Welcome to another episode of the exEXPERTS DIVORCE etc… Podcast where we give you all kinds of information and tips on everything divorce. Why? We’ve lived it, so we get it! We’re T.H. & Jessica.
T.H.: Welcome to the Divorce etc podcast with me – T.H., and Jessica. We are thrilled to have Dr. Elizabeth Cohen here. She is a Ph.D., clinical psychologist, and author of a new book, ‘Light on the Other Side of Divorce’. We were introduced to her through our friend Susan Guthrie, who is like the ultimate female cheerleader. She’s just awesome. We had a great conversation with Elizabeth prior to this, so we’re really excited to share her with you today. So, welcome!
Jessica: Thanks for being here.
Elizabeth: Aw, thank you so much for having me, Jess and T.H. I’m so excited to talk to your audience and be with you both again.
Jessica: We really appreciate that. Today, we wanted to really dig in on divorce and mental health. Coming straight out of the holidays, T.H. and I were having a conversation earlier about even if you have a wonderful holiday, because you may be surrounded by friends or loved ones, coming out and starting the new year when you are either getting divorced or you’ve gotten divorced can be a really melancholy time.
We were talking about what are things that people should be thinking about in order to break out of the holiday funk and be able to start the new year off on a super positive and productive note.
In particular, it can really hit home for people who maybe are divorced and didn’t have their kids for the holidays, and that it just may have brought them down to lower depths than they may have been otherwise. That’s the kind of stuff we want to kind of dig into today, how to help people get back on track and have a great New Year.
T.H.: And who don’t have kids at all. Yeah, two different groups to advise now–
Elizabeth: To help, yeah. Great, well, I think what first I want to talk about is this ridiculous pressure that we put on ourselves in this society around the holidays, and really around any sort of anniversary of a time.
Jessica: I just want to say you’re so right about that because I’m always saying it’s always anti-climactic. We have a conversation every year about how New Year’s sucks. I mean, I enjoy it when I host a New Year’s party because I feel like I’m in control and it is people that I know and I love there. But anytime you’re trying to go out and make a plan, it could be Halloween, it could be New Year’s Eve, anything, it always ends up sucking.
Elizabeth: Exactly, exactly. And I think that there’s this idea of expectations leading to resentment. It’s really important to think about that. The truth is, I mean, as a clinical psychologist, you can only imagine, I think I see quadruple the amount of patient visits around the holidays. Most of that is because of this expectation and the societal pressure that it’s supposed to be wonderful. Most people’s experiences of family or gatherings are complicated whether you’re divorced or not.
Jessica: To say the least.
Elizabeth: Yeah, and I think we have to just be really honest about that so that we can be clear about the expectations that it really came out of a capitalistic marketing idea that it’s supposed to be this joyful, perfect time. Let’s just start with if you’re bummed after the holidays, that’s normal.
You just had this huge hype of how everything was supposed to be great and nothing was–I mean, it’s kind of like that disappointment you get after any big event that people think your entire life is going to change. It doesn’t. And so if you feel that bummed out feeling, just first think about maybe it’s related to the expectations of what it was going to be. Maybe you can do a little work on, oh, what was I hoping was going to change? What was I hoping would be different? Was I hoping that my ex, who usually is quite difficult to negotiate with, would suddenly be easy around the holidays because it was holidays?
T.H.: I definitely did that in my marriage. I was like, this time he’s going to be different. This time he’s going to show up differently. I kept like–it was such false hope. All I was doing was creating my own torture. He never said he was going to do it differently. This is like what it is.
Jessica: Why do we do that?
Elizabeth: Well, I think we have pathological hope, which actually has helped us survive. It’s been naturally selected to keep thinking things might be different. I think that it keeps us in the game because life is actually pretty challenging, but if we always have hope that it’ll get better, it keeps us going.
But I think it’s really important to be really clear about what your expectations were, and then be kind and gentle to yourself of like, oops, those expectations were kind of high. Part of why I might be feeling bad is because of how high my expectations were. If I was to shift my expectations a little, maybe my holidays weren’t really that bad.
Jessica: Even though we’re post-divorce and this is supposed–we want to talk to people about how they can move forward in a happy and productive and helpful way, I’m wondering what little nuggets you can offer here? Because look, Valentine’s Day will be coming, then whether Easter or Passover and other family holidays, there’s always going to be something coming next. Are there things that we should be thinking about that are practical tips on how to manage your expectations better, or break it down in a way so that you aren’t going into holidays with these false hopes?
Elizabeth: Definitely. I think the first thing is to be really clear on what your priorities are. Like, what are your personal priorities? Are your priorities for any sort of holiday, rest, and rejuvenation? Are they connecting and sharing your thoughts? What are your priorities for this event? And then how can you make sure it happens?
Jessica: That’s a good question.
Elizabeth: I don’t think most people think about it. They just kind of go unconsciously sleepwalk into the holiday or culture’s idea of what it’s supposed to be. Like, for me, I don’t have my kids this Thanksgiving. The plan is for my husband and me to basically have this retreat that we’re going to do at our country house together. It has nothing to do with Thanksgiving. It has to do with what we need at this moment.
Jessica: I love that.
T.H.: I think it is really great. I took one Thanksgiving–I was dating a guy who was not the guy, and I decided to do it alone. I just really didn’t want to be with him. I didn’t really want to be with other people who were going to ask me questions, where is he? I didn’t feel like hearing the noise. So, honestly, I was like, I feel like it’s time for Beaches, and Terms of Endearment, and Chinese food. It’s just another day. I’m also a big puzzle person. I put out my puzzle. I had my favorite liquor, tequila coconut, by the way, 1800. But the thing that was hardest was I literally had to keep telling myself in my head, it’s just another day. It’s just another day. It’s not Thanksgiving. It’s not a big family thing. It’s a Thursday. It’s just a Thursday. And so I felt because I had a plan, I was going to be okay. And whatever, I gave myself permission to cry because those movies are sad. So whatever, I was good.
T.H.: But that’s really what I did. I filled my day. I just remember a lot went into planning to get through that day.
Elizabeth: That’s really smart.
T.H.: And I’m not afraid to share that. I was a little crazy going into it. Everybody was inviting me over, which by the way everyone should open the door to friends who might be alone, but I was like, no, I’ve got a plan. I’m good.
Elizabeth: Right, and that you were intentional about it. And again, life is all about practicing and learning from our mistakes. So let’s say you did that, and you’re like, actually, it felt pretty bad. I felt pretty shitty the whole day. Next year, I’ll say yes to those invitations.
Elizabeth: It comes around again. So if you’re sitting here thinking, oh, had the worst holiday, I feel so disappointed. What would you have wanted to be different? And let’s start thinking about next time. Let’s just take this pain and be productive about it and take care of ourselves so we’re not in it again.
Jessica: That’s a perfect place to pick up now. Okay, so now we’re out of the holidays. Now many people feel that way, it wasn’t the holiday that I expected, it didn’t go as well as I wanted, and none of us thought about our intentional priorities for that holiday. So now what? Now we’re in the post-holiday funk and it’s like we’ve got to look up?
Elizabeth: Well, first of all, there’s this expectation that every experience is supposed to be positive. I mean, many experiences are not.
If we have the resilience to dig into what didn’t work for us, then we can learn something about what we want to do next and what we need. The whole process I think after a divorce is getting more clear on what we need. If you’re feeling blah or down about what just happened, amazing. If you were to walk into my office, I’d say, this is great. We have so much to work with. Write down what didn’t work for you, specifically what did you not like, instead of oh, it was just terrible. What did you not like, and start noticing? Well, he did this and they did this. Okay, that’s one list. What did you not like about yourself? How did you not show up in the way you didn’t want to? What was the way that you abandoned yourself? What was the thing you did? What was the boundary you didn’t set? Really let’s just look at why it didn’t work, compassionately and lovingly, but let’s use this as evidence as if were scientists.
Jessica: I’m trying to think about what some examples of that would even look like. Like, what I didn’t like about myself, or how I didn’t show up? I’m not even sure that I do enough digging deep to know where to go to get that information.
T.H.: But Jessica, you know how it feels. You may not know the exact action, but you know I didn’t feel good when I was alone during what should have been a huge dinner.
Jessica: Right, but Elizabeth was saying to be very specific about what to take it to the next level.
Elizabeth: So here’s an example. I wrote a really nice card to my ex on behalf of the kids, and I got no card back from them. Okay, let’s dig into that. Why did you write that letter? Clearly, your intention of doing that was something transactional. You were hoping for something back. Maybe next time, you’ll write yourself a note and a card about what a great parent you are and not send one to them.
Jessica: Or try to manage your expectations better, that if you’re going to send it, that you have to know you’re not getting a response back and that you’re just sending it for your own peace of mind, or to be the bigger person or whatever, and know that nothing will come of it.
T.H.: It’s hard to get out of that cycle. I mean, we’re so far out now from when we separated, but even in the last two years, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and then I had several health complications in the last two years. I told him, and literally, you could hear a pin drop. He didn’t even say it’s going to be alright, I’ve got the kids, I’m sorry you’re going through this. Not once. And even more recently, I had to have one last surgery, and thank goodness I’m great and good, all done but like nothing. Oh my god, why do I keep doing this to myself? Do I do it because I need to be reminded that he is not…
Jessica: A nice person.
Jessica: A nice person. I mean, a nice person would say I’m so sorry to hear that.
T.H.: What am I doing? Do I need that reminder this is why you’re not in that marriage?
Jessica: He’s not going to come through for you.
T.H.: Right. He’s just not someone– move your hope somewhere else. Well, I’m going to do that.
Elizabeth: What comes up for you T.H. when you think about not telling him? Let’s say you find out tomorrow that you have to have another surgery, and you just think I’m not going to tell him. What comes up for you? What fears come up if he doesn’t know?
T.H.: Honestly, I don’t care anymore now. But I’ve had four surgeries in two years. So maybe it took three surgeries for me to realize it. I was like god, he even came to my house on my birthday and didn’t even say happy birthday. My kids told him to say happy birthday. And I’m just like god, does it hurt your soul? I think I’m just amazed that people function like that. I mean, you can even know the person.
Jessica: But it’s also like he never ceases to amaze you. Not you personally, but in general. Everybody listening, you may have someone in your life who’s toxic like that and you’re so shocked every time, but you’re not really shocked because it’s their typical behavior. So for everybody listening right now who’s in a similar situation, god forbid, hopefully not with the cancer diagnosis and the surgeries–
T.H.: That you’re sharing news.
Jessica: That’s right. Or related to the holiday specifically, that whatever it is, and they didn’t respond the way that you wanted. I just want to go back to being able to identify for yourself what didn’t feel good about that and how we can avoid causing more anger, bitterness, and resentment off of the back of that, from an ex-spouse–
T.H.: That we’ve inflicted on ourselves.
Jessica: That’s right.
T.H.: It wasn’t even inflicted from them.
Jessica: But to some extent, I think what Elizabeth is saying is we may not be thinking about it. A little bit of it may be self-inflicted because we are having these high hopes and we are repeating the patterns that we know aren’t going to change. So to be able to start off 2022 in a way that’s going to be more productive for us post-holidays and–
T.H.: How do you bury it? What’s the secret sauce?
Elizabeth: Well, I think the word bury is the problem. We don’t bury. We need to move through. We need to figure out what we were really hoping for from that other person. Is it understanding? Is it compassion? And then we have to give it to ourselves because we can’t make anyone change or be any different than they are.
And so we really need to be clear with ourselves, when anytime we take an action, what are we hoping to get from this? And if I do not get this from the other person, how will I feel? And how can I take care of myself? We spend so much time especially post-divorce, thinking that if just the other person X, I will feel Y. You can do X for yourself, and almost every time. So next time T.H. has the urge to tell her ex what’s happening, call Jess and tell her again.
T.H.: Yeah. I won’t do it again. Now that we’re really digging in, thank you for therapy, I think the realization that I was married to somebody who could behave in this way still amazes me. I don’t understand that. And I’m in an amazing relationship, I’m so good for me, and so that’s why I’m in a great place with him, but someone else, obviously, but it’s hard to really absorb the fact that I was married to somebody who, I guess–
Jessica: Just doesn’t give a shit.
Elizabeth: The little that I know about your experience, and especially when you’re divorcing someone who has narcissistic tendencies, we’re automatically going to think, well, this can’t be real. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I didn’t say it right. There is this kind of needing to be reminded because it is so extreme. I mean, it is a small–
T.H.: I think you’re right.
Elizabeth: Right. It’s a small part of society that acts this way. And also, because you’re in a healthy relationship, and again, this can happen to people, you’re in healthy friendships so then you assume your ex is going to be just like everyone else in your life, and then they’re not. And so I think while T.H. will probably not tell him about another surgery, there will be something else. There will be something else that you feel of course he’ll have a response to. The kid, something happens with– just keep your eye out for that. That’s what I would recommend for people. Notice the things you find yourself saying a lot, like, I thought this, he would blah, blah, blah. Or it’s the holidays, so at least blah, blah, blah. And anytime you hear yourself saying that more than once, you realize it’s an expectation that you have that you will only become disappointed in. The truth is that if you’re feeling down and you’re feeling depleted from the holidays, or from your divorce in general, you have the power within you to shift that. Nobody else can shift that, I promise you. And also maybe if you’re feeling down after the holidays, I mean, I believe that you can’t have happiness unless you also have sadness. Your sadness might be grief that you need to process. We don’t need to just get rid of all sadness. We need to sometimes–I think what I’m trying to share is understand that. Where is it coming from? Was it expectations? Is it grief? Is it a loss? Is it anger turned inward? Like, what is it? So become curious about why you’re feeling this way instead of feeling like, oh, I’m never going to get out of this. I think you used the word, Jess, like stuck and mire in it. We can move through it, but sometimes that means leaning into that difficult feeling.
Jessica: I’d love that. I love that. I think that that’s a great place to end because there’s a lot to unpack, and everything that we just heard is so helpful. One conversation that I’d like to continue with you in another episode is around a similar theme but when it’s related to our kids. Because I think that as I was listening to you talk, I was thinking about–my kids are a little bit older now, they’re teenagers, and I will have the expectations this year that these things will not happen, so hopefully, I won’t be disappointed. However, I do remember a couple of times maybe, I don’t know, four years ago, five years ago when they were a little bit younger, and I was traveling on my birthday. They hadn’t called or texted to say ‘Happy Birthday’ until so late in the day that it was obvious that someone had said to them, did you say happy birthday? There was another year where I happen to have been traveling on Mother’s Day, and it was like the same thing. They didn’t call me. They didn’t do anything to acknowledge Mother’s Day that year. I was so hurt and angry, and they were so young. Anyway, we don’t have to have the conversation now, but I think it’s worthy of an episode because I know I’m not the only one that feels that way. We have to figure out how to handle our emotional mental health with expectations with our children in a way that’s also gentle and we can move on. We’re not walking around like bitches holding a grudge against our kids because of something like that.
T.H.: Let me just ask one more question to wrap up. Elizabeth wrote the book ‘Light on the Other Side of Divorce’. What was the main reason for writing this book? And what was your biggest lesson for yourself?
Elizabeth: So I wrote this book because when I got divorced 11 years ago, I was raising a six-month-old and a two-and-a-half-year-old by myself. I, one night, opened up my laptop, I think there was spit up still on me, who knew the last time I took a shower, and I typed divorce recovery and I couldn’t find anything. I have the privilege of having a lot of education and healing and mental health, and so I pieced together one foot forward two steps back, some sort of healing program that allowed me to step into the best life I could ever have now. I just knew that I wanted other people to have it. And I really wrote it for the person who, like me, schlepped to the public library on Story Hour and just felt so overwhelmed, to see out of the corner of your eye a book that says ‘Light on the Other Side of Divorce’, even if I couldn’t read the book, just knowing that was possible. And so that was where the book came from. What I learned the most from it, was that the second part?
Elizabeth: Yeah, what I learned the most from it is that we all just need to be seen and heard and believed in. I think the most powerful part of the book is that I do believe that anyone who reads it can heal, and I think we need someone who can help us see that we can move through difficult times.
Jessica: That’s amazing. I love it. We have to read it and put it on our ex-rated list.
Jessica: That’s what we need to do. Thank you so much, Elizabeth. We really appreciate it. It’s always such a pleasure to talk to you. The information is so valuable and helpful. I hope that everybody got as much out of it as we did. Definitely go check out her expert’s page on the exEXPERTS website, and we will see you next time.
T.H.: Thank you.
Elizabeth: Thank you.
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