Illustration by Mal Jones
Illustration by Mal Jones

How To Reinvent Yourself After Divorce

By Renee Sklarew

Reinventing yourself after separation and divorce may take many forms. You move into a new condo. You refresh your appearance and begin investigating the world of online dating. You learn to share your beloved children. There will be ongoing negotiations with your ex that feel stressful at times. Change is hard, and you need to develop your support systems as you work through this transitional period. The good news is, besides family and friends, there are experts ready to take you by the hand and mentor you from beginning to end. These people will console you, inspire you and teach you how to come out looking and feeling like a winner.

Where Should I Live?

One of the first steps to moving on after divorce is choosing to live somewhere new. This decision depends on whether you have school-age children or not, says Betsy Voegtlin of Stepping Stone Real Estate Group. Her initial approach is to discuss two things: what the family’s needs are and what the client’s personal needs are. Then she helps them find whatever fits those needs. Voegtlin suggests touring the neighborhoods you’re considering and talking to people. If it’s a condominium, speak to the concierge. If it’s a house, meet some neighbors. “Get a feel, walk around, visit the property several times—go after work on a weekday and on the weekend. You’re not just buying a home; you’re buying a community.” Laura Schwartz of Keller Williams Real Estate serves two categories of people getting a divorce—those with kids and those without. “For the ones without kids, there is generally a social component as part of their housing requirement. At that point, they’re going back to single life,” Schwartz says. “Some want quiet, some want nightlife, and many go back to where they lived before they were married.” Often, one person stays in the family home, and the other moves to a more affordable place. Sometimes the couple sells their house because they either need the money or want to downsize. For those with children, school zones determine the new home base. “It’s difficult when a couple buys a house where they think they are raising their family and growing old together,” she says. “After a divorce, they have to let go of that dream.” Condominiums in Clarendon are known for their social scene, but Schwartz says it’s all of Metro’s Orange line. “Rosslyn has access to Georgetown; Courthouse has bars and restaurants; Ballston has added more social aspects since the mall renovations,” she says. “Del Ray and Old Town give single people the social component they might be looking for.” Homes in Northern Virginia are expensive, and for more than one bedroom, prices hover around $500,000. Schwartz says Reston Town Center and Mosaic District “are good compromises. They are more affordable, and there are lots of shops and restaurants in those areas.”

I’m Single—Now What?

Kristen Crockett was working as a life coach and motivational speaker when four of her close friends were getting a divorce. She says her friends described the experience as something like a death. They had been part of a couple for so long, and suddenly, they were making decisions on their own. “Separation time is crazy,” Crockett says. So Crockett designed some workshops for women and men dealing with divorce and separation. One woman had a breakdown after she and her spouse had been apart for one year,” Crockett explains. These emotions are similar to experiencing the death of a loved one. “Your friends start to choose between you and your spouse; the family gets caught up; your kids are involved. It’s a very confusing time.” Her concern for others led her to start a blog and coaching business called MidLoveCrisis.com.

Crockett believes the first year after divorce is not an ideal time to look for love. “You need to go through self-discovery,” she says. “Take time to evaluate what you need and reflect on what didn’t work.” During that process, consider your parents’ relationship and how it may be the road map you followed. Analyze the good qualities of your spouse and what attracted you. Lastly, evaluate what didn’t work in your marriage.

Crockett’s book, “The Gift of Past Relationships,” helps people assess past mistakes and learn from them. “It will help you discover who you are and the life you were meant to have,” she says. What about dating? “You have to look at dating as an area for growth.”

Crockett says before she married, she went on many dates. “I learned something from every date. Some people are scared to put up pictures. They don’t want to show their body, or they use old pictures,” she says. Crockett advises giving potential matches an honest representation of who you are—include hobbies and personality—then after exchanging emails, decide if you want to go on a date. But she cautions: “Love, career, family—all are intertwined. If you hate your job, it’s going to impact your relationships.

Make Me a Match

The D.C. area has a number of well-respected matchmakers with a passion for helping people. Michelle Jacoby of DC Matchmaking is a professional matchmaker who was also a single parent with three small children. Jacoby was frustrated with modern dating—getting ready, finding a babysitter, driving and being away from her kids. As a result, she developed her boutique matchmaking service. “Clients save up to work with me,” Jacoby says. “They’ve made love a priority. They want to be successful.”

Jacoby works hard, not only to find prospective matches for her clients, but also to help them prepare for dating. “You can have that happier ever after. But usually, after a divorce, you can’t see how your life will be. If you can just endure this time, you can look forward to a better one,” Jacoby says.

“People are so angry and unhappy. I wish I could show them their future.” She has clients who were stuck and unhappy in their marriages but have blossomed since their divorce. “It’s a time of self-discovery,” she says.

By the time people employ a matchmaking service, they’ve probably invested in a few unsuccessful relationships. Some people have focused primarily on their careers, and others seek better dating strategies. Jacoby insists the key is finding balance and not just devoting yourself to your kids. “People need love in their lives through friends and work. If you’re caught up in bitterness, it’s not time. If you need to say the word divorce more than once, you shouldn’t be on a date,” she says. Before Susan Trombetti was a matchmaker, she was a private investigator who saw a lot of marriages dissolve. She also experienced divorce herself. Her exclusive matchmaking serves many wealthy, prominent people, but she also helps those with budget constraints through her dating bootcamp. At this workshop, Trombetti brings in professionals to explain how to present yourself online and in person. She teaches attendees how to make a dating action plan, select a flattering wardrobe, use makeup and lash extensions and perfect their hairstyle—all for $300.

Trombetti says people must be open-minded after divorce. “When you adjust your expectations, you lose a lot of friction. You want a great person, but you don’t want them to dump their kids for you,” she says. “You have to be a strong, independent person who is doing things right by your children. These are desired qualities in a mate.”

Children Come First

Life coach Joan Jackson was married to an NFL player when their marriage broke up over infidelity: “There’s a lot of shame and embarrassment. Sometimes it feels worse than a death because you’re still dealing with that person if you have kids. It’s hard to recover from those emotions,” she says.

Kids from divorce go through some “tricky issues” explains Cathi Cohen, director of the counseling service In Step and author of three books on child development. Cohen says kids’ reactions vary by age-related development. “What you see in a 3-year-old and 14-year-old is entirely different,” she says. Young children can’t process what is happening. Under stress and trauma, toddlers will demonstrate tantrums and clinginess, or they might regress. Egocentric preschoolers become whinier and are more likely to blame themselves. Children between 5 and 8 can express their feelings with words. That’s why In Step uses play therapy to help them work through their emotions. Kids between 9 and 11 are prone to disguising their feelings; they won’t act out like younger kids do. Cohen says these children may seem fine, which confuses parents. Instead, they turn feelings inward, and their trauma might show up as a stomachache, or they might become panicky about thunderstorms. With teenagers you’ll get direct anger being expressed toward parents. They become very independent—joining groups, hanging with their friends, not wanting to deal with parents. These are basic reactions, but every child is unique.

Kids greatly benefit from a therapeutic environment. Programs like In Step offer group therapy with simultaneous parent therapy. “Sometimes we have four parents [step and birth parents] involved. They all come to the groups on behalf of their child. There’s no arguing here because they love these kids.” Cohen sees an increasing number of dads, and she emphasizes the importance of mutual respect between parents. Even if your ex badmouths you, Cohen advises: “Take the high road. Don’t defend yourself. The child doesn’t need to know.”

Jacoby is remarried now, and part of her personal triumph has been employing forgiveness and compassion. “I made a decision to be kind to my ex. If there was meanness coming from him, I disengaged. If I was kind, eventually he would be kind. It really worked,” she explains. Protecting kids from the details of a failed marriage should be the priority for both parents, she says.

Mediator Virginia Colin says she was unprepared to take on a stepfamily at first, “But as the kids grew up, we learned to get along together, and things calmed down.” It’s never easy notes Al Bonin, family practice lawyer. “During my divorce, we had a 50/50 timeshare with our kids. Then I realized, instead of complaining, I needed to cherish those times. Do not gripe to your kids; don’t put your children in the middle,” Bonin stresses. “A child loves both parents. By complaining about your ex, you’re diminishing the value of the kid. Bite your tongue. You’ve got to do what’s right for the kids.”

We Need to Talk

There is so much loss associated with divorce—homes, extended family, finances, neighborhood. Divorce has lifelong effects on everyone involved. Researchers at the University of Arizona determined that divorce frequently causes prolonged emotional distress, including clinically significant depression.

Where to turn for help? The Women’s Center in Vienna has active groups both for divorced and blended families. You can research local therapists on the American Psychological Association and Virginia Judicial System websites.

Fairfax County Public Schools hold regular classes: “Co-Parenting: Two Parents Two Homes” for parents with shared custody and “Dads Matter,” which focuses on the father’s involvement. Northern Virginia Community College includes parenting and divorce instruction at its campuses. Some schools offer Banana Splits, a program for children of divorce supervised by school counselors.

Life coaches are especially good at guiding people through divorce. Joan Jackson facilitates local Meetup groups, like NoVa Divorce and Co-Parenting, and also works with clients one-on-one. She believes attending workshops makes people realize they’re not alone.

Divorce has evolved a lot in the past three decades. Lawyers, therapists, mediators and financial advisers are all experienced in helping couples resolve their problems and move on. Divorcing couples have access to many more resources today than they had in the past. For a truly successful divorce, reach out and ask for help.

(December 2015)