“How Can I Recover?”     

On the surface Bert’s question sounded optimistic, but, truthfully, he saw little hope for his future. Without his wife he felt lost as he was forced to reassess his sense of purpose and direction on the Highway of Life. His marriage of eighteen years legally ended a week earlier when the judge signed the divorce decree. He had not seen the divorce coming and he definitely did not want a divorce, but she pushed it through with little difficulty in their home state that seemed to fast-track “no-fault” divorces. In the midst of the constant emotional pain and difficult daily survival Bert was trying to see a future for himself. Basically, he was struggling with the issue of recovery. How could he recover from such a tragic loss and move ahead toward an uncertain future? Clearly, Bert’s work was cut out for him as he began his travels on Divorce Recovery Road.

Mary’s divorce was similar to Bert’s experience in that it began with a shocking disclosure. She and her husband were about to celebrate their wedding anniversary with a special dinner she had prepared. As soon as they sat down to eat the meal her husband looked at her and calmly announced, “I don’t want to be in this marriage any more.” In stunned disbelief Mary watched her husband get up and leave. She felt as if he had emotionally stabbed her in her heart with the steak knife he had been holding. As she sat in her state of shock one question kept repeating itself in her mind:  “Is this really happening to me?” Slowly but surely the answer came:  “Yes, he just left. Yes, this is happening to you.” Within a few short months she, like Bert, was holding in her hands the finalized divorce decree. Divorce became her unwanted reality.

Bert* and Mary* are only two of countless individuals whose marriages have ended and whose journeys have started on Divorce Recovery Road. Some of these people actually wanted the divorce; others, like Bert and Mary, were forced to accept something they never predicted nor preferred. In every legal divorce there is a plaintiff and a defendant, an initiator and a reactor. The legal process works its way through a series of steps, and at the end of the process a judge signs the decree, legalizing and formalizing the divorce. At this point the divorced individual has important choices to consider, particularly in regard to the issue of recovery. Many divorced people push on with little or no thought to recovery, as if the passing of time will automatically heal their wounds and equip them for survival. Individuals with wisdom will choose to travel the Divorce Recovery Road in order to identify and implement practical solutions for healthy recovery.
The pain of divorce, especially an unwanted divorce, is far beyond what most non-divorced people can comprehend. One divorced man said, “Unless you’ve been through one, you have no clue about how hard it is.”  One woman who had experienced both a divorce and the death of a spouse disclosed, “This divorce was harder for me than was the death of my first husband.” How would most people describe the divorce experience? In conducting Divorce Recovery workshops I usually asked the participants to think of a metaphor that best described their experience. Over the years I’ve heard a number of interesting metaphors, including “demolition derby,” “tornado,” “hurricane,” “bankruptcy,” “roller coaster,” “Humpty Dumpty,” and “terminal illness.” For one man divorce was like a “knock-down, drag-out football game.” For another person divorce was compared to a boxing match in which “both lose and no one wins.” As suggested by these metaphors the pain of divorce is intensive, and the negative fallout is extensive. In view of the damage done by typical divorces the need for appropriate recovery becomes more understandable and urgent.

The usage of the term “divorce recovery” might puzzle you a bit. You might even raise the question, “Why do I need a recovery program?” We often use the term “recovery” in reference to alcohol or drug addiction, or perhaps to describe the healing process following major surgery. In regard to alcoholism perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “dry drunk.” A member of Alcoholics Anonymous once described the phrase to me in the following way. An alcoholic decides to stop drinking. Somehow he is able to achieve sobriety, but he does not complete a personal recovery program. Even though he is technically clean from alcohol, he maintains an alcoholic mindset and continues to think and act like an alcoholic. Because he still has an addictive personality he is very likely to take up another addiction. Without meaningful recovery the “dry drunk” person will continue in a lifestyle of various addictive patterns. It is commendable that the person stopped the usage of alcohol, but it is disheartening that without recovery he will continue to struggle and suffer with his addiction lifestyle. Sobriety without recovery is incomplete and insufficient for preferred healthiness.

Likewise, recovery is extremely important following a divorce. In almost every divorce tremendous damage is done on multiple levels, and the adverse effects will harm and hinder future individual health as well as new relationships. Without recovery the divorced person will carry negative thought patterns and painful emotional baggage with him as he continues to journey through life. He might be legally divorced, but there are varying degrees of unhealthiness present correlated to the amount of pre-divorce unhealthiness combined with the negative impact of the divorce itself. It is probably true that a person’s pre-divorce unhealthiness played a key role in the decision to pursue a divorce or in the other spouse’s choice to end the marriage. Tragically, most divorced people start dating very soon after the legal decree has been issued, and many individuals are getting romantically involved even before the divorce is finalized. This practice is a major accident looking for a place to happen. A person coming out of a divorce is certainly not ready for any type of romantic relationship, especially if the goal is to pursue a healthy relationship. No doubt you can see the wisdom of one woman’s response who was going through a divorce. Assertively she told a man who was trying to “hit” on her that “the last thing I need right now is a romantic relationship. I need friends—not a boyfriend.” I admired another woman’s wisdom. She was separated from her husband and a divorce was likely. A friend encouraged her to start dating and wanted to “fix her up” with someone to help her “move on” in life. The woman responded, “No, thanks. I don’t want to just move on. I want to make sure that I’m moving forward.” To this woman the concept of “moving forward” required an extended period of divorce recovery.  Wisdom motivates every divorced person to devote at least a year or more to a good divorce recovery program. The completion of that program will not guarantee full healing or the achievement of healthiness, but the effort will provide a strong reassurance that positive progress has been made.   


Divorce recovery is an individualized and personalized process. No two divorced people recover in exactly the same way. However, in spite of unique features there is a great deal of common ground in the recovery process. In my work with hundreds of individuals who were struggling with divorce I’ve seen firsthand the results and reactions that are typically experienced. The suffering is agonizing, but survival is achievable. Unfortunately, there is no human handbook that provides a perfect roadmap for helping people as they travel on Divorce Recovery Road. In an effort to provide a helpful roadmap I’ve grouped a variety of tips around seven basic steps, each step suggested by a letter in the word “recover.” Using the word as an acrostic (that is, R.E.C.O.V.E.R.) let’s explore briefly these seven steps. The steps are not necessarily sequential in that one naturally leads to the other or is a perquisite to the next one. There is some overlapping of ideas and more than one step could be worked on at the same time. Furthermore, these steps are not all-inclusive; other actions could be helpful to the recovery process on a case-by-case basis.
Step #1:  “R” = REALITIES! – “Realize the Realities!”

The first step in divorce recovery is to realize the realities of the divorce. The key issue is “realities.” The goal of this step is to focus upon your thought system as you think through the fact that you are going through a divorce. The question is raised, “Is this really happening to me?” Your thoughts respond, “Yes, this divorce is happening to me.” Through clear thinking you realize that divorce is now a definite part of your reality as you travel the Highway of Life. Denying or avoiding that reality will only prolong your journey and prevent your healing. To increase the assurance of a safe journey you will need to keep your mind with its logical problem-solving skills in full control of your emotions and your actions. Acknowledge your emotions but keep your mind in charge of the overall divorce process. You’ll be tempted to “go with the heart,” but, if you do, your emotion-driven travels will become a wild roller-coaster ride that will threaten your health and safety. Use your mind to identify and accept the various realities that your divorce has brought to your life.

Step #2:  “E” = EMOTIONS! – “Experience the Emotions!’

The second step in the divorce recovery process is to experience the emotions. The key issue in this step is “emotions.”  As you focus upon your emotional system you’ll become aware of a wide range of feelings, including sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, and guilt. Divorce usually means loss on multiple levels, and, predictably, these losses generate sadness and grief. You will probably be surprised at the sheer intensity of your emotions and their tendency to change abruptly without warning. The intensity and fluctuation might frighten you and cause you to doubt your ability to survive. We need to remember that emotions are just emotions. Allow yourself to experience them but do not allow them to dictate your behavior. As stated earlier, the head—not the “heart”—must stay in charge.

Remember also that your circumstances, including your divorce, are not directly and automatically making you feel what you feel. Actually, your emotions are the result of your thoughts. Simply stated, the divorce is an event about which you decide the specific meanings and interpretations to assign to the event. Those meanings are what determine your emotional reactions. For example, the more that you interpret the divorce as being unfair, the more anger you’ll experience. The more you assign a meaning of loss, the more sadness you’ll feel. The more harm or danger you ascribe to the divorce, the more fear and anxiety you’ll experience. If you interpret the divorce as a gain for you, you’ll have feelings of relief and joy. The “bad news” is that the emotional system usually involves pain and suffering in reference to a divorce. The “good news” is that the amount of emotional suffering you have is based upon how you choose to think about and interpret the divorce. The divorce itself might be out of your control, but your thoughts are definitely in your control. You can manage your emotional suffering to the extent that you choose to manage your thinking system.

Step #3:  “C” = CHANGES!” – Cope with the Changes!”

The third step deals with the necessity of coping with the changes brought about by the divorce. The key issue is “changes.” The focus in this step is upon our behavior system. What actions can we take that will help us cope more effectively with the various changes that result from the divorce? What’s the best thing for us to do behaviorally to insure survival in our travel on Divorce Recovery Road?

Some changes are common to all divorces, while other changes are quite unique to specific situations. In every divorce the marriage legally ends. The man and woman separate and begin new individual journeys in life. In regard to children the divorce brings changes to the family unit as heart-wrenching childcare and custody issues are battled and settled. There are changes in housing as one or both people relocate to other settings. Friendships and family connections are changed as other people learn about and react to the divorce. 

The personal and family changes generated by divorce are usually extensive, and the ability to cope with the changes is challenging for everyone involved in the process. The way we manage our thoughts and our emotions is a key element for coping success. Additionally, we must also manage our behavior effectively so that every action we take will assist our recovery efforts. An important question to answer is this:  “What do I need to change in my daily behavior in order to recover effectively from my divorce?” There may be specific behaviors we need to decrease or stop altogether; we may need to start or increase other behaviors. Modifying our behavior system is not easy to do, but survival requires that we engage in behavior that will facilitate our recovery. Making these positive changes in our personal behavior is critically important as we strive to cope with the various changes that occur from the divorce.
As I think about coping with a crisis like divorce I recall a short poem written by Ella Wheeler Wilcox entitled “The Winds of Fate.”*** Though slightly different from the original version her words contain an important survival tip for us today.
             “Some ships sail east, and some sail west
              By the self-same winds that blow;
              It’s the set of the sails and not the gales
              That determine the way they go.”

The “winds of divorce” do not force us to go in a particular direction. We might not be able to stop the divorce, but we can choose our behavior as we respond to it. We can adjust our sails (that is, change our behavior) and thereby allow the “winds” to move us forward toward our goal of recovery. Effective recovery means that we practice good sailing skills in regard to “setting our sails.”

In reference to these first three steps you might be interested in several articles that I published earlier on this website. Three articles deal specifically with the management of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The titles include:  “Thoughts:  Managing My Mind”; “Emotions:  Managing My Mood”“Behavior:  Managing My Maze.” A related article is entitled “Surviving Emotional Wrecks.” Several other articles deal with managing anger, handling anxiety, and overcoming impulsiveness. You can find these articles in the Blogs section of the website. All article titles are listed as Published Articles under the Resources tab on the Home Page.  

Step #4:  “O” = OPTIONS! – “Optimize your Options!”

The fourth step in the divorce recovery process is to optimize your options. The key issue in this step is “options.” Many people feel hopeless when faced with a divorce because they do not see available or workable options for survival. Unfortunately, many of these individuals are so consumed by their emotionality that they are blinded from seeing options that are actually open to them. In regard to options you might appreciate a short poem by an unknown author about two men with very different perspectives in life. “Two men looked out through prison bars; the one saw mud, the other, stars.” During a divorce the strong temptation is to see only the “mud,” and there is usually plenty of mud present. However, we must also look up to see the “stars,” that is, our options that will help us to survive the divorce. 

The likely truth is “I have options!” The challenge is to identify and optimize these options. In other words, we have various choices about our reactions to the divorce and in regard to our efforts to move forward with our lives. Recalling and using the problem-solving skills we’ve learned in the past we will do our best and make the most of the options that are available to us. In doing so we’re able to travel more safely and successfully on Divorce Recovery Road.

Step #5:  “V” = VALUES! – “Verify your Values!”

The fifth step in the divorce recovery process is to verify your values. The key issue in this step is “values.” A divorce is definitely a time for clarifying and confirming your basic beliefs about people, relationships, and everyday living. A crisis like divorce can lead us to question our personal value system, and in our pain and distress we could reject positive values and accept negative values. Due to trust betrayals we may be tempted to distrust everyone. We could give in to deep resentment and painful bitterness. When our hearts are hurting we might want to punish the offender and retaliate for perceived offenses.  As we examine our own contributions to the divorce we could conclude that we have personal shortcomings and harmful behaviors that need to be considered and corrected. This reassessment and verification of our values is not itself a bad thing to do; actually, it can help us to strengthen the values we choose for the remainder of our lives. Additionally, the assessment can help us to formulate relationship expectations that are more realistic and healthier than what we valued in the past.  

Step #6: “E” = ESSENTIALS! – “Establish your Essentials!” 

The sixth step in the divorce recovery process is to establish the essentials.  The key issue in this step is “essentials.” During divorces most people do well just to survive. Much of life has to be placed “on hold” in order to attend to the basics of day-to-day survival. Our focus needs to be upon simplification as we strive “just to get through today.” We must understand the importance of self-caring and we must work hard to take appropriate care of ourselves, especially in regard to sleep, exercise, nutrition, and other health-related issues.  This work of self-caring does not mean that we have become selfish, but rather it means that we’re trying to avoid the unhealthy extremes of selfishness and self-neglect. Positive self-caring is simply a process of practicing personal stewardship and individual responsibility.

Step #7:  “R” = RESOURCES! – “Recruit your Resources!”

The seventh step in the divorce recovery process is to recruit your resources. The key issue in this step is “resources.” Most people who are trying to endure and survive a divorce do not feel sufficiently competent to deal with all of the changes and challenges. Thus, they need to identify current and potential resources which can help them in their travels along Divorce Recovery Road. These resources often consist of family members and close friends. Also included could be co-workers from our jobs and specific members of our church family. Professionals such as attorneys, physicians, and mental health therapists can be part of our resource system. Many people find a great deal of strength and encouragement through participating in a local divorce recovery support group. Many churches directly provide ongoing divorce classes or groups, or they allow national chapters to meet in their church facilities. For example, Beginning Experience and DivorceCare are two well-known support group resources that probably have chapters or meetings in your community. Sometimes a divorced person does not want to attend a group setting but does want to learn and grow. These individuals can find a great deal of helpful information through online websites or through appropriate books and videos.  Relevant resources are available. Our challenge is to recruit these resources and to use them effectively in our recovery efforts.

Thus far we’ve explored briefly seven steps that can improve your recovery from your divorce. Clearly, each step merits much more attention than space allows in this brief article. However, given the space limitations, I hope that the material will get you started in the right direction and will motivate a search for additional assistance.


In terms of divorce our survival and recovery are not an easy or simple process. There are numerous issues that are very relevant to our healing and ultimate recovery. While space limits our ability to explore these issues in depth I would like to identify several topics that you may need to consider and resolve.

(1) Letting go of the past.  A divorce means the end of a marriage—and the need to let go of the past. This letting-go action could involve the extension of forgiveness to an offender or betrayer. We may have to release physical possessions or a preferred lifestyle. We have to let go of certain dreams we had for the marriage and for the future. The negative emotions that keep us in turmoil need to be released. We cannot move forward effectively if we stubbornly carry with us a huge sack of negative emotionality. One divorced lady expressed this “letting go” concept quite well when she said, “We just have to cut our losses and move on the best we can.” To the greatest extent possible we will strive to let go of the past and to move forward into the future.
(2) Dealing with special times. Following a divorce most people struggle a great deal with special days or special occasions. These times include wedding anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and other specific events. These occasions must be identified so that preparations can be made to decrease suffering and to increase survival. For example, one divorced woman reported the suffering she had been experiencing on Saturday mornings because those times had been very special for her and her husband. Unfortunately, she would wake up on a typical Saturday to an empty, unplanned day. By mid-morning she was in deep emotional trouble and the rest of her day would feel like sheer misery. After considering the negative pattern she was using she agreed never to go to bed on Friday night without a clear plan for the next day. She began to schedule activities and outings for Saturday mornings so that she was forced to get up, get dressed, and get out of the house. In doing so she learned how to cope with a special time that had been lost. Similar preparation must be made for anniversaries and holidays. When these painful special days are under consideration a good rule to follow is this:  “Never wake up to an empty, unplanned day.” So, we must plan well—and then work the plan! 
(3) Struggling with boundaries.   Another relevant issue revolves around boundaries with the ex-spouse. Each divorced person must determine the wisdom of having personal contact with the “ex,” whether by phone calls, emails, texts, or face-to-face encounters. In some situations the best boundary might be “zero contact,” whereas some interaction might be best in other situations. When children are involved some amount of interaction is usually necessary to coordinate their activities and to fulfill their needs. The setting and enforcement of healthy boundaries with an ex-spouse requires both wisdom and assertiveness.

(4) Considering a remarriage. Most people who have experienced divorce really struggle with a variety of remarriage issues, especially if the marital breakup represents an unwanted divorce. Recognizing the harsh reality that the majority of remarriages fail and painful additional divorces occur, every divorced person should be extremely cautious about entering into another marriage relationship. Unfortunately, most divorced individuals ignore this reality and blindly plunge ahead into another marriage, only to find that the same negative patterns that destroyed the prior relationship continue onward to wreak havoc with the next marriage. Most remarriages involve children, and stepfamily issues become part of the new reality. I’ve worked with hundreds of stepfamily situations, and with few exceptions they contain a high level of unexpected stress and challenge. What looked like an attractive “ideal” quickly became a miserable “ordeal.” The complexities of trying to work with multiple ex-spouses and difficult child-custody arrangements usually result in a level of constant stress that erodes and destroys the remarriage relationship. Therefore, if you are considering a remarriage let me recommend that you follow a wise “rule of the road”:  “Slow—Proceed with Caution!”
What do you think would happen to the rate of divorce if every person contemplating a divorce would commit to the standard of remaining single throughout the rest of life? If we knew that, following a divorce, we would never be in another marriage we would most likely put much more effort into resolving our current marital problems. A “one marriage per person per lifetime” commitment would definitely have a huge impact on the current divorce rate and would prevent a great deal of unnecessary human suffering. However, I’m quite certain that current culture and human nature would most likely receive this solution as unappealing and unwelcomed. So, the suffering will continue.
(5) Resolving spiritual conflicts. In my therapy work and in Divorce Recovery workshops I’ve seen many people going through divorces who expressed a wide range of inner conflicts related to spiritual values. People who go through a divorce with little or no interest in the spiritual dimension of divorce experience no significant inner conflict with such values. In contrast, many other individuals struggle intensely with the impact of divorce on their personal spiritual faith. For example, there was Paul,* a Christian young man who did not want a divorce because, among other things, he understood that a divorce is a clear violation of the Scriptures. However, his wife pushed the divorce through and, in spite of his preferences, Paul wound up becoming a divorced, single adult. In talking about his divorce he openly referred to specific Scriptures about divorce and knew that he and his wife had transgressed God’s will for marriage. He mentioned the Old Testament scripture that clearly stated, “God hates divorce,” as well as Jesus’ teachings that condemned divorce, with adultery being the only exception given.**** Since adultery had not been an issue in his marriage Paul believed that he had done wrong. He also believed from the Scriptures that remarriage was not allowed because he had not had a scriptural divorce. He felt a great deal of apprehension about his ability to live a single lifestyle of celibacy and self-control, but he committed himself to follow the Scriptures and to trust God for the strength to practice his Christian faith. People who believe and follow the Bible can certainly identify with Paul in terms of his beliefs about marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Another Christian man agreed with Paul’s basic conclusions but acknowledged the complexity of many marriage and divorce situations. In reference to these complicated relationships he stated, “Only God above knows what goes on behind closed doors. I understand what God’s general rule is for permission to divorce. I’ll let Him handle any other exceptions.” The spiritual implications about divorce and remarriage are indeed significant and merit our best consideration.

These five issues are only a few of the many relevant issues that divorced people have to face and resolve. A successful recovery program will involve efforts to consider these issues and to work toward some level of meaningful resolution.

As we work on the seven steps described earlier and on these five tough issues our goal is to make consistent progress in our travel along Divorce Recovery Road. In regard to your personal progress perhaps you’ve asked yourself, “How am I doing?” I’ve heard that question, or an equivalent question, on many occasions. To assist people in their efforts to track their progress I’ve developed a brief worksheet that focuses upon six different areas of divorce. The specific areas were originally suggested by Paul Bohannon in his chapter entitled “The Six Stations of Divorce” published in the book, Divorce and After.** As identified by Bohannon the six areas are: Legal Divorce, Parental Divorce, Economic Divorce, Emotional Divorce, Community Divorce, and Intrapsychic Divorce. In Part One of the worksheet I present several key features of each area, and then in Part Two I provide a form for assessing progress in each of the six areas. On the assessment form progress would be evidenced by movement from the left side toward the right side of each continuum. The worksheet is entitled “Divorce Recovery:  Assessing My Progress” (If you’re interested in using this worksheet a link is provided at the end of this article.)

Concluding Thoughts . . .

As emphasized earlier, our travel on Divorce Recovery Road is almost always a difficult and challenging journey. The complexity of divorce recovery merits much more attention than is possible in this current discussion. My hope is that the material shared will encourage you and equip you to travel more safely and successfully as you move forward in your recovery journey.

Clearly, the best solution is to prevent the divorce through a resolution of marital issues and a joint effort to move the marriage toward increased healthiness and happiness. However, if a divorce has occurred and you’re trying to survive the journey, I urge you to identify and use the appropriate resources that are available to you. If you are forced to travel on Divorce Recovery Road, I wish for you a journey that will include personal healing and positive growth.

*Names:  The names used in this article (Bert, Mary, and Paul) are not specific individuals. Rather, they are fictionalized to represent men and women everywhere who struggle with divorce issues and recovery challenges. Their stories, however, are real.

**Bohannon, Paul, Ed. (1970). Divorce and After. New York:  Doubleday, 1970. (Chapter: “The Six Stations of Divorce”)

***Wilcox, Ella Wheeler. “The Winds of Fate.” Published in “The Treasury of Religious Verse.” Donald T. Kauffman, Compiler. New York: Pyramid Books, 1962 (P. 112)

****The Scriptures referenced by Paul are Malachi 2:16 and Matthew 5:31-32/19:1-9.
VIDEO:  To view a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Divorce:  The Road to Recovery" please click on the image to the right or you can click here.

Worksheet: If you want to examine Dr. Baker’s worksheet for assessing progress during the divorce recovery process you can click on the title below. (PDF Format)
                “Divorce Recovery: Assessing My Progress”


Related Articles: Dr. Baker has written and published on this website a related article entitled “Divorce:  Discerning Your Decision.” That article deals with the decision-making process and contains information about Discernment Counseling. Another article focuses upon how divorce impacts children and how we can help our children survive the divorce. To read either article please click on the title below.
                      “Divorce:  Discerning Your Decision”
                      “Divorce:  Helping our Children Survive”
Bibliography:  Dr. Baker has compiled a list of helpful books  that deal with divorce recovery issues along with links to support groups. You can find that list in the Resources section of this website (Categories/ Divorce Recovery), or you can click on the title below.
                      “Divorce Recovery Bibliography”

 Additional Resource:                 

Hawkins, Alan J. and Fackrell, Tamara A. (2009). "Should I Keep Trying to Work it Out?" (A Guidebook for Individuals and Couples at the Crossroads of Divorce (And Before). Salt Lake City, UT:  Utah Commission on Marriage.
 This guidebook contains information and worksheets that can assist you in your decision-making about staying in your marriage or pursuing a divorce. The material was developed in conjunction with the Utah Commission on Marriage.

To access this guidebook (in PDF format) please click on the image to the right or click on the listing below.
                    Guidebook: Crossroads of Divorce


(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)
           (Divorce Recovery #1102)


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