As humans, we make sense of the world through stories. I don’t just mean the fiction to listen to on audible, or buy from Amazon. I mean the way we navigate the world, the way we construct our reality, is through stories.
“What are you going on about Emma? I didn’t come here for some trippy philosophy lecture!”
I know, I know, but bear with me. What we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world really matters. It has a huge effect on our wellbeing, and our ability to take on whatever life throws at us. As a divorce coach, I have the legal experience and expertise to help you understand the process of divorce. But, just as importantly, I’m here to help you understand yourself, and what you want and need, so you can make the right choices for you. And that starts with your stories. Which is what we’re diving into right now. Your divorce stories: what are they, and are they holding you back?
What is a story?
A story is a meaning we attach to something. It can be as simple as a single thought, such as ‘I’m no good with money.’ They often layer on top of each other, so the ‘I’m no good with money story’ is joined by the ‘I’m useless’ story, for example. And here’s the kicker: the thoughts we have in our head influence the actions we choose to take in the world, so we can end up creating our reality.
For example, if you have an ‘I’m no good with money’ story, you’ll probably avoid managing your finances as much as possible. You’ll not be interested in finding out the best deals for utilities or savings accounts. You probably won’t maintain a budget. And so you’ll find money does slip through your fingers.
So what’s the answer? You’re probably expecting me to say something like telling yourself the opposite story. Well, it’s not quite as simple as that. You can’t conjure yourself into suddenly being confident at something you’ve avoided for years. And your brain won’t believe you if you just try positive affirmations as if they’re magic spells. But you can flip your script in more subtle ways: ways that work. You can start telling yourself ‘I am capable with money and I’m ready to learn more about it.’ Or even, I’m not good with money yet, but I’m going to change that.’
And then you can start taking the action that lines up with this new story. For example, opening your bank statement and seeing where the money goes. Or getting some help from a financial adviser, or trusted friend.
Your divorce story
You will have a divorce story, whether you realise it or not. It’s the story you tell every time you think about your divorce, or talk about it. And each time you do that, you subconsciously reinforce the story too. So it’s vitally important to bring it out into the daylight and get clear on what your story really is.
Your divorce story is likely to be made up of at least three elements:
- Your story about your soon-to-be-ex
- Your story about your marriage
- Your story about yourself.
Let’s take each of these in turn.
Your story about your soon-to-be-ex
One of the best stories about your soon-to-be-ex is that you both decided to call it a day on your marriage, had rational discussions about money and children, and seamlessly came to an agreement.
This isn’t the story for most women.
It’s more likely your story about your ex-spouse will come with a big slice of bitterness. There will be things they did, and still do, that wind you up, or are downright harmful. If you have a high conflict ex, they may continue to engage in abusive behaviours such as withholding money, refusing to comply with mediators, solicitors, or even court orders, or being aggressive towards you.
In some cases it may be that their behaviour is generally reasonable, but since you’ve split, you’ve been at each other’s throats, and see the worst in each other. Actions that you would have given the benefit of the doubt while you were together are now signs of huge disrespect.
My point in all this, is that your story about your ex is often the one you’ll subconsciously turn to the most. Your divorce isn’t progressing because of them. You’re stressed out because of them.
And all of that may be true. But this story isn’t helping you. I’m not asking you to stand for abuse, or not care about their bad behaviour. I’m asking you to accept that your future isn’t with this person. So they no longer deserve all this headspace and energy. Instead, transfer that energy to getting your divorce done.
They’re playing power games with passive aggressive emails? Don’t rise to it. Sure, have a vent with some friends, or the women in The Absolute Academy. But stay on track. Don’t respond in kind. They won’t disclose their finances? Get legal support and use the Form E to push them to take action.
You can’t control what they do, but you can do your very best to keep your divorce moving forward, without being drawn into emotional tussles. Your ex is not your priority any more. You are.
Your story about your marriage
Your story about your marriage is closely related to your story about your soon-to-be-ex, but it can have a longer lasting impact because it can influence how you feel about relationships, and even friendships, into the future.
Your story about your marriage will obviously be different to the one you had on your wedding day. Back then, most likely, it all felt like a fairy tale. You loved each other and were looking forward to a life together. Of course, fairy tales aren’t reality, and every marriage, not just those that finish in divorce, have their rocky patches. Every couple gets grumpy with each other, argues over who’s doing the washing up.
Right now, what’s important about your marriage story is that you recognise it’s not black and white. Whatever experiences you had together, good and bad, are in the past. You can learn from them. Just because the marriage is over doesn’t mean that whole period of your life was a mistake. Honour what you can from your marriage: use it as learning in moving forward.
Your story about yourself
I’ve left this one to last because it’s the most important. Both your story about your soon-to-be-ex and your story about your marriage have an impact on your story about yourself. If you have a story that your ex was a bully, then you probably have a story that you are a victim. If you have a story that your marriage was a failure, then you probably have a story that you make bad choices.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not victim-blaming here. If your ex-spouse was a bully, you have every right to feel like a victim, and you need care (from yourself as well as others) as you recover. But this victim status doesn’t define all of you. There’s space for more.
It’s possible for you to have all the negative stories about yourself that arise from your marriage, and also have stories that help you move forward. And that’s what we’re looking at here.
Stories aren’t the truth. They’re just stories. Yes, there might be some evidence to support them: it might be that you are bad at saving money if you don’t have much experience of managing finances. But that’s not about your innate abilities, it’s about choices you’ve made in the past that you can change now if you want to.
The problem with many positive thinking techniques is that they don’t work. As I said earlier, we just don’t believe ourselves if our affirmations feel really distant from an existing story we have about ourselves. If you’ve never run a mile in your life, telling yourself ‘I am a marathon runner!’ is not going to get you through 26.2 miles on the road.
But there is a way to give more positive stories power. It involves recognising that you have unhelpful ones in play, and adding to them.
Let’s go back to the money example. If you have a story that you’re no good with money, the first thing to do is recognise it as a story. When the thought comes into your head, tell yourself, “Ah, that’s the ‘I’m no good with money story’ popping up.” You’re not going to stop that story popping up: it’s like me asking you not to think about green frogs… what’s just jumped into your head?
But you can acknowledge that story, and decide it doesn’t define you. You can say to yourself, “Okay, I have this thought that I’m no good with money. But I want to get better at managing my finances, because it’s important to me to be independent. So, what’s the first step I need to take to understand my money situation better?”.
If you can do this every time an unhelpful story shows up, you will act as your own compass. You’ll start navigating yourself in the direction you want to go. You might even be grateful to those stories for being reminders about what you no longer want, and helping point you the other way.
Don’t go it alone
When you start seeing your thoughts as stories, you can find yourself having lightbulb moments. All of the things that were holding you back now haven’t exactly disappeared, but the brick walls aren’t quite as high as they were. You can get past them, even if it’s difficult.
And it will be difficult. It is hard to stay on track when you’re going through an emotional marathon – which is what divorce is.
Community is everything. When you have people around you who get it, who are moving in the same direction, focussed on their future like you are, it makes all the difference. That’s what The Absolute Academy is for. It’s me in your corner, each and every week, answering your questions. It’s my team supporting you whenever you need it. And it’s all the other women telling you you’re not mad, you’re not unreasonable, and you’ve got this. It will all be okay.
So if you know your divorce stories are holding you back, come and join us! Start doing more of the things that matter, and get closer to that freedom to can see waiting for you.
Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is the 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. Emma is also the host of The Six Minute Divorce Podcast. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com