Surviving divorce – lessons from Darwin


Surviving divorce. It can feel like the ultimate life challenge. How do we get through it? Charles Darwin offers us some insight. Whilst it’s fair to say that Charles Darwin isn’t known for his views on divorce, I was reminded the other day about his work ‘On the Origin of Species’. According to his classic theory, it’s not the most intellectual of the species that survive; or the strongest; those who are best able to adapt and adjust to the changing environment.


It really got me thinking about how Darwin’s theory relates to your divorce. What?! I hear you say? We’re not turtles in the Galapagos Islands! Hang in there – it makes sense I promise.


Divorce can feel like a battle for survival


Divorce can feel like a battle for survival. Particularly if you are in an abusive situation. Remember that you can call 999 and then 555 if you can’t actually speak to the police in the moment of need. You can also contact Women’s Aid for further advice and support. Remember to hit the ‘cover my tracks button’ before leaving the site if you are sharing a laptop with other people.


Even if you aren’t physically unsafe, divorce can feel like a battle for survival financially and emotionally. If you’re in a divorce with a high conflict personality (HCP), every day is draining. And even in lower conflict situations, it can feel like you’re competing, both with your ex and with the divorce process itself.


You’ve probably stayed in your relationship longer than you would’ve liked just because you’re exhausted. You question whether you really have the energy for the ‘fight’ because even though you don’t want a fight, you know it will be.


You feel inferior


Feeling intellectually inferior in divorce is common. Sometimes it’s because you’ve lost confidence in yourself. You let your ex take control of your finances because, well, they’re good at that stuff and earn more money than you (even though in truth you manage the household, but no-one puts a value on that, thanks patriarchy).


Maybe your ex spouts nonsense a lot of the time (to friends and family as well as you) but does it with such charisma and confidence they always seem in the limelight, and everyone seems to love them and what they say. Where does that leave you if you split?


Or maybe you deal with family finances and know where you stand but your ex repeatedly tells you that you won’t leave – you can’t leave and you’ll be ‘nothing’ without them.


Instinctively you know that these feelings of inferiority are absolute rubbish and yet, there’s a small part of you that wonders if they’re true. You feel stupid and ashamed of getting yourself in the position you’re in and if you’re honest, you’re not quite sure how to get out of it. So you stay.


You grin and bear it fearing that others will find out what you’ve been putting up with or that your ex will wipe the floor with you if you leave. Either way, you feel trapped.


You’re threatened by their presence


When you’re in relationship breakdown, even the physical presence of your soon to be ex feels overwhelming. Especially when you are still sharing the same living space. At the time of writing this blog, England is beginning to come out of the first Coronavirus lockdown.


Are you one of the thousands of women who’ve been locked down with a partner you are divorcing? Perhaps Coronavirus and being locked down together have led you to realise you want to divorce? (read more here if that’s you).


It may be that the presence that once made you feel wanted, safe, and secure now makes you feel trapped, lonely, or even scared.


These feelings can be so overwhelming that we shut down. We can’t see the woods for the trees and we lose our resourcefulness.  Headspace and a route to freedom can’t be found. We tell ourselves that this domination of your space means they’ll dominate the divorce process too.


Resistance seems futile. You flirt with the idea of agreeing to walk away with nothing. You almost buy into the rhetoric that you don’t deserve anything.


Sound familiar? Read on…


Adapt to survive


If you’re feeling like divorce is a battle, and one you will lose – stop. If you are dominated by your ex’s intellect, confidence or physical presence – stop.




Reflect on what Darwin said, and I quote,  “… the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself”.


What does this mean for you and your divorce?


Well, what really matters isn’t your ex and what they believe or do. You are never in control of any of that. Ever.


What matters is your adaptability. How you respond to an ever-changing situation. And divorce is ever-changing, especially if it’s high conflict, and even if it’s not.


Surviving divorce – high conflict


HCPs and narcissists are chameleons – they are constantly moving the goalposts and attempting to destabilise you. Once you accept that you can begin to build your own strategies for coping and developing resilience so that your foundations, and your children’s, are firm, whatever happens.


Being adaptable means being able to flex. Being able to flex allows you to be open to creative solutions. It means you are less likely to cling at all costs to your original plan. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes your view is the best and only logical solution to the situation (and the courts usually spot if that’s the case), but often there are several workable options and thousands of pounds not to mention wasted weeks can be spent clinging to a principle or position. If you can afford to hold out no matter what, great – most people can’t. And that means being adaptable, without giving up or walking away.


Being adaptable doesn’t mean that you can’t have strong boundaries. You can read more about what boundaries are and how to set them here. Strong boundaries are key to adaptability because they keep you safe when you are responding to an ever-changing situation. They let others know what acceptable to you and what isn’t. They let you and others know what your non-negotiables are.


Boundaries also support you to remember how important you are. You aren’t intellectually inferior, weak, or stupid, you and your feelings matter. Holding onto that and acting on it creates a virtuous circle and builds your confidence.


From surviving to thriving


Darwin talked about survival of the fittest and you may be focused right now simply on surviving your divorce. However, aiming to thrive rather than merely survive will tell your unconscious mind that you do deserve more than perhaps your ex (or even you) would have you believe.


What does thriving mean anyway? The truth is you get to decide what it looks like for you.


You’ll know when you are thriving because you feel good about yourself.  When you thrive, you have the energy and emotional resources to take what life throws at you. You feel positive about where you’re at (even if circumstances are tricky, you know that better days will come), you know that all the challenges of divorce are worth it because on the other side is the financial and emotional freedom you crave. It’s not about how much money you have or the size of your house. Thriving is as much a state of mind or way of being as anything else.


Thriving is going for that new job, going to college, changing your hair, or your style of dress. It’s enjoying time with friends and time in your own company. It’s about being able to make your own decisions because you can. All of this is possible.


And don’t worry if it’s not where you are right now. It doesn’t mean you’re failing, or that you’re not capable of happiness, ever. You’re not doomed to a life of misery, or ‘losing the battle’. It means life is tough and you need support. The good news is that support is out there.


Use every source of support


Surviving divorce, getting to thriving mode, and staying there involves not doing it all yourself. Not figuring it all out yourself. Thinking back to Darwin’s theory of adaptability, it’s about how species interact and adapt to the environment around them. None of us live in a vacuum. The smart, adaptable thing to do is work with the resources (including people) you have access to. This is not selfish. It’s necessary.


As a newly single person or parent, you may feel that you have to be mum, dad, nurse, teacher, taxi driver – the list goes on. Perhaps you’ve always prided yourself on being able to handle the house, children and your job.


Asking for help either felt wrong or was frowned upon by your ex. Thriving means recognising your strengths and weaknesses and getting support where you need it. Be it help with the cleaning, ironing, children, homeschooling, or supermarket run – ask for help. I wrote a blog on asking for help in a pandemic if you need ideas on how to do it. It’s about making the most of all sources of support, both free and paid.


Take time to get honest with yourself about what you need and seek it out. I can guarantee that if you need support with a particular issue, whether it’s emotional, practical, or legal, someone before you has had the same need and the solution will exist. Which means it no longer needs to tie up so much of your emotional bandwidth. Which helps you go from merely surviving to thriving.


As a divorce coach, my work isn’t just about you surviving divorce. I can support you at every stage of the process – from the decision to leave to getting a divorce plan in place, to petitioning and supporting you to get your disclosure ready, to supporting you with your solicitor and getting you ready for court hearings.


If you’d like to go from surviving divorce to thriving, I’d love to help you.  Book a no-obligation consultation with me here.

About Emma

Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is author of the Amazon best selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. To find out more visit

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