How to Find Yourself After Divorce
- What research studies show about divorce and identity
- Tips for finding yourself again via your core identity
- Actionable steps to overcome your losses
- Dealing with social changes post-divorce
- Where can I get emotional help?
Are you struggling to know who you are now that you are no longer married? Identity crises are common following the breakup of a marriage or any meaningful relationship. One of your key roles, a partner, has changed drastically or ended. Like all losses, you will experience a period of grief – even if the decision was a happy one that you made.
Divorce is so much more than a legal process – it disrupts your sense of self, your daily routines, and can even change how others perceive you. Suddenly, you are no longer a wife, husband, or life partner to the person you envisioned your future with. It can feel alienating and uncomfortable when you no longer have your "spouse" identity.
A 2015 study by Anthony Papa and Nicole Lancaster concluded that those who tie their identities strongly to one specific relationship (their marriage, a job, someone they care about) will experience high levels of unresolved grief due to an identity crisis should that relationship end. The results showed that these types of individuals experienced only slightly less distress after a loss via divorce than those who had experienced the death of a loved one or a major job loss.
These findings are in line with similar scholarly research on how divorce “threatens identity coherence” – from who they are in romantic partnerships to their parental roles. Additionally, the spouse who did not initiate or resists the divorce tends to struggle with their self of self more than the spouse who initiates the break-up or accepts the end of the relationship.
That's a heavy emotional burden – but have hope. Over the years, we've learned from various experts, therapists, and coaches like Anna Scott to help shed former identities and nurture your core self. Here's how.
1. Grieve your "spouse" identity
Like any loss, it's healthy to appreciate all that your spouse identity gave you but then let it go. But dwelling on what was can hold you back. You still have unlimited possibilities and potential. You might find the love of your life and become someone's life partner again. But to make room for them, you need to shed your former married self.
Stages of divorce grief
Many people find that a roadmap helps them navigate losses, or to break the journey up into somewhat predictable stages. While there is no linear step-by-step way to get from grief to healing, there are some clear stages that happen for most people going through a major life change like divorce.
Renowned American psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross asserted that most people dealing with a loss will travel through “the five stages of grief.” These stages were specifically assigned to grief after a death, but they can apply to any loss (divorce, job loss, friendship loss, death of a pet, or even a move away from someplace that felt like home).
Here are the stages you can expect – as long as you know that you can jump around the stages in any order, and might not experience all of them.
- Denial: Denial is usually what you’ll feel first. The loss might not feel real.
- Anger: You’ll likely feel angry at your ex, anyone else involved with the situation, or yourself.
- Bargaining: You might wonder if you can fix the marriage, or get your ex back. Or maybe you go deep into self-analysis about what went wrong.
- Depression: This one you will probably keep coming back to for years, but the sadness should lessen over time. It’s proof you did love your ex.
- Acceptance: This is your end goal. You realize it’s over… and become okay with that.
2. Evaluate your other identities
Maybe you're also a parent. You probably have a job title. You might be a sibling, friend, neighbor, foodie, traveler, blogger, advocate, or volunteer, too. But you are so much more than the identities attached to your core self – the unchanging being you have always been. Identities can come and go.
From time to time (especially following a divorce when you're figuring out what you want from relationships going forward) it's wise to list out all your identities. Decide which ones are serving your best interests, which ones are challenging but necessary, and which ones are no longer working for you.
3. Reconnect with your inner child or core self
No matter how many identities you assume and lose, your core self or inner child is constant. Think back to when you were a young child, happily playing make-believe or doing something simple where you were truly in the moment and perfectly content. How can you replicate or at least get close to that pure "you-ness" more in your daily life now?
Maybe it's starting up an old hobby you used to love. Or perhaps it's taking five minutes to write down the things that you do just for you that bring you joy – and weaving them into your life. For some, it might be more major like moving to a city you've always felt more at home in or going back to school. Dream big. Even if you can't act on it right now, it's good to imagine limitless possibilities that tap into your deepest desires.
The power of a name change
A study by Kenneth L. Dion, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, found that your name, sense of self, and identity are closely related. That said, consider changing your name back to your former last name if that might help you adjust to your post-divorce life. If a name change isn't in your future, make sure all your accounts and other personal information reflect your new separated or single status. As much as you can ease into your non-married identity, the sooner you can move forward (and hopefully prevent awkward conversations about your prefix, etc.).
4. Establish new goals for your future
The Institute for Family Studies looked into how one's identity influences divorce decisions. Marriage counselors often see couples who are reluctant to end their marriage because of how that will affect their personal identity or public persona. The biggest factor for those resistant to divorce was that they perceived it as a failure or were worried others would perceive them this way. On the flip side, many participants in this study reported that marriage had negatively changed their identity, turning them from a happy, idealistic single person to a frustrated, disappointed married person.
Your guide to setting new personal goals
Hello Divorce created numerous resources to help you with goal-setting at any stage before, during, and after divorce. Here are a few of our most popular blogs, worksheets, and services to help you.
- Worksheet: Goal Setting for Life Post-Divorce
- Crush Your Post-Divorce Goals with These Helpful Tools
- Journaling to Cope with Divorce and Other Major Life Transitions
- Ashley Simpo on Co-Mothering, Journaling, and Goal Setting
- Hire one of our Divorce Coaches
- How to Create a Post-Divorce Budget
Now, it's up to you. Who do you want to be? What kind of partner will you be happy with in the future? Don't let others determine so much about your value, purpose, and importance in the world. Only you can decide what you truly need. Setting goals for your new future can be hard at first when you're still mourning your life with your spouse – but try. Even just one small goal to work toward is enough to give you motivation for your next chapter.
5. Nurture your personal growth
Life coach Anna Scott wrote a guest blog laying out three steps to expand and grow during challenging times. We addressed the first two steps already – discovery and claiming full responsibility. Finally, it's time for expansion. "I wonder how life wants me to grow and expand?" Scott advises you to ask yourself. This stage of wonder nurtures your core self, allowing for personal growth. You need to force yourself into a new way of thinking.
As we lose old identities we make room for new ones. So, what new identities will you try out next? The choice is yours. Instead of focusing on the loss, use your grieving to redirect yourself to all the new possibilities ahead of you.
Actionable steps to overcome your losses
Here are some specific actions you can take to embrace your new unmarried identity.
- Write a list of your values. Consider what matters the most to you that has nothing to do with being in a partnership. Identify how your marriage might have derailed you from these values. Then, write how you can fulfill these values in your daily life. No action here is too small.
- Say “This will take time” out loud when you’re feeling stuck. Acceptance doesn’t happen overnight. Simply verbally allowing yourself to take the time you need can be a relief.
- Journal or tell a trusted friend your emotions. Get those toxic thoughts out!
- Reframe negative thoughts into positives. This may take some practice, but learn to flip a negative thought into a constructive one. So, instead of: “I am so bad at relationships” say “I am learning what I need in a partner, and what I can give back.”
- Play! The best way to get to know this newly single self is to try new things. Let yourself be silly. Learn a new language, craft, or sport. Travel. Get back to your childish roots by allowing yourself to try things out, even if that’s the only time.
- Go to a support group or online meeting. Support groups or communities like Circles can do you a world of good. You might even make some new friends.
Dealing with social changes post-divorce
As much as you’d like your divorce to stay contained to changes only between you and your ex, you will likely experience social changes, too. You may lose touch with your in-laws and may lose some mutual friends. You might need to move or start a new job. It might be startling to suddenly do more things alone. Here are some resources to help you.
- Should You Stay in Touch with Your Ex Spouse’s Family?
- How to Meet New Friends after Divorce
- Alone but Not Lonely: Embracing Your Independence after Divorce
- Will I Be Alone Forever? Overcoming Common Divorce Fears
- Alarm Systems and Protective Devices to Help You Feel Safer when Alone
Where can I get emotional help post-divorce?
Need more resources? Here are some professional programs, useful directories, and services we recommend.
- Divorce Support Groups and Coping with Divorce (our guide)
- National Domestic Violence Hotline (if safety is a concern)
- The Association of LGBTQ+ Psychiatrists Online Referral System
- Psychologist Locator (American Psychological Association)
- Therapist Locator (American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy)
- Mental Health America: Coping With Separation And Divorce
Our mission at Hello Divorce is to help you move into a new, improved chapter of your life after divorce. We’ve partnered with the best companies out there to help you embrace all of the changes you’re going through. We’d love to answer any questions you may have. Schedule a call with a member of our team today – no obligation, just compassion and a better understanding of your options.
Identity continuity and loss after death, divorce, and job loss. Self and Identity. September 2015.
“Who Am I If We’re Not Us? Divorce and Identity Across the Lifespan.” The Oxford Handbook of Identity and Development. 2015.
Roles in the Divorce Process and Identity Strength. Journal of Divorce and Marriage. October 2008.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Britannica.
Understanding Grief and Bereavement. National Library of Medicine. October 2016.
Names, Identity, and Self. Kenneth L. Dion. A Journal of Onomastics. 1983.
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