life. Parenting is a recipe full of opposing emotions.
Now, I recognize that what you’re currently experiencing is more emotionally complex than welcoming your first child. You’re coping with deep feelings of regret, resentment, and grief mixed with feelings of hope, joy, and anticipation. Add in some fear about the unknown and you’ve got a lot of emotions to manage. The good news is that none of these emotions can hurt you. They’re just emotions that will come and go at different levels of intensity. However, your reaction to them could create problems, so this is where it’s important to make sure you don’t respond in unhealthy ways.
The first thing you can do to make peace with these conflicting feelings is to allow yourself to feel all of them. Our suffering happens when we try to stop feeling our emotions. We distract, numb, blame, isolate, and do countless other things to avoid feeling emotions that can’t actually hurt us. Allow yourself to feel all of the emotions I listed above. When you feel sad and miss your ex-wife, allow yourself to feel sad. When you are excited to be with this new woman, allow yourself to feel excited. You might even feel those emotions all at the same time. It’s perfectly okay to allow opposing emotions to flow in and out. They will keep moving if you let them. If you try and shut them down, then that’s when the trouble begins.
The next thing you want to do is listen to what your emotions are telling you and take action. If you continue to feel guilty that you’re not spending more time with your children, then find ways to be more involved in their lives. If you keep feeling angry at your ex-wife, take some time to talk with someone or write out your thoughts so you can understand what still keeps you bound to her. There may be some feedback there about things you need to do so you can keep moving forward. Our emotions are a guide for our behaviors, so blocking them only hurts us when we’re trying to figure out where to go. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk with someone who can help you make sense of the things you’re feeling and what responses could be helpful.
Please recognize that your efforts to become a better man aren’t wasted even though you weren’t able to stay married. If you were making healthy changes in your life, then you, your children, and your new relationship will benefit from these important shifts. You identified areas that needed improvement, you worked hard to make changes hoping to salvage your marriage, and now it’s time to accept the loss and continue working hard to improve yourself. If you only made these changes to win back your ex-wife and feel bitter that it didn’t win her back, then you need to evaluate your true motives and decide what kind of man you want to be going forward.
These conflicting emotions aren’t going away with a new relationship. If anything, they’ll increase for a while as you experience the contrasting feelings of joy and sorrow. This will help you grow and mature as you allow yourself space for these emotions. You’ll be a better partner to this new woman and a better dad to your kids. Life is full of conflicting emotions and we can welcome all of them.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, Utah specializes in rebuilding relationships from crisis to connection. Geoff is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, the host of the Illuminate podcast, and creates online relationship courses available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.