Divorce is one of the most stressful life changing events a person can experience. According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale – a tool which measures the degree to which certain life stressors trigger a subsequent onset of illness – divorce and separation rank #2 and #3 respectively, falling only behind the death of a loved one. Yet it is all too common for people – especially women – to neglect their physical and emotional health when going through the divorce process.
I recently spoke with my friend and fellow family law attorney Lynn McNally about the issue of self-care during a divorce. Some highlights from that conversation are included in this article. Lynn and I agree that, all too often, people fail to see the importance of self-care during a time that is physically and emotionally taxing.
In this article, I will discuss the importance of self-care during a divorce and provide some valuable resources that I recommend to my clients to ensure that they are not only able to withstand the challenges they will inevitably face during the divorce process, but that they are putting their best foot forward when negotiating their case.
To hear my conversation with Lynn in its entirety, listen to Episode 13 of my podcast, A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction: “Taking Care of Yourself During a Divorce.”
Self-care involves any act that one does consciously to improve his or her physical or emotional health. Self-care includes the basics like eating well, getting adequate sleep, and exercising mindfully – all of which may be a challenge for someone going through a divorce – as well as meditation, journaling, being in nature, or any other activity that improves mood and reduces anxiety.
The divorce process can be overwhelming and lengthy. Negotiating a separation agreement or being involved in litigation requires a person to make many important decisions, and the process involves a lot of unknowns. Women and men who take care of their emotional health during this process are better equipped to make these often-difficult decisions without becoming overwhelmed.
“There are some very important decisions that only my clients can make,” explains family law attorney Lynn McNally. For example, it’s up to the client to decide what custody schedule will work for his or her family, and to give access to information on marital assets that is needed for making decisions about the division of marital property.
“Those who take care of their emotional health during the process are more equipped to make those decisions and make good decisions in that regard,” McNally says.
Self-care during a divorce may also involve talking with a trusted professional who can help the person process his or her feelings and emotions productively. Divorce is a loss, not unlike the death of a loved one, which requires moving through the grieving process step-by-step. A therapist can provide the tools to help people maneuver through that process.
A common question among parents involved in custody disputes is whether they will be penalized by the judge or the opposing party if they seek professional counseling. This concern is understandable, particularly in highly contested custody cases; however, it is more likely that the court will recognize therapy as an attempt by the parent to deal with his or her emotions in a productive way, and will look favorably on the individual who is courageous enough to ask for help. “You’re seen as somebody who can recognize an issue, find the resource to help you resolve the issue, and move on in a positive way,” McNally affirms.
In fact, not getting needed help can cause some people to turn to self-medicating, which ultimately could be more detrimental to a case than pursuing therapy. Not only can alcohol, drugs, or other destructive behaviors inhibit decision-making, but these behaviors can lead to legal implications, particularly if they are proven to interfere with a parent’s ability to actively care for their children.
There are many resources available to people who are going through a divorce. DivorceCare® offers support groups for both adults and children. In addition, most health insurers cover counseling, and many plans cover alternative treatments like acupuncture, massage or nutritionists as well.
Behavioral health services and/or domestic violence shelters are available to help when they are needed. In the Triangle, Alliance Behavioral Healthcare offers crisis services and access to mental health professionals, and InterAct of Wake County assists families experiencing domestic violence.
Those moments when it’s difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel are when an act of self-care can be most impactful. Activities that reduce stress for an individual, whether it’s taking an art class or joining a running club, can help both now and throughout the process. The key for people going through a divorce is to do what makes them feel good, and keep doing it. In doing so, they’re improving their emotional health, not just in the present moment, but for the long term.
“I have heard one of my law partners say for many years to her clients: ‘You will feel like a different person in twelve months,’” concludes McNally. “It sounded kind of trite when I heard it the first time, but I have seen it play out in almost every case.”
“You can heal through the process, and you can come out better on the other side,” McNally continues. “You just have to trust the process a little bit, and do the work to get there.”
I couldn’t agree more.