Soberly Surviving Divorce

Life happens and you’re walking around like Queen of All Sober People expecting to be exempt from little things like job loss, illness, and divorce. And slowly it dawns on you that when they say things like “Life on life’s terms” and “We practice these principles in all our affairs” they’re talking to YOU. Not the guy sitting behind and slightly to your left.

How disappointing to find that getting clean not only doesn’t get you a parade, it often brings with it all kinds of wreckage that you were either too drunk or stoned to see before. Nothing takes you down 10 pegs like a sober look at what you’ve done with the last few years of your life—especially divorce, that many-headed hydra of pain, remorse, and guilt.

Karen Khaleghi, the founder and Director of Education for Creative Care Malibu, a rehabilitation center specializing in dual diagnoses, points out that “no one starts a marriage with the intention of divorcing—people are naturally optimistic.” Khaleghi, who has worked for over 20 years with families in recovery, adds that because of these high expectations, couples often feel like failures and experience a deep sense of loss if they do get divorced “and this applies doubly to those in recovery, especially when they’re facing a problematic relationship for the first time with a clear mind.” When a spouse enters treatment, Dr. Khaleghi notes, it isn’t uncommon for their partner to break off the relationship or file for divorce.

Early in sobriety, it occurred to me that my husband and I no longer spoke, made eye contact, or entered each other’s perimeter except to exchange grocery lists, cash, or speeches about how the other person was Falling Short.

She counsels sober people in troubled marriages to “connect the dots” and understand the link between their emotions and their behavior. “Holding onto anger and resentment,” she adds, “keeps you stuck and attached to your loss and anger.”

My friend, a fellow author named Amy Hatvany, struggled through years of legal wrangling during her divorce, all while trying to balance motherhood and recovery. And while she knew others in her home group had been divorced, she still felt isolated during the worst of it. Still, Amy tries to remember during heated disagreements to try, if at all possible, to stay kind, patient, and loving. And when that’s not possible, she uses this mantra:  “Bless him, heal me, bless him and heal me,” until she calms down.

Amy recalls one very snowy evening a few years back, after hearing weather bulletins warning people from driving on dangerous roads, she asked her ex to change their visitation plans in order to insure her kids’ safety. When he insisted on hitting the road anyway, kids in tow, Amy lost it. “I was fired up with self-righteous indignation and I let him have it from both barrels about imperiling the kids,” she recalls. “Before long, we were in a screaming match and the kids were crying in the back seat.” Once both parents realized the scene they were causing, they ended the call, the ex took the kids back to safety, and Amy called her sponsor.

“Recovery takes the fun out of getting angry,” Amy now reports. “You feel so guilty afterward; it’s not even worth it.” She and her ex are on better terms these days. And while they aren’t quite friends, they can talk about personal matters without as much heat and fighting. “One of the greatest gifts of recovery is learning to stay rational and stick to the facts,” she says. “I try not to give in to the hysteria of hurt feelings.”

Another friend who’s been sober for two years and is recently divorced with kids, tries to stay away from blame and recrimination in discussions with his ex but reports that it’s easier said than done. “In the beginning I lost my shit a lot,” he confesses. “When you first start getting divorced, there is a lot of anger recrimination and blaming, a lot of ‘Here’s how you contributed to the downfall of our relationship.’” The instances of yelling and blaming decrease over time, but he recalls a time when a disagreement over their eldest son’s visit caused a stir. He admits yelling and telling her things like “You never let me have my way!” and trying to make her feel guilty so he could get what he wanted. Here, the guidance of the program came in handy. “I’ve learned to stay on my side of the street and frame disagreements in terms of what I can control—myself—rather than trying to control her,” he says. When he finds himself getting heated, he tries to stay calm, breathe deeply and step away from the phone and computer so as not to text or email something he may regret. He pauses when he’s agitated and tries to stay focused on what’s best for his kids. “On many things,” he reports, “we now simply agree to disagree. We let each other have our own house rules, and keep our bickering back and forth to a minimum.”

Early in sobriety, it occurred to me that my husband and I no longer spoke, made eye contact, or entered each other’s perimeter except to exchange grocery lists, cash, or speeches about how the other person was Falling Short. When I shared this with my sponsor, she smiled beatifically and reemphasized that Big Changes (such as leaving one’s husband, or beating him with a big bat) were not suggested in the first year of sobriety. Little changes? I bargained. How about one very small polite boyfriend? Is that allowed? She nodded quietly, directing my attention back to our step work. I left there emptied of all hope. The thought of staying married for another year made me want to dive headlong into a vat of cool crisp white wine.

Instead, I kept repeating, “Just for today, I won’t drink, get a boyfriend, or tell my husband he sucks. Just for today, I’ll stay married and pretend I have good manners and am kind.” I read over and over the part of the Big Book where it promises we’ll eventually learn to “meet calamity with serenity.”

I don’t know how I got through that year, except by the grace of my home group, my sponsor, swearing, and candy. At year’s end, my husband and I separated and began the process of divorce and lived happily ever after and fulfilled all our dreams and each live in half a shared duplex and help each other with our organic vegetable garden. Not really. Actually we still fight all the time and sic lawyers on each other, but at least we have moments of civility and I haven’t called him a dick on over a year.

It’s about progress, not perfection, right?

One of the many aspirational parts of the Big Book suggests that we live out the principles of recovery “in all our affairs.” I don’t know about you, but all my affairs weren’t that principled before recovery. I was passionate (had a problem with anger), feisty (said mean things during fights), empowered (selfish), strong-willed (self-seeking), and ruined many relationships without as much as a twinge of conscience. So bringing principles of recovery like honesty, openness, and willingness into something as thorny as divorce felt like wearing shoes 10 sizes too big: I could make my way around but it was clumsy and hard to watch and involved lots of swearing and yelling.

To this day, my first instinct with my ex is to call names and yell, but now what I want even more is to avoid the emotional hangover (and the amends) that always follow such outbursts. I’d love it if he saw me as a paragon of recovery, but I’m told his opinion is none of my business. Sigh.

I’ve determined that though there will always be financial ruin, divorce, death, and taxes, you can meet those mo-fos head-on, my sisters and brothers. You can do it with style and panache, while wearing heels, and staying sober. You can even do it wearing sweats.

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