“Jump and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall.” – Ray Bradbury
This quote spoke to me while I was contemplating divorce. I was afraid of not knowing how everything would work out or how my life would look if I left my marriage, but in my gut I knew it was the right thing to do. I knew I needed to trust myself and my own resilience and take the leap, so I had a bird with open wings tattooed inside my wrist as a constant reminder.
Divorce brings out many emotions in us. We often feel hurt, confusion, or anger, but after going through divorce myself and working with thousands of people through the process, fear is by far the most common emotion. I see fear cause people to stay in miserable situations, and even stay when there is violence, addiction, emotional abuse, and/or repeated infidelity involved. We all have that friend or acquaintance who is in a terrible situation with work, marriage, or other relationship, and it is clear they are miserable. It is obvious to everyone else that they should leave the situation. However, to the frustration of those observing from the outside, the person stays in misery instead of making a change.
Why is it common to become too paralyzed to make changes that will make us happier? It is fear of the unknown. My own fears, which are the most common I see, were financial and worrying I would mess up my child by divorcing. The third fear I most often see people struggle with is fear of being lonely, either from not having a partner or not having their children with them 100% of the time. Very often these fears are irrational. For example, in my situation I was the higher income earner and had great earning potential, we were regularly fighting in front of our son which would have a worse impact than divorce, and our son was also so young that minimizing the effects of divorce would be much easier than with an older child. Still, I stayed well past when I should have, and it was because of the fear of the unknown.
Science helps explain this common behavior through what is known as cognitive biases. According to HealthLine.com, a cognitive bias is flawed reasoning that leads to misinterpretation of the world and inaccurate conclusions.
There are hundreds of cognitive biases, but the two that I see most often impact the decision to divorce are the status quo biases and loss aversion bias.
It is common human behavior to resist change and to favor the status quo, even when the status quo is an unpleasant situation. We prefer the familiar. A spouse may be violent sometimes, but at least the victim knows what that looks like and what to expect, and divorce would mean disruption of the other familiar things in life that are pleasant. Or a spouse may have affairs and that causes a lot of pain, but the other spouse hasn’t worked in 15 years and the financial unknowns are frightening, so they won’t do anything to change the situation.
Another common human behavior is to focus more on what one would lose than what one would gain. For example, instead of focusing on the positives of living a life free of violence, the domestic violence victim might focus more on not wanting to lose living in the home she picked out, or not wanting the kids to have to change schools. The stay at home mom might focus on losing her standard of living to which she’s become familiar instead of living a life without feeling constant betrayal, and the possibility of finding a partner who will be faithful.
Emotions are frequently irrational. They can cause us to lie to ourselves to avoid facing making a change that will push us into the scary unknown. We tell ourselves that the kids don’t pick up on the marital conflict, or maybe our spouse won’t cheat again (even though they’ve been caught three times), or maybe there’s some truth to what he tells me that I provoke his violence (or maybe he really will change). In deciding to divorce, we need to think with our head and not just with our hearts.
You will hear me recommend therapy over and over, and this is because it was helpful for me when deciding to divorce, and I’ve seen it be life changing for so many clients. Not all therapists are the same, so it might take trying a few to find the right one for you. Working with a therapist can help you recognize when you are being controlled by fear. A therapist can also help you come up with an action plan.
Focus on your strengths and what you have going for you personally. Make a list. Then think about how to tap into those strengths to create a better life. Consider buying a personal development book that you find motivational. Learn to empower yourself and believe in yourself so there is no need to fear the unknown.
It’s safe to say that I’ve worked with over a thousand people going through divorce. Almost every one of these people had fears about what life would look like after divorce. People worry about not being able to keep food on the table and a roof over their head or are fearful about being lonely living alone. These fears simply do not come to fruition. These people with fears about their worst-case scenario end up moving on and having happy lives. Only those with severe untreated mental illness or addiction end up with the bleak scenarios that we allow ourselves to fret over.
Find a support group or a group of divorced friends and you will personally observe these stories of resilience and building better lives after divorce. Then focus your time and energy on making decisions and plans to lay a strong foundation for your new life.
Fear doesn’t go away. Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Having fear surrounding a decision in no way indicates that it is the wrong decision. In fact, the opposite is usually true, as it’s the actions that scare us most that lead to personal growth and great reward. If you have already identified the problems in your marriage, done everything you can to fix them, but nothing has changed, then it’s time to move on. Envision how you would want your life to look after divorce and then push through the fear to build that life. Nothing is holding you back but yourself.
It takes a strong person to leave a familiar situation and step into the unknown. However, growth and positive change can’t happen without moving out of our comfort zone.