Best Divorce Advice

Have you ever ended things with a serious partner? We asked nine women about their divorces and separations — the pros, cons and how they made it through. Here are their honest, thoughtful answers (and if you’re up for sharing, we’d love to hear your experiences, too)…

On knowing it was the right decision:

“Our relationship had been going downhill for a while, and we thought a baby was the solution. We tried to conceive naturally, but I was always secretly relieved when my period arrived. We even saw a reproductive endocrinologist, but when the time came to take the medication and schedule the procedure, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Admitting to myself that I didn’t want him to be the father of my child was the final straw.” — Maria, 37, marriage of six years

“At some point I didn’t feel I had a choice — I was so deeply unhappy. We went to therapy for a year, but it only made things seem more hopeless, since so many of our differences were laid bare, and we were unable to surmount them. During this time, we had bought a weekend house, and I was busy furnishing it, finding antiques and picking wallpaper. But then the house was ready, and I realized I didn’t want to actually be there with my husband. That was a wakeup call. My feeling is that if you’re getting divorced, you need to feel that you’d rather be alone than in that relationship.” — Grace, 39, marriage of six years

“I was visiting my mother and had terrible stomach pains after a night out with my kids. I figured I had food poisoning, but my mother insisted I go to the ER. They did a cat scan that was ONLY looking at my belly, but it caught the very bottom of my lungs. There was a three-centimeter mass in the base of my left lung. The cancer was back. I had a lobectomy and five rounds of debilitating chemo. I was blown away, destroyed. I decided that if I lived, I was going to live 100% my way. I didn’t want to work somewhere, live somewhere, or find myself in any situation that didn’t feel spot on. That’s when I knew I had to leave my marriage.” — Casey, 44, marriage of 15 years

On experiencing grief:

“When our marriage was ending, my mind felt like a movie reel of the best and worst times. On days where I missed him, I thought of the good moments — trying to get to the hospital on time for the birth of our children. Or when we’d get breakfast at the diner and we would put our firstborn in a hook-on high chair attached to the gingham table, and we all just laughed and laughed together. You want to shout, ‘Remember when?! Remember when we had these times?!’ The flashbacks are overwhelming. But, then on the days where I was angry or hurt, I thought of the other moments, the times it wasn’t working and would think, ‘Oh, I should have known then’ or ‘How did I not see that?'” — Robin, 50, marriage of 25 years

“The hardest part was letting go of the future we had imagined. We had bought a home and planned to have kids. Ending that dream, and not knowing if I would ever find love again or have children, was in some ways harder than the breakup itself.” — Maria, 37, marriage of six years

“When she left, I was on the verge of tears every single moment of the day. But time passed, and it got to a point where the sadness was every other day. Then it was four or five days. Then it was weeks. You truly never think this relief will happen, but it does, even if it’s in waves. On an especially hard day, my friend who had gone through a divorce told me, ‘Well, now that’s one less breakdown you’ll have. You’ll have only so many breakdowns, and look, you’re one step ahead.’” — Amy, 43, relationship of 15 years

On navigating financial freedom:

“My separation required a lot of strategy, because it was an abusive relationship. Even financially, the split was really difficult to plan because my ex had full control of where the money went — even my paycheck’s direct deposit went to his account. I didn’t have a penny to my name. I work in the service industry so I started stashing my tips away a little at a time, so that I could have a cushion for when the time came. One day, I came home from work to find the cash in a neat pile on the coffee table in front of him. I made up an excuse for what I was saving for, and had to start the whole process over again with a better hiding spot. I had $800 when we finally separated. The day after he moved out, I applied for a credit card, and got approved with a $500 limit. I opened a checking account that he didn’t have access to, and to my shock I was able to afford the rent and bills on my own. I was excited to find I was making a lot more money than I even knew, but also devastated because I had allowed him to convince me that I wasn’t responsible or smart enough to have any control of my finances for so long. I finally recognized myself for the first time in seven years.” — Rachel, 34, marriage of seven years

On newfound independence:

“There’s this scene in Home Alone where the kid Kevin McCallister wakes up after his entire family has left for their vacation without him. And, at first he panics and tears through the house in distress, realizing he is all alone. ‘I made my family disappear,’ he sulks. But then, there’s this moment where he pauses, and really takes in the empty house. ‘I MADE MY FAMILY DISAPPEAR!’ He shouts again, but this time with the widest grin you’ve ever seen as he runs through the house jumping on beds with a bucket of popcorn. That series of emotions is how I feel every morning when I wake up and remember what I’m going through.” — Robin, 50, marriage of 25 years

“The first thing I did was redecorate my entire apartment. I hunted antiques on Craigslist and wallpapered my bedroom. We agreed that he would take the TV and I never replaced it. Instead I did yoga in the spare room and listened to podcasts and audiobooks. Changing the space felt therapeutic and necessary for moving on.” — Rachel, 34, marriage of seven years

“One of my favorite parts of my marriage was holding hands at night after a long day. We would lie there, silent and exhausted, and my partner would place her hand on mine. When I told my sister how THAT was what I missed most, she said, ‘What if you hold your own hand?’ And she exaggeratedly gestured her right hand reaching over and grabbing her nervous left hand. We sat there laughing until tears were streaming down our faces. If that’s not a metaphor for a breakup, I don’t know what is.” — Amy, 43, relationship of 15 years

On talking to kids:

“That moment we told our children? That. Was. Hard. I did a lot of research and wrote a draft of what we would say, which started with, ‘Your dad and I are a really good team when it comes to being your parents, but we are not a good team when it comes to being a couple.’ The minute I said this, my nine-year-old daughter started crying. My heart shattered. Then, not even an hour later, she asked me if she could dye her hair purple. I said yes. On our walk to the salon, I told her, ‘You know that there is probably no other day ever I would have said yes to purple hair?’ With a big smirk on her face she said, ‘Oh, Mom, I know!'” — Tina, 44, marriage of 13 years

“A family therapist helped us strategize how to tell our daughter, and she gave us the great advice that little kids just need to hear the concrete, logistical details about who is living where and where they are going to be, and that we didn’t need to explain our feelings or the decision. Sure enough, our daughter was totally focused on having two apartments, and how exciting that was. We made her a clear physical calendar showing her the weekly schedule so she knew when she’d be at each place. Then, as she grew older, we answered her deeper questions as they came up.” — Grace, 39, marriage of six years

“It’s the time to create new traditions. I started taking my kids on road trips, just the three of us. We would get in the car together, and I would say, ‘Left or right?’ And we would have no idea where we would end up. One time we ended up at The Alamo in Texas. One time we ended up at Mall of America. One time we saw a billboard for a place that said, ‘We have 100 pies,’ and we went and got five pies each. Those trips feel like a lesson for our family: Life doesn’t go according to our plans, but you make the best of it together.” — Stacie, 50, marriage of 15 years

On splitting time with kids:

“The hardest part is that I don’t get to be with my daughter all the time, since my ex and I share joint custody. That has stayed hard. It’s been eight years and I can still get teary when it’s time for her to go to his place.” — Grace, 39, marriage of six years

“To my surprise, what I was most of afraid of turned out to be the biggest perk of this 50/50 co-parenting set up. I was terrified of the weekends where I wouldn’t have the kids. I thought I would be miserable, sitting depressed in my apartment second guessing my life’s decisions. But while I do miss the kids, I am excited to have weekends to myself, to recharge, spend time with friends or simply sit on my couch and read. I had completely forgotten what it felt like to be just me. It’s glorious!” — Tina, 44, marriage of 13 years

On taking a step forward:

“My husband of fifteen years told me he didn’t want to be married any more. I was turning 40, and I had two young kids and a law practice, and it felt like so much change at once. I needed to remind myself what I was made of. So, I started training for a marathon. Who knows why that’s the thing that I chose! I haven’t even ran a half marathon! But, I trained and trained, and when the race came, I ran the entire thing. During those last four miles, my legs didn’t want to run anymore, and there was this disconnect between my body and mind. Every step I told myself, ‘Just pick your leg up.’ I said it over and over, ‘Just pick your leg up.’ It took that moment to realize how much control my mind has over everything else. I finished the race, smiling ear to ear. People were collapsing and crying around me, and I was like, ‘Time for some chicken-fried steak!’ It was a triumphant turning point in my life.” — Stacie, 50, marriage of 15 years

On advice for others:

“This sounds so corny, but this is what you do: you wake up with the sun, you make yourself a spinach omelette for breakfast, you drink a lot of coffee, you put your head down and work, you take a lot of walks, you watch your alcohol intake, you go to bed early. You talk to people. You ask for help. It takes all of what you’ve got to keep going, but you’ll make it through.” — Robin, 50, marriage of 25 years

“When someone tells me they are getting a divorce, I say, ‘CONGRATULATIONS!’ If you’re doing it, you need to be. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. The best thing that could have happened for my kids. And the best thing that could have happened to my ex. Everyone in my family became who they needed to be from this situation. We all became the heroes of our own journey.” — Stacie, 50, marriage of 15 years

Have you gone through a separation? What was your experience? Any advice you’d share for someone going through it?

P.S. A seven-step guide to heartbreak.

(Illustration by Julia Rothman for Cup of Jo. Some names have been changed for the privacy of the people interviewed. And a big thanks to Megan Cahn for her interviews of Maria and Grace.)