I've been divorced a baker's dozen years now...
... and have watched both my own and others' personal development over the years in order to write about it in my book How to be Happy After Divorce. And what has struck me time after time is that you either make a decision to be brave and explore all the new opportunities this change of direction gives you; or you take the easy way out and replicate the old set up as soon as you can (usually by remarrying); or you feel sorry for yourself and become bitter. The last two options will stunt your growth and you'll learn nothing much of any value. Nevertheless, they're probably enticingly comfortable options - and you'll know where you are with them.
The first option - of becoming truly your own person - is scary, but the rewards in finding out about yourself: who you are, what you really want, your core values, what your strengths are and how you want to live your life in a way that's meaningful are huge. By which I don't mean there's any Damascene revelation and everything is suddenly hugely different. What I mean is that change comes incrementally - but by always choosing to rise to the plate and take the option that might be a challenge (but is what you want deep down), and getting all you can out of it, you'll be building in the bank the reserves that truly count in this life. Bit by bit, you'll be putting ballast in the hold that keeps you on an even keel in even tougher times.
Now we can't step out of our culture completely, but we can think through at every point: can I do this my way? Can I reframe it to see it differently? Who made up those rules? And why? Do I want to conform and do what others want me to do? Will I hurt anyone doing it my way? And so on. These fundamental questions can be applied to many situations, big and small. But in doing so you gradually learn who you are - and what your real desires and strengths are. We rarely find that out if we live the conformed life. But the divorced have this great opportunity to be unconventional: we don't have to compromise by taking a spouse into account. Divorce is tough, but it is what Jung called the growing point.
As I say, every new situation presents a new opportunity. For instance, I broke my right wrist one Sunday evening a few months ago. I was hoovering upstairs, stepped on a stool to adjust a curtain, stepped off – but not onto solid floor, rather onto one of those ‘fit balls’ or Swiss balls I’ve been using to help my back and which had rolled too near. It whizzed me down – straight onto my right hand. I looked at the arm – then had to look away it was such a weird shape – and burst into tears of pain and frustration. I had to readjust my life in those minutes. I knew I wouldn’t be finishing work (house clean so I could get on with writing in the week ahead) having a cup of jasmine tea while listening to The Westminster Hour. I’d be in A&E.
I've done this before - I broke my foot three years ago - and I know they like you to be accompanied. The obvious person to be with once you're past mummy and daddy stage is your spouse. They keep you quiet and comforted, wheel you around and the staff feel they can tell them what's going on, rather than you. So, on advice then, I took my eldest son, when he was doing his A2s. The result was he lost his evening's homework, was bored, was tired next day and late for college. Meanwhile I felt bad for him, was in too much pain to want to chat and was probably a bit irritable. And I didn't like the fact they treated him as the adult in charge - told him the score - which went over his head entirely anyway. Being accompanied allows the staff to assume you're okay as they deal with what they assume is your carer (but is really a 17 year old resenting this and mentally checked out) - and think they don't have to treat with you. So as I lay there with a broken arm this time, the eldest away at uni, the youngest now 17 and doing A2s, I decided to go it alone.
It was a pretty big test of independence as it happens. I'm right handed so have to use my left and I was in a lot of pain and vulnerable. I also clearly looked like some sad git with no-one to call on. But I was quite clear I wanted to do this on my own: I find it easier to cope with pain alone. And people are usually helpful, especially to the vulnerable.
My son helped me up, made me tea, called a taxi, put a bag of ice on my arm and made a sling from his scarf. I told the taxi driver he'd have to root around in my purse for change and open the door for me - which he did. I got to A&E at 10 15 – I didn’t get out till 4 15. It was: sit shivering in shock, read paper, see nurse, painkillers, x-ray, do more shock trembling, trance out, ask a fellow patient with two hands to open food bar for me, see lovely doctor. With unlovely news. The main bone has broken and been jammed up the arm, the knob on wrist has chipped. They will give me gas and air plus local and pull it out and put bone ends together. At 3 am I'm giggling on gas and air while one doc has my wrist and the other my elbow and they are pulling with all their weight – one breaks a sweat. The kind nurses look sympathetic. I'm plastered and re-x-rayed. They can’t tell quite if it’s in the right place or not. We'll see at fracture clinic next week. If it isn’t it’s an op for plates and pins.
But they tell me everything, as if I am an adult in charge of my own life. And it is a porter who wheels me to x-ray - far less scary than my son going a bit too fast. And the nurses really talk to me and sort out the next appointment, arrange the taxi and make sure I know what's happening. We relate to each other as people.
When I get in my son comes down and makes me a hot drink. He’s put two hottie botties (as I’m sorry to say we call them) in my bed. I am still cold and shivering with shock at 6 am. I’m going to have to learn to be left handed for a while and cope with pain and perhaps surgery.
BUT I feel proud of myself. I feel somehow vital. I've just faced the sort of challenge most people dread: negotiating being in extremis alone. To avoid that sort of thing most people marry, and many stay in constricting or unsatisfying marriages. Perhaps I was just foolhardy - the cabbies might have run off with my purse and so on. But I'll take my chance on the kindness of strangers and the protection of vulnerability largely hard wired into us. And what difference to me if people think I'm on my own or not?
I also believe that risk-taking is hard-wired in our brains and that - without taking risks - we grow bored and shrivel and die a little bit. Which is why the boredly- married-but-still-clinging-on brigade often lose their zest for life and their vivacity. I see divorce as a series of opportunities - big and small - to grow. Being divorced (and I was unceremoniously dumped) was a positive: the start of a brave new me. To see what happened and what I did next you can read my book How to be Happy After Divorce available as an e-book on my website www.lindafranklin.co.uk.
(c) copyright Linda Franklin 2009 - Photograph couretsy of Tommy Candler