To the casual observer, maybe you were the perfect couple—the nubby fabric to each other’s Velcro, the oat milk to his latte. But on the road called adulthood, lots of things lose their magic. That industrial-strength, chocolate-flavored goo we ate on sandwiches in kindergarten? Wouldn’t touch it now. Relationships can be like that.
THAT’S OK. YOU’RE MOVING ON.
By Rachel Slade
Breakups are never easy, no matter who initiates the split. By nature, decoupling injects fear and doubt into so many parts of our lives. It can make us question our very identity: How could we have been so wrong about something so important? And because many of the things that seem to matter most in society are at stake—who our friends are, our economic standing, where we live—breaking up muddies our thinking; it can leave us feeling ungrounded, and it can turn our support systems upside down.
Twelve years ago, when my first marriage ended, I suddenly found myself lost in a strange and unfamiliar world. Up to that point, I’d spent most of my adult years as half of a pair, and suddenly I was…alone. Or so it felt at the time. During my divorce, people whom I’d assumed would always be there for me vanished. Others fumbled along, offering questionable advice and mixed messages. (My own mother, who has been married to my father for 51 years, still wistfully recalls things that happened at my first wedding while forever stumbling over the name of my current husband of nine years.) Some friends hedged their bets, picked sides, or went silent. Traitors! I thought.
Somewhere deep down, though, I had the feeling that I’d come out OK. I’d spent most of my adult life playing roles—mother, wife, daughter-in-law, student, employee—and in the midst of this breakup-induced gigantic upheaval, I hoped I could reclaim myself. Indeed, every major life event—even a difficult one—offers us the opportunity to recalibrate and reconnect, says Elizabeth Rowan, a yoga teacher and healer in Atlanta who went through her own divorce several years ago. “I’m a big proponent of diving into the dark, where we can discover what we are pushing away but could learn to hold,” she says.
For healers like Rowan, mindfulness, yoga, and meditation are gifts—a collective wisdom distilled from the experiences of countless others who found their way back to the light. At their essence, these tools teach us that we have the power within ourselves to weather whatever life throws our way.
Isn’t that exactly the narrative that underpins every yoga sesh, from Boston to Boise? That breathing through adversity makes us more resilient? That it takes immense strength to find stillness when we’re uncomfortable? That every practice builds toward something greater than ourselves?
But how can these techniques be harnessed during the craziness of a separation? To answer that question, I reached out to psychologists, divorce lawyers, researchers, yoga teachers, and life coaches—many of whom had gone through their own big breakups. I asked each of them to describe the particular aspects of divorce that make it one of life’s most stressful events. Then I asked them about the tools they use to guide their clients (and themselves) through the journey.
Of course, every breakup is different. But a surprising number of the emotions we experience during uncoupling are the same across sex, gender, and age. Which is good news for all of us, no matter where we may be in the process, because it means that when we come face to face with the end of a relationship as we know it, we can take full advantage of the wisdom of the ages.
Through yoga and meditation, we gain insight from the countless people who came before us and grappled with the pain and joy of the human condition; their gift—handed down through the philosophy that is the foundation of these practices—is the knowledge that by accepting change, we can find grace in adversity. Their teachings reassure us that everything we’re feeling now has been felt before. They remind us that this, too, shall pass.
This isn’t magical thinking. It’s about using mindfulness to navigate times of tremendous change. Because how you manage during this transitional moment will shape who you will be on the other side of it. I wish I knew then what I know now. If I’d had a yoga practice in the midst of my divorce, I would have understood that time was on my side—that there is strength in the pause. That I didn’t have to react right away. I would have known that pain is a fundamental part of life, just as much as pleasure, and that I needed to give myself permission to lean into the rage, fear, and hurt, as well as the healing. I would have acknowledged the confusion and questioned the shame. I would have learned that I am never alone. At any given moment, people around the world are stepping into a breakup, in the middle of one, recovering, and moving on. So let me begin by offering you this: However long your breakup takes (and divorce can be a marathon), eventually you will find yourself on the other side. I promise. And if you choose to proceed with mindfulness, remember that the goal is not to exit the marriage with the most stuff—that’s an awfully crude and unproductive way to keep score of your life. But you already knew that.
Taking any negative experience—the tears, the fury, the discovery—and muddling through it with grace to emerge stronger, wiser, and more resilient than ever before is part of what life is truly about. To become more yourself. To establish peace, knowledge, and a community that will carry you throughout the rest of your days.
Like steel forged in the hottest fire.
Like the autumn tree strengthened by a dozen summer storms.
You will bend, not break.
Let’s make sense of all this
It’s not just you: Ending long-term relationships can make anyone feel a little nuts. Breakups tap deep into our most primal emotions. From birth, our survival has depended on developing strong attachments—indelible emotional bonds with family and friends who, in exchange for our love, have shared resources and wisdom with us. They’ve fed us and we’ve thrived. These relationships are “so core to our survival as a species,” explains psychologist and divorce counselor Lisa Gabardi, PhD, “that our safety is tied up in belonging.”
When we choose a life partner, we form a deep emotional bond. If that partnership ends, and statistics suggest it might, we’re forced to deal with the rupture of a primary emotional attachment. Loss of an important bond—with a parent, a friend, a loved one—whether or not the relationship was a healthy one, naturally triggers a panic response. We’re hardwired to cultivate relationships for survival, so losing one can feel like the end, Gabardi explains. That’s why, with any major loss, we find ourselves doing and saying things we never, ever imagined we would.
Uncoupling is a special kind of loss. The person we mourn has not died. In fact, they’re very much still woven into the fabric of our lives: We’re going to have to interact with them whether we like it or not while we sort things out. What’s worse, divorce proceedings can feel engineered to stoke the fight-or-flight response: While we’re processing the loss of a partner, we’re expected to negotiate for fundamental necessities such as money, time with our children, our home. You may find yourself fighting for your share of limited resources with the very person who at this moment you never want to see again.
I think what’s most disorienting in a divorce is how quickly someone you once loved and trusted can flip from life partner to adversary. In my own divorce, I first suggested mediation. I hoped that avoiding lawyers would reduce the impending stress and cost. My ex agreed. But once I was in the room opposite him with the mediator in the middle, I had trouble advocating for myself. My ex had always been fair and equitable, but here he was (understandably) fighting for his share. There was no one to protect me and look out for my interests but me. I felt more alone than I ever had, and of course, I felt panic creeping in from all sides. I stopped the mediation and got myself a lawyer.
My frenzy set me on a course that took years to recover from. I had trouble finding stability within myself, which made me impatient in my work and as a parent. I pushed so hard to balance everything on my own that that period of my life is now a blur. I feel like I missed part of my daughter’s growing up because I wasn’t fully present. (Don’t worry, she’s fine. Kids are more resilient than we give them credit for. See page 94 for more on parenting.) Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way.
The secret to keeping your sanity during times of transition and healing is to first find the ground beneath you and let it hold you up, says Rowan. Any time, day or night, give yourself permission to pause and understand that the moment you are in is part of a much longer continuum. There is no up without down. No light without dark.
Rather than pursuing strictly “good vibes only,” Rowan says we can practice honoring the full spectrum of our emotions and experiences. “We have to acknowledge the natural cycle of life. What it means to be human. I’m not condoning losing your shit at Whole Foods, but honor the inevitable anger that will come with the dissolution of a relationship without adding a second layer of shame.” (For some reason, Whole Foods came up a lot in my divorce interviews. Have we been conditioned to associate the brand with the perfect life we’ll never have? If so, I’d say that avoiding WF is part of the healing process.)
Divorce coach Lisa Gabardi, PhD, uses this exercise to help her patients acknowledge the here and now.
1. Notice when you’re obsessing, lost in a rage, swamped with sorrow, or in a fear loop.
2. Close your eyes and take a deep breath, bringing your awareness back to the present moment.
3. Focus on elements in your environment to ground yourself. Touch your fingertips together; feel your feet on the solid ground beneath you and the cool air inside your nostrils as you inhale—the promise of the new path ahead; feel warm air exit as you exhale, and with it, breathe out lingering negativity or toxicity.
4. Say to yourself, “I believe in my inner strength and natural capacity to heal. I will get through this difficult time. In this moment, I am safe.”
5. Respond, “I am all right, here and now.”
See things differently. Look through the lens of compassion.
An important part of healing (and negotiating, and parenting, and functioning in the world) is learning to look at things from different perspectives. By understanding what motivates others to say or do harmful things, for example, we are less likely to internalize their anger. We can be more dispassionate and less reactive when we understand that much of the stress in a breakup comes from fear—an emotion that causes normally sane adults to act out. How you react, or don’t, can have a profound effect on your ex as you both work through the nitty-gritty of separation.
When Lisa Talev, a Tucson-based holistic health coach, learned that her husband wanted a divorce, she immediately tapped into more than a decade’s worth of Reiki, massage, yoga, and healing training, and used it to stay open and cool-headed. “I knew we didn’t have to make it ugly,” she says.
She used the gym to burn off a lot of her anger early in her divorce. But in her meditation, she adopted
a loving process to invite compassion in. “The spirit of namaste says that if you loved each other once, then conscious uncoupling honors the other’s spirit,” she says. “When we married, we underwent a sacred ritual to bond ourselves in the community, so we deserved conscious uncoupling to undo that bond.”
Talev approached her divorce with the same loving energy that she put forth in her marriage: “Rather than tear him down, I honored him. I recognized that we had shared a magical time together but that we weren’t life-partner material. If we stayed together, we wouldn’t reach our full potential and happiness, so we had to move on.”
She found a yoga instructor who focused on heart- and hip-opening and sought out those classes whenever she felt overwhelmed. “Hips are the miscellaneous drawer in the kitchen where we stuff everything we don’t know what to do with,” Talev says. In her yoga practice, she embraced every opportunity to “dump out the junk drawer, restore my body, and remind myself that it’s going to be OK.” She recalls one teacher suggesting breathing into the front of the heart to take in all the new and good energy surrounding her, then exhaling out the back of the heart to release the past and any pain the body may be holding onto.
“In the yoga studio, I would find this core I didn’t realize I had—ooh that power—and I was able to tap into a peacefulness inside of me,” says Talev. “With this clarity, I could take a deep breath during confrontations and say, ‘OK, let’s talk, not fight.’ ”
But through that release, she also found a way to look at the divorce from a different perspective. “We didn’t have to set the relationship on fire,” she says. “It had outlived its purpose. I recognized that it was time to move on. It’s an act of love to set each other free.”
Shake it off Battle the Shame Wizard
In the blur of my divorce, one day stands out: On a gorgeous New England afternoon just before Thanksgiving, I stopped at a suburban Whole Foods (yep, Whole Foods) to pick up some packaged something-or-other for dinner. I walked through the parking lot and suddenly found myself surrounded by perfect families pushing carts overflowing with turkeys and sweet potatoes and pies and flowers. I saw Volvos and lacrosse sticks and duffel bags and school uniforms, and in every back seat, a glossy golden retriever seemed to be wagging her tail.
For the first time as an adult, I found myself on the outside looking into my life. I was single and temporarily childless, an apartment-dwelling, underfunded, underemployed, homewrecking pariah. I was rudderless and alone. You ruined everything, my inner voice screamed. You destroyed your family. You will never feel happiness again, you don’t deserve to feel joy—now or ever. Single woman alone in a Whole Foods parking lot? Shame! Shame! I shrank back into my car and drove away, suffocating on my pain and tears for what I’d lost, for the mess I’d made, for all the suffering I’d caused.
I didn’t have a name for that voice then, but I do now. He’s the Shame Wizard—a ghoulish phantom—the cruelest of all inner voices, the one that twists perfectly normal feelings into crippling self-loathing. He’s shrewd and persistent. He’s also a regular character on the show Big Mouth, an improbably brilliant comedy that follows prepubescent protagonists through the middle school journey. In the series, the Shame Wizard shows up at the worst times to make the tweens feel guilty and shameful for their very normal hormonal urges. (“You’re a little perv,” he helpfully reminds one; “You’re a horny little slut”; “You caused your parents’ divorce.” )
When the Shame Wizard pipes up, he’ll tell you that he’s doing it for your own good—he only wants to make us better people by embarrassing us into behaving properly. He thrives on our deepest fears, like that nagging notion that maybe we’re abnormal, aberrant, secretly awful people—and that our loathsomeness is the root cause of everyone’s suffering.
But the Shame Wizard is dead wrong. Beating ourselves up gets us nowhere. We’ve got work to do, and we don’t have time to wallow in
a self-loathing pity-fest. Yoga teacher Elizabeth Rowan knows how to quiet shame. The trick, she says, is to embrace all the mixed-up feelings you’re experiencing and recognize when shame sneaks in through the backdoor to make you feel rotten. The Shame Wizard is a clever one; he knows when you’re vulnerable. Identifying him and his dirty tricks is the first step toward processing all of your emotions—every single one—as completely normal parts of the breaking-up process. The anger. The fear. The hope. The doubt. The joy. Even that lurking sense of failure that you couldn’t save the marriage. OK, you couldn’t save the marriage. So what? That’s in the past now. Blame has no place here.
Whatever forces led to the end of the relationship, accept that it is done and allow the healing to begin. Accept all of it as part of your life journey. “Honor the rage, the sacred rage, the metabolizing energy, and the hurt,” Rowan says. “Honor whatever you’re housing.” Let these emotions flow through you. Acknowledge them, then let them go. Remember that feelings are impermanent.
The catalog of breakup music is seemingly infinite because breakups are a universal theme in the human experience. Whenever you feel overwhelmed by shame or guilt, sing it out with T-Swift or Fiona.
A playlist—a mix of calming and empowering songs—can recharge and recenter. Keep one on your phone of your most resonant tunes, and whenever you need a better voice inside your head, pop in those earbuds and let the music take over. It’s OK to get off the couch and start dancing, too.
Need some help getting started? Try these defiant anthems for a mood lift.
The breakup playlist
- Taylor Swift – Shake it Off
- Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine
- Demi Lovato – Sorry Not Sorry
- Justin Bieber – Love Yourself
- Hailee Steinfeld – Love Myself
- Alanis Morissette – You Oughta Know
- Ariana Grande – Break Free
- BeyoncÉ – Irreplaceable
- Gloria Gaynor – I Will Survive
- Fleetwood Mac – Go Your Own Way
- Florence + the Machine -Shake It Out
- CHER – Strong Enough
Take care of yourself
In life—in love and grief and all the moments in between—the best thing we can do is regularly affirm that we’re doing the best we can. But that’s a habit few of us develop until we desperately need it. Caring for ourselves can feel self-indulgent. Checking in with the body and mind, listening to what each needs to feel warm and nourished—these aren’t things we always give ourselves permission to do, especially when we’re wrapped up in adulting.
And so, our connection to body and mind may have wilted a bit while we were busy taking care of everyone else.
Trust me, I know how long that beat-yourself-up list can be, because I’ve made plenty of my own.
Simply losing the diurnal rhythms that once drove our lives leaves us feeling ungrounded and overwhelmed. I get it.
But separating also offers you a tremendous gift. You are now free to set your own rhythm, one that could include more purposeful self-care. Build that into your life now, and you will have it forever more.
Elizabeth Rowan cautions that no yoga posture or soothing music or asana sequence could have fully supported her through the experience: “None of that can replace time, process, and sitting with ourselves in our darkness and light.” One way she now helps clients in these moments of massive transition is by working with them to create a traveling altar, a collection of personally meaningful objects that can serve as a meditative aid. “Meditation is a beautiful technique because it is grounding,” she says. “Wherever I was—I changed cities, houses, jobs—meditation became a constant.” It’s easy to lose sight of the divine and the Self when you’re in the day-to-day survival mode, she says. Creating a traveling altar that’s not space-specific provides a steady, grounding visual path and connection to the Self and something greater. During times of upheaval, its mobility is
a reminder that we’re always moving and growing.
Throughout time, people from all cultures have carried personal altars, from pocket shrines dating back to the Middle Ages (carried by pilgrims) to the bag of mystical objects, called a mesa, that Peruvian shamans bring with them to channel the divine when healing others.
Create an altar for you
You might be packing up the home you thought you’d grow old in. You may be in a transitional space—a new apartment or hotel, or camping out at a friend’s or parent’s house. At this shaky, ungrounded moment, you’ll benefit from something that’s absolutely, exclusively your own. Try having something that can travel—objects to arrange on a tray or an altar you can easily pack and unpack and keep in the corner of a room. Rowan suggests including keepsakes, photos, stones, elements of earth, and candles that can serve to remind you that you’re connected to something greater. The act of building and rebuilding your altar in different spaces is a way of establishing a place as your own, even if it’s only temporary.
Stay cool, calm, and rational
In divorce or any other breakup, you will need clarity. The good news is that we have thrived in the world as naked, clawless, and fangless animals simply because we are natural problem-solvers. Our minds are happiest when they’re working toward solutions. And at the end of the day, uncoupling really is about solving problems and forging ahead.
To that end, controlling your breath will become your superpower. In humans, sensing (real and perceived) threats can trigger an automatic physiological response. When this happens, the breath quickens and gets shallower. Short, rapid breathing fires up the body’s automatic fight-or-flight response; adrenaline floods in. Panic sets all of your perception systems on stun, bypassing higher-level brain function.
This science is well established: Again and again, researchers have shown that excessive anxiety inhibits cognition, which includes memory, speech and language, complex perception, orientation, attention, judgment, planning, and decision-making. When we’re frightened, provoked, or threatened, our amygdala—the most primitive part of the brain—takes over, triggering a system-wide physiological response primed to detect and react to physical threats and propel the body into action. This panic reaction overrides executive functioning because, frankly, if the cave bear is about to attack, who has time to reason with it or question its motives?
Called the fight, flight, or freeze response (FFF), this reaction has its uses. It’s the reason we jump away from a swerving car without even thinking. But in the modern world, most high-anxiety situations—a test, a deadline, a public-speaking engagement, a divorce—are best handled by cooler heads. Your lawyer may want you to calculate your monthly expenses, a perfectly reasonable request, but inside, your anxious, hyperstimulated brain may be screaming, “Screw it! The end is nigh!”
Non-physical threats such as vicious emails, texts, or phone calls can trigger the FFF response just as physical threats do. Calming the amygdala through breathing and mindfulness techniques and regular meditation allows us to quell the panic response to access higher cognitive functioning once again. When the panic reaction subsides, then the rational, thoughtful part of our brain has the space to lead the way.
So when the phone rings, pause. Is now a good time? Do you have the emotional bandwidth to manage your reaction? Are you grounded enough to stay focused? If not, let it go to voicemail. It’s most likely that nothing needs to be decided this very minute.
Same with email. I suggest creating a separate divorce-related email account. You can share this address with your lawyer. You can also set your other email accounts to auto-forward messages to this address from your ex and anyone else who might send highly charged missives your way. (Your mother? Your soon-to-be-ex-mother-in-law?) Now you control when and where you deal with this stuff.
Through trial and error, you will figure out the right time of day to tackle divorce stuff. Maybe post workout when your feel-good neurochemical levels are high, or after a glass of wine or your yoga practice.
Regardless, there will be times when you feel a compulsion to fire right back or freak out or collapse in a raging heap, but hang on. Remember that a panicked reaction isn’t coming from the best you.
Instead, try giving yourself the space to let those panicky feelings subside. Breathe deeply, take a bath or a walk, or do some stretching on your mat, all in the service of quieting the amygdala to access your clear-headed self—the person who makes careful decisions, plans for the future, and anticipates the consequences of actions. The panicked brain can only think about this very moment. But there will be a tomorrow, and a next week, and a next year. Now that you’re in a divorce, you need to be strategic. You need to begin writing your next chapter. So wait. A few hours or days can make all the difference in how you manage the challenges ahead.
LEAN INTO YOUR PRACTICE.
Many people I spoke to for this story had a yoga practice before their divorce but generally only considered it part of a physical health regimen. Alice Schlegel—mother, researcher, yoga teacher, and director of student activities at a community college outside of Seattle—had moved from Alabama to Washington state with her first husband and joined a yoga studio as a way to stay in shape and meet people. Then her relationship unraveled. Schlegel’s yoga studio became a safe place where she could focus on herself. “I didn’t feel at home when I was at home,” she says, “because my home was disappearing.”
She didn’t talk to others in the studio about her divorce; she kept yoga separate and sacred. “No one in my yoga space knew my spouse, so it was really my own place to be myself and not worry about who was going to bring up turmoil.”
Schlegel read more about yoga, tried different teachers, and went to as many classes as she could. “There was a void developing,” she says, “and I was filling it with knowledge and positivity.”
Like Schlegel, Elizabeth Rowan had a yoga practice, but she didn’t lean into it until her divorce was in full swing. Schlegel says that yoga became a “true necessity to navigate the process of uncoupling—integral and imperative to me reclaiming myself.”
How did her practice do that? “On a logistical level, yoga was critical for cultivating groundedness and steadiness when it felt like the world was ending,” she says. On a deeper level, she found that as one relationship was closing, her relationship with yoga was evolving dramatically. “The spiritual path proved to be a really beautiful lifelong bond,” she says. “I discovered that this path is its own marriage.”
Model mindfuless for kids
Author and educator Susan Kaiser Greenland has worked with children and families using mindfulness and meditation for more than two decades. Here, she offers guidance to help children cope with family challenges, such as divorce, throughout their lives.
It’s important to understand how the nervous system works. We all need a certain amount of stimulation to function—a deadline, a public-speaking date, a race. That small adrenaline boost we get from a moderate amount of stimulation ensures peak performance.
Too much stimulation, however, can send us into fight, flight, or freeze (FFF). In children, this is especially confusing because it can be interpreted as defiance. Kids cross their arms and seem to pull away or zone out. This behavior is actually
a sign that they are overstimulated.
When children go into reactive mode, their capacity to think clearly and respond to reason shrinks. They become closed off. This is when you should be available. Be with them; listen, acknowledge their feelings, and don’t expect them to talk it through right then.
It’s important for you to be present for your child so that they feel seen, loved, and conflict-free. When you’re grounded, your child can become grounded.
Interactions will not always be pleasant—don’t take what your child says or does personally. Recognize that they have mixed-up feelings and will need you to keep the space safe. Your job is to contain the situation without being reactive and allow them to feel their feelings. If you can’t respond calmly, you will only escalate the situation.
Of course, no parent is perfect. I made a huge mistake as a young parent: I’m a fixer and always tried to reason it out or find a consensus with my kids. I didn’t understand that in the midst of a meltdown, none of us had the bandwidth to work through the problem. But I learned that when a child is in FFF mode, you shouldn’t try to sort out the problem.
The wisdom doesn’t come from being perfect. We’re always going to lose it sometimes. Turn it into a teaching moment for both of you.
Recognize that it happens; circle back and apologize. Don’t hold yourself up to an unrealistic standard.
Prioritize your relationship over everything else. Your child may say they’re scrutinizing you, but most kids want to feel safe, loved, and have reasonable expectations about what’s going to happen next. It’s about creating a healthy, attuned parent-child connection, paying attention to what’s happening in the moment—not what’s going to happen next.
If you feel like what’s happening with your child is outside the norm, seek help from friends, family, the community, and professionals. We’re all stronger together.
Your bond with your child is not going to go away; it’s going to get deeper and even more fortified.
Walk together in nature, feel soap suds on your hands, create sensory experiences. These kinds of things keep you in the moment and ground you; they keep you connected.
Pro tip: When you need reinforcements fast, the Stop, Breathe & Think app can help guide stressed-out kids into more meditative, mindful states.