Roughly 27 months ago, I separated from my wife of 10 years; early last year, our divorce was finalized. In works of fiction, newly emancipated men inevitably spiral into eyebrow-raising excess to evade grief and (perhaps) eventually fishtail toward self-understanding. It turns out that in real life, divorce is both messier and less dramatically compelling: a null void of dripping sinks, aimless walks, and unindexable ennui.
Here, then, is a basic road map from shell shock to a place of contented freedom. The more complex, nuanced struggles specific to your circumstances are up to you to overcome, of course, though in any event you probably shouldn’t join a cult, prostitute yourself with abandon, take up cigarettes again, dabble in hard drugs, drink all day long, enlist in the Foreign Legion, or shamelessly beg your ex to take you back.
DON’T be that ex. So: Mistakes were made, things fell apart, your horse never came in, sadness savaged the valley. That’s no excuse to become the second lead in a Lifetime Movie of the Week about an abusive stalker ex. Seething, sniping, and getting off magnificently withering hip-shots may feel fantastic in the short term, but ultimately, they don’t do anyone any good. Not your ex, who is trying to get on with his or her life; not your kids (if you have them), whose worlds have been transformed in ways neither they nor you have yet to even understand (maybe later, in therapy); and certainly not you, a stunned, raw nerve. (Consider the family pets, too, if you’re up for a serious pity party.) And while you’re only truly responsible for yourself and your own actions, remember that pith and pettiness benefit absolutely no one. With your ex, strive for civility, equanimity, and decency; with the children, practice patience, be present, and be willing to listen at any time of the day or night.
For me, the example of my parents—who split when I was six years old—made my own divorce far less traumatic than it otherwise might have been. Neither of them ever disparaged the other in my presence, asked me to act as a spy, or used me as a tool or bargaining chip. Instead, they praised one another’s best qualities to me, and we came together as a family unit at times whenever I had a big life decision to make or a problem to solve. This sense of balance, fairness, and team spirit bled over into my own life, both in my general diplomatic instincts and in the approach my ex-wife and I use in parenting our own son today.
DO embrace the fam and the squad. At the outset, separation and divorce will strike you as a very personal failure; months or even years later, they can still weigh heavily on one’s sense of self-worth, and the temptation to completely cut off all loved ones out of anger and/or shame is undeniable. But don’t do this. It’s important to remember—to truly remember—that long before you became a husband or wife, you were a son or daughter, a good friend, a nephew or niece, a grandson or granddaughter, an uncle or aunt, and a confidante to many. You might’ve burned a couple bridges en route to where and who you are now, but doubtless a few still stand. Imagine these as lifelines, and picture yourself as a floundering contestant on a fictional game show called Who Wants to Be a Viable Adult? Life isn’t always an Ernest Hemingway novel; if you’re drowning in bathos, reach out and clutch someone.
DON’T allow social media to swallow you whole. The ease with which anyone can tumble into a Facebook or Twitter wormhole is breathtaking. One moment you’re commenting on the post of an acquaintance, and then—all of a sudden—three or four hours have gone missing, and you’re somehow even more alone than you were beforehand, and likely even more depressed. It isn’t so much the desperate, false persona so many people present, but the stunning amount of effort poured into the development and nurturing of said personas; it isn’t so much that social media interactions and connections are tenuous, but that they can never quite substitute for spending real time in a physical space with other people you can see and touch. You could’ve used that precious time to take a walk, to wash the dishes, to catch up with a parent or a friend, to write, to read a book, to research a potential escapade, to try out a new recipe, to finally learn a foreign language. You can’t, though! You can’t get any of that time back. Surrendering an entire evening to social media is even worse than surrendering an entire evening to a bad movie or a subpar TV season.
DO try new things. You’re free! You’re out on your own, living a transformed life. There is no reason that you can’t or shouldn’t do something you’ve never done before. Sign up for a glass-blowing course. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Fly kites. Take up the bongos. Go for a hot-air balloon ride. Join an adult soccer league. Grab the homies for a cross-country trip. If you’ve always meant to read the complete works of William Faulkner, there’s no time like the present. In fact ...
DON’T rest on your multimedia laurels. With age comes unconscious entrenchment in movies, novels, music, video games, and other media that form cornerstones of who we’ve become. GoodFellas is a funny, gritty jolt worth rewatching, and I’ve spun Pavement’s Wowee Zowee at least 1,000 times, but they’re comfort food, and I return to them only occasionally, never constantly. Could you sleepwalk through The Sopranos yet again? Sure you could—and it’s not as though anyone can stop you—but why not give Show Me a Hero a shot, check out that Frederick Wiseman film series at the art-house theatre, or scope out High Maintenance online? Never allow your media crushes to become crutches; never stagnate if evolution is an option.
DO count (and recount) your blessings. Everyone has at least a handful of things to be thankful for, and there’s no need to wait until November to enumerate and (internally) celebrate them. Counterbalance exercises can be helpful; I’ll go first. My day job may not be ideal, but my freelance writing career is flourishing; maybe I lack the chiseled physique of a Men’s Health cover model, but at least I’m not functionally immobile. My debt level is higher than I wish it were, but there’s light at the end of that particular tunnel; happiness is sometimes elusive, but at the same time, I’ve got myriad ways to find it available to me. When you work to focus on the positives in your life, and play down the negatives, it becomes clear just how fortunate you really are.
DON’T blow a wad on a bunch of shit you don’t really need. Just like that, your finances are truly your finances. Depending on income level and child-support obligations, you could cop everything from books and boxed sets to cigarette boats and fancy European vacations. And while there’s something seductive and empowering about this enhanced purchasing power, it’s worth remembering—nay, it’s essential to remember—that money can’t buy anyone true happiness. Take it from somebody with a full hard drive and shelves cluttered with physical media he totally thought he needed.
DO purge pantry and closet alike. You aren’t the same you, no matter what the mirror has to say. You’re the new, independent you. So why wear the same clothes and eat using the same dishes as the old you? Why settle? Why wallow? Very slowly and purposefully phase out all those plates and jeans—expel them, and then replace them. Face it: You needed new jockey shorts, anyway.
DON’T eat out alone if you can help it. Dining out by your lonesome is exciting, even invigorating, at first. You choose where you want to eat, what, when, and how to tip. No arguments about place or entree; no waiting for others to show up so you can finally order. Wanna skim a magazine while inhaling a pizza? You absolutely can. And for a while, at least, the experience retains that semi-punk jolt of individuality, as you pity every other cluster of strangers and marvel at how miserable they seem to be in one another’s company.
But then, all of a sudden, something changes, and you start to see yourself through their eyes, and recognize yourself as That Guy Who Is Always Eating Out Alone, forcing small talk on waitstaff who humor you while casting sad, furtive glances at anyone who may or may not be likewise pitying your solitude. Breaking bread with another person isn’t always logistically possible, but try to make it happen, even if it isn’t someone you know intimately or if you have to invite yourself to the tables of acquaintances who happen to be dining at the same time. A little human interaction goes a long way, even if wind up splitting nachos with a friend of a friend who you don’t even like that much.
DO get away from your home. It’s easy to forget this, but there’s a whole wide world beyond your front door—and the more time you spend in it, the happier and healthier you’ll be. By this, I don’t mean that you have to pressure yourself into new friendships or drain your bank account. You could just as easily explore a nearby city on foot or lose an afternoon in a library. Remember: This life is only as dull and despairing as we allow it to be.
Raymond Cummings is a writer and critic living in Lewisburg, PA. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, The Village Voice, SPIN, and Splice Today; “Vigilante Fluxus,” his latest collection of poetry, was published in February.
Lead art by Sam Woolley.