Mental Health After Divorce – How to Start the New Year on the Right Foot



Holidays can be a wonderful time to rewind but what happens when the Christmas tree finally comes down and the family celebrations end? Beginning the new year on a positive note is the goal for almost everyone, but those fresh out of a marriage – especially those spending it without their children – may be struggling to get back in the swing of things. Dr. Elizabeth Cohen, clinical psychologist and author of “Light on the Other Side of Divorce,” dives deep into prioritizing, being intentional and adjusting your decisions in order to help you shake those negative voices out of your head and jumpstart your new year. 


It can be easy to neglect your mental health when you are ticking so many things off your Christmas to-do list. Every year, it seems as if the holidays don’t feel the same anymore. With this ridiculous amount of pressure within our society around this time, it’s impossible to feel like you’re enough. 

Dr. Cohen notes that during the holidays, there are quadruple the amount of patient visits, 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.” Regardless if you are divorced or not, not every family is perfect and neither are the events that are supposed to make you forget about it all. 

And these events are marketed to follow the old saying, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” But is it really? Being bummed after the holidays is completely normal. Society builds up this idea that it’s supposed to be the most joyful and perfect time, but when it doesn’t go according to plan it’s kind of a disappointment. Dr. Cohen wants you to consider what is leading you to feel this way, 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?’” 


Believing that the holidays are going to be all sunshine and rainbows not only leads to false expectations but false hope. T.H. explains she did this in her marriage, thinking her husband was going to be different each year, but still, the idea in her head was not met, “All I was doing was creating my own torture. He never said he was going to do it differently. This is what it is.”

This is due to pathological hope, which we all have, and it helps us to survive. We tend to want to fly before we can walk, but life isn’t that easy. You must be kinder and gentler to yourself, according to Dr. Cohen, “It’s really important to be really clear about what your expectations were. ‘Part of why I might be feeling bad is because of how high my expectations were. If I were to shift my expectations a little, maybe my holidays weren’t really that bad.’”


Even though the December holidays are over, it doesn’t stop coming. How about Valentine’s Day, Easter or other family occasions? Adjusting your perspective, lowering your expectations and highlighting your true priorities can help counteract all these negative emotions. Before a big holiday gathering, ask yourself these questions:

1)   What are your personal priorities?

2)   Are your priorities for any holidays just rest and rejuvenation? Are they connecting and sharing your thoughts?

3)   What are the priorities for this event?

4)   How can you make sure it happens?

T.H. used one Thanksgiving to take some time to herself after a failed relationship. I mean who wants to deal with all the nosey Nancy’s at the dinner table? (I sure don’t!) She was extremely intentional about her plan and lowered her expectations for this holiday, 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…and so I felt that because I had a plan, I was going to be okay.”

Let’s also say that T.H. was uncomfortable with being alone, but she was ok! Now she knows for the following year that she’ll accept those Thanksgiving invitations. Working past these negative feelings is all about being proactive about your decisions; could it have been better if things were done differently? Who knows, but at least it’s known what works for you and what doesn’t.


Many experiences are not going to be happy dandy, I’m sure you know this by now. But if you have the resilience to dig into the why’s and how’s of the situation, it can help you gain a clearer perspective on what you may need.

Dr. Cohen uses a good example of when she wrote a really nice card to her ex-husband on behalf of the kids but did not receive anything back. In this instance, she questioned her actions, “Why did I write this letter?” By doing so, she was able to understand that she was hoping for something, a transactional interaction. But maybe next time, she’ll write herself a note about what a great parent she is and not send one to him.

It’s hard to get out of this cycle of being hopeful, even when you are getting constant reminders of who your ex actually is. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, T.H. expected more compassion from her ex and even when all the surgeries were done with, she still received nothing from him. It can be shocking, like how could someone not wish you well when you’re sick? But it isn’t that shocking when it’s their typical behavior. These emotions are inflicted on ourselves, not from them. If we are continuing into the new year with high hopes and repeating the same patterns that we know aren’t going to change, how can you even begin to move forward?

You cannot bury your emotions but recognizing the root of your feelings is the best way to start. Post divorce, individuals spend so much time thinking, “If the other person would just X, I will feel Y.” But if you change your perspective, just a little, it’ll be easier to understand what you were hoping to get out of this person — is it understanding? Is it compassion?

Once the idea is clear, anytime we take action, Dr. Cohen wants you to remember, “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?” If you’re feeling emotionally drained or depressed, from the holidays or your divorce in general, only you can shift this state of being. It is your job to allow yourself to grieve but also understand the source and give yourself the time and space to figure it out.

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