What Divorce Is Really Like

While many of us are still struggling to find a relationship that works or, conversely, are in the throes of having found "the one," love stories don't always lead to forever. We sat down with two women, Dori and Pamela, to discuss their personal experiences with divorce, and what they wish they'd known going into it.

Lead and Marquee by Adam Katz Sinding

What was the tipping point?

Dori: "Several things that transpired in the marriage led to lack of trust. After several years of work trying to regain trust and intimacy, I realized the relationship was no longer viable."

Pamela: "It was similar for me. Several things happened that led to a lack of trust, and we just weren't happy together. We were living like roommates, and it became apparent that we wanted totally different things. The only common denominator was our two beautiful children, who have remained our number-one priority. In fact, we made the decision not to stay together for the kids, and that let us focus on being incredible co-parents."

What was your initial reaction?

Dori: "Obviously I was heartbroken, because I never believed my marriage could be irretrievably broken. After accepting that fact and working to adjust to my new life, I felt a sense of elation and freedom. It really is a mourning process."

Pamela: "I actually couldn't tell my parents and instead made my sister do it. Also, I realized I wasn't being true to myself. I had prioritized everyone but myself. People said to me after the divorce, 'I didn't know you were so much fun,' or 'I had no idea you were so talkative and liked to go out and do things,' because I had lost myself. After the divorce, I rediscovered my priorities, which underscores that it was the right decision. I think it's easy to focus on what you're losing when actually there is a lot to be gained."

How did you tell the kids?

Dori: "My children were 7 and 12 at the time, so I was honest and open when appropriate. As they've matured, I've been able to share more information with them without burdening them with the gritty details."

Pamela: "A child psychologist taught me how to explain divorce to the children in a way they could understand—for example, likening it to a time-out. She outlined what to expect from their reactions, like how my younger child wouldn't understand the permanence of our divorce until she was much older. We spoke to them together and explained that the divorce would have no impact on how much we love them and that we would always be their parents. In terms of logistics, we strove to keep them comfortable in both homes. As the mom of a 3- and 6-year-old, it was difficult for me to be okay with them spending time at their dad's house without me. That took time, but we did it slowly and they adjusted at their pace, not ours. It's difficult but important to prioritize their adjustment, despite the fact that you're grappling with your own."

What surprised you about the experience?

Dori: "The sense of independence I gained was life-changing and freeing. The support I gained from family and friends was overwhelming and critical to my well-being. The loss of the family unit, however, was devastating, and still tends to be difficult during milestones and holidays."

Pamela: "The holidays are the toughest time of the year, but it seems to get easier as time passes. When I became ill with cancer after the divorce and had various surgeries, going for treatment without a partner was challenging; however, my kids, family and friends rallied around me and lifted me up. I became so strong and realized that in the end, I don't have anyone telling me how to live my life and navigate day to day.

"I learned who my true friends were. I didn't realize that some couples would pick sides and I would need to make new friends. It was very important to have a group of divorcée friends who were going through it at the same time—kind of like a built-in support group. We had so many laughs and tears together. We established our own social life separate from what we'd had with our husbands.

"I was able to buy my own house, work hard to pay my bills and live financially independent from my husband. Right away, I dove into a job and career, and I've supported my children for the majority of the time since my divorce, which gives me tremendous pride. Traveling for work and to see family alone is challenging; however, I've truly embraced my independence and I recognize how blessed I am to have the experiences I do and family and friends to share them with. I would never have believed it if you told me when I divorced that 13 years later my ex-husband would be remarried and happy and I'd still be single. A lot of it is by choice—I feel the right relationship will come when both my kids are in college and out of the house. Right now, they're my priority—right, wrong or otherwise.

"One of the biggest and best surprises of the experience is that my kids are more than okay. They're incredible. Their strength has been so impressive. When I've had down moments, they've been right by my side to cheer me up. They make me so proud every day by showing me how they can power through tough times. I believe the divorce has made them stronger and better adjusted, as they've had to learn how to manage their lives through it. They are my rocks and my angels."

What's the most valuable thing you learned?

Dori: "The value of friendship and how critical it is to help you get through these times."

Pamela: "How to be alone. I went to a wedding by myself right after I was separated, and the majority of the guests were couples. I'd never been single in my life—I met my husband when I was 19 and we were together for 17 years—so it was a sad point for me. This entire experience has made me so strong and independent. Also, I had never spoken to a therapist before being separated, and all I can say is: therapy, therapy, therapy!"