As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive After A Divorce” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Amanda Hannon.
Dr. Amanda Hannon is a Licensed Psychologist in the state of Georgia. She has worked in psychiatric and corrections settings, college counseling centers, and most recently in private practice performing individual, group, and couples counseling. She received her master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from Western Kentucky University and her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology and Human Systems from Florida State University. She started out in group private practice but more recently has made the move to her own private practice (Amanda Hannon, Ph.D., LLC) just south of Atlanta and enjoys working with women who struggle to set boundaries in their relationships and who put other’s needs before their own (aka people pleasers). In recent years, her practice has increasingly shifted to working with women experiencing separation and divorce as well as other significant life transitions. Dr. Hannon provides individual and group counseling options geared towards women who find themselves at this crossroads either by their own choice or as a result of their spouse’s decision to end the marriage.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I began working in group private practice, I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to work with the populations that were the most appropriate fit for my training background and individual strengths as a professional. Over time, I noticed more and more that women were landing on my caseload and seemed to truly be connecting with me around their relationship concerns. As time went on, one of my clients announced that her husband was having an affair and that she wasn’t sure what this meant for their marriage. We worked together to identify what her needs and options were after processing the initial sense of shock and tidal wave of emotions that she was experiencing from the discovery of her partner’s infidelity. I began researching the emotional and relational implications of infidelity, separation, and divorce as well as what it would look like for couples who chose to remain in a committed relationship after such a rupture occurs. Afterwards, the universe seemed to take note of this shift, and more and more women who were experiencing difficulties in their relationships due to divorce and/or intense ruptures including infidelity, financial misappropriations, and other secret-keeping behaviors began calling and connecting with me for counseling support. I’m not sure whether the career path found me or I found it, as it feels like a bit of a combination of the two.
Can you explain to our readers why you are an authority about “divorce”?
The term “authority” feels a bit like a stretch- but I do feel well informed and quite knowledgeable around the topic when it comes to the emotional and psychological aspects of divorce, particularly concerning the implications for women. As I stated before, I have worked with multiple women in both individual counseling and group counseling who are in the midst of learning that their spouses no longer wish to remain married and are left holding the remnants of what they believed was once a relatively solid relational foundation. Through this work, I have learned about the legal process when it comes to divorce as well, including much of the terminology used: physical vs. legal custody, terminating vs. surrendering parental rights, co-parenting vs. parallel parenting, morality vs. no-cohabitation clauses, etc. It has been a journey of sorts in working to educate myself on the various legal issues these women are facing as a result of the divorce process, and I have learned that the legal situation is only half of the battles that these women will face in the sense of the recovery and healing that will be needed to move forward from this life changing event.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
One of the more interesting events that has taken place since beginning my work in this area has involved holding one of my first groups specifically designed for women going through separation/divorce. In group therapy, during the initial stages, you typically begin by having group members introduce themselves and share pieces of their stories to help them acclimate to one another and the group process. One member began by sharing information about her current issues and concerns as well as her progress regarding the legal side of things. As she shared more and more about her story, it became very clear that she and another member had retained the same legal counsel to represent them in their divorce; this led to an almost instant connection between the group members. This was a pleasant surprise to me and something I hadn’t yet considered as I was simply banking on these women finding support and connections with one another because of the similar themes and life events they were experiencing.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m sure there are a few of these unfortunately. One of the mistakes I remember making early on in this work is that I was pretty confused when a client was trying to describe the morality clause that was present in her divorce agreement. I remember us having the conversation in session, as she was discussing some of the terms present in their divorce documents that she had received as well as what her attorney was planning to send. She was talking rather quickly, and was somewhat glossing over certain terms, and she mentioned the term “morality clause” without providing any detail about what this was, and I think I blurted something out like, “So you mean, you can request that he’s legally not allowed to be an asshole?”. Keep in mind that this was a divorce that had been requested by the husband. She burst out laughing at my question and was all too happy to educate me around the actual definition of what a morality clause means, which was very significant, given the context of her specific divorce case. While my client appeared to appreciate my humor, and I knew our relationship was close enough to adopt this approach and use this level of language, I learned that I needed to do my own research to understand the terminology and legalese of the divorce process to be better able to support and be an advocate for my clients.
If you had a close friend come to you for advice after a divorce, what are 5 things you would advise in order to survive and thrive after the divorce? Can you please give a story or example for each?
I’m going to identify my five pieces of advice from easiest to hardest in terms of what I have seen people struggle with the most over the years of my work as a clinician, not just in divorce situations, but in terms of life in general.
1. Learn to pick your battles- and not everything needs to be a battle.
2. Learn to move forward- while learning from the past and living in the present.
3. Learn to practice compassion- for others and mostly for yourself.
4. Learn to forgive- (for) yourself.
5. Learn to accept- that things will be outside of your control and not go as planned.
Learn to pick your battles.
In my work with clients experiencing divorce, I have heard stories about spouses not coming to an agreement because one small or insignificant item has yet to be agreed upon in the divorce decree. The divorce will drag on for weeks to months because of hundreds to thousands of dollars, or at least, that is what is argued on the surface, when, in my opinion, there is usually some incentive to “winning” the final battle that is being fought between these two parties almost like a tug of war. I understand that this is a highly emotional experience, and that in many instances, financial difficulties are being incurred for one or both parties; but, I have to begin to wonder at the incurring costs of remaining in the divorce process over an item or set of items that has a total value less than a few thousand dollars when I hear about the cost of retaining an attorney and have witnessed the emotional costs of watching these battles drag on past a necessary timeframe. My advice around this issue for anyone experiencing a divorce is to be the one to let go of the rope if you find yourself in this kind of emotional tug of war. Learn that this is not the battle to pick, because not everything needs to be a battle. Things are replaceable. Time is not.
Learn to move forward.
Another difficult part of experiencing the loss of a relationship to divorce involves moving on from the marriage. I believe that the best and most effective way for this to take place involves looking backwards to fully process the past as well as to begin engaging in the present moment and the emotions that are surfacing. Many times, my clients arrive feeling unable to reconcile the fact that something they were a part of for so many years (in some cases) is ending, and we have to identify a way to deal with the shock that accompanies this realization while also making space for the need to begin a new chapter of life, because that’s what life represents; a series of new starts and new chapters. Each ending is going to be difficult, with some being much more difficult and traumatic than others, and when an ending is planned or expected, you tend to be better at starting the next chapter because there was already a space holder for it. My advice to anyone dealing with the end of a marriage is to learn to move forward by reflecting on the past and living in the present and by remembering that you have done this very thing a million times before.
Learn to practice compassion.
I am always tracking on this work, no matter what a client is presenting with in session. I have yet to find a person (and I recognize this could change, but I remain skeptical that it will) who has found an optimal balance at holding an equal amount of compassion for themselves and for those around them. In working with women and divorce, the shame and the grief that has awaited these individuals upon learning of the end of their marriage has culminated in a tsunami of emotions, and the most challenging aspect of this journey is knowing that the waves are going to continue but not knowing exactly when the next one will hit, or how hard, or when the healing will be done. I find myself repeating a phrase like, “This process takes time, and there is no exact timeline for your healing. So be gentle and compassionate with yourself”. And I recognize that my clients may grow tired of this phrase, but it’s the truth, and it’s my job to be truthful. I believe wholeheartedly that growth happens when we slow down and practice self-compassion; some people refer to this as inner-child work, and it simply involves asking yourself, “What do I need right now? What are my emotions telling me I need? What is my body telling me I need?” and then meeting that need. The basic idea behind this work is that many of us did not have some of our basis needs met when we were children: need for safety/security, need for love, need for emotional validation, need for belongingness, etc. But the great news is, you can learn to meet your own needs now as an adult; you can create a safe space in your home environment; you can learn to validate your emotions and your experiences; you can be compassionate and listen to your needs. And this is what I am in many ways encouraging my clients to do, in some cases, for the first time in their lives. So, for anyone going through a divorce, I would encourage you to slow down, treat yourself gently, be compassionate, and in doing so, learn to listen to your needs and meet those needs.
Learn to forgive.
I don’t always encourage people to forgive others. This is a conversation I will have with a potential client and it will be based on the nature of the relationship in question, and the client will direct me around their decision to forgive another person or not. I do not buy into the belief that everyone must be forgiven for their actions, because I do not believe that every act is forgivable, and I do not view myself as the judge or jury when it comes to such matters. My clients have free will and are capable of determining these matters for themselves. My only exception to this involves the matter of forgiving oneself, and I understand where this may begin to appear contradictory, so please, hear me out. I believe that anyone coming to me for support and personal growth who is carrying around shame will remain stuck and unable to make progress unless they learn to forgive themselves. The typical things I have encountered people holding blame against themselves for include relatively minor mistakes made years ago, perceived flaws and shortcomings (imperfections), hurting others via disappointments or by making certain decisions in life, and blaming themselves for the mistakes, shortcomings, disappointments, and decisions as well as emotional fallout of others. This last one is big for me, because it is not theirs to own. In the case of divorce, I see a combination of guilt and shame coming from multiple angles, where a wife feels like a failure as a spouse and has come up with a narrative of not living up to the standards set forth by her spouse, but when we sit down to unpack everything we begin to recognize she has taken on her partner’s mistakes, shortcomings, disappointments, decisions, and emotions alongside her own and some disentangling needs to take place first because not everything she is feeling is her baggage or burden to carry. In order to fully heal, she will need to at least learn to forgive herself, and recognize that in some cases, she very well may have contributed to the dissolution of the marriage, but also that she may have been in a relationship that was built on a foundation with cracks and fault lines and ruptures that never should have been built in the first place. My advice to anyone experiencing a divorce is to learn to forgive yourself, because relationships take a lot of hard work, even when they are working, and especially when they begin to fall apart.
Learn to accept.
This is one of the hardest things I believe I will ever ask of my clients, and yet one of the most important tasks to accomplish in terms of healing and moving forward. For those who have been told by the person that they loved, admired, and decided to put their utmost trust in, that their marriage is over (keeping in mind that this message can come in direct and indirect ways), this ending is one of the most difficult and heartbreaking that a person will encounter in their lifetime excepting the loss of a child or spouse to death or some other tragedy. How do you accept that your partner of 5, 10, 20, or even 30 years no longer feels the desire to be your partner? No longer loves you or wants to love you? No longer feels the way you may still feel? It’s almost unimaginable, and yet, you have to learn to accept this decision and this ending, just like any other ending in life- because you cannot change or control the way another person feels no matter how badly it might hurt to hear you have lost your spouse’s love. Sometimes people will be open to trying to work things out or to have a trial separation period, but it seems that by the time a person is throwing around the term, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”, a distance or rupture has already been present in the relationship for some time and the person may not be open to trying to work things out. You will be shocked, upset, in denial, depressed, angry, confused, lost, vacillating between blaming yourself and blaming your spouse. You will feel all of these ways and more for what feels like a hundred times over and, as I mentioned before, the waves will keep coming. I believe that the healing will finally begin taking place and a breathing point will be reached, when you begin to accept that this was not what you wanted nor was it what you had planned for your life, but that you are powerless to change it or to control the situation. Now don’t misunderstand me; I don’t mean this in a defeated, passive sort of way when I say acceptance. There is an active, intentional, empowering force that comes with recognizing you are not in control of many things that are happening, have happened, and will continue to happen throughout your life but that you are very much in charge of what you decide to do and how you decide to move forward from the challenges, losses, and traumas that life throws at you. Because the truth is, life is going to continue to challenge you with obstacles and mountains, and you can stop and feel overwhelmed and convince yourself that there is no way for you to overcome it, or you can stop and feel whatever it is you are feeling, and take some time to figure out how to move forward despite the mountain- or drill a damn hole straight through it if you have to, because I’m all for creativity and efficiency and not everyone’s a decent climber. I believe that accepting our lack of control is what frees us up to make the changes we need to make to keep moving forward, and that living in denial and lying to ourselves about always being in control of life’s situations only burdens us further with shame, guilt, and regret that isn’t ours to carry because things are going to go haywire at times and that’s not always our fault or anyone else’s. Shit happens. But so does greatness. So learn to accept all of it, all at once because that’s what this life is about; learning to be open to the good and the bad and the gains and the losses, and everything that comes in between. And that, to me, represents true openness and acceptance.
What are the most common mistakes people make after they go through a divorce? What can be done to avoid that?
I think the most common thing I have seen is that people rebound too quickly into the same “type” of relationship that they had before without being alone to reflect on what they actually need out of life and from a future partner. When a divorce occurs, in the majority of cases, both parties have contributed (sometimes in small ways and sometimes in big ways) to the breakdown of a marriage outside of cases involving interpersonal violence or other issues involving power and control dynamics; some of the literature around this topic refers to a phenomenon known as “turning” (this is referenced in a book that I refer to later on) wherein one partner begins to look to something or someone else instead of his/her partner for getting certain needs satisfied (Mercer and Wennechuk). This can be found when one partner overworks and looks for satisfaction and gratification in their job because he/she doesn’t feel valued or appreciated at home; this can be found when someone develops too close of an emotional relationship with another person because emotional needs aren’t being met in the relationship; this can be found when one partner drinks alcohol or abuses substances to soothe emotions because those emotions don’t feel validated or heard by the other partner. If a relationship has recently (or perhaps not so recently) ended, I would encourage you to take time for self-reflection and healing, and to do a personal and interpersonal inventory. Who have you tended to be attracted to or have you tended to attract? How well have your needs been met or have you met your partner’s needs? Do you even know what your needs are? What are your relationship deal breakers? Believe me, you should have a couple of these, but not a long list. People should be picky about who they are committing to; moreover, the decision to enter into a relationship should be based on a desire or a WANT to share a life with another person, not based on a sense of NEEDto have another person in your life. The latter decision will result in you making allowances you should never make, and possibly ascribing to unconditional love, which, in my opinion, should only exist in the case of a parent for a child (or pet, if you are an animal lover) but never for a spouse or partner. Again- you need to have deal breakers. For example, if my husband ever hits me, I’m gone. No questions. And I would hope the same is true for him. Physical abuse is a deal breaker for me. So is emotional abuse. My love for my husband is therefore not unconditional, it comes with conditions that he treats me with respect and does not use physical force against me.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources related to this topic that you would recommend to our readers?
In terms of healthy relationships in general, I tend to seek out resources from Esther Perel, a therapist who studies and works with relationships and sexuality; she has books, workshops, retreats, and offers individual and couples counseling. Her podcast series, “Where Should We Begin?” is insightful and features real stories from her work with clients trying to salvage their relationships. Her website is also a great resource. Regarding divorce, I have highly benefited from seeking out information on websites and blogs posted by divorce attorneys as well as from a website/book titled, The Optimist’s Guide to Divorce, which has some sample chapter’s available online. Another great book that helped me make sense of both the emotional and legal side of things was Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life by Diana Mercer and Katie Jane Wennechuk. I found the language easy to understand even as a legal novice, and the layout and format of the book was easy to follow as well.
You have to learn to accept this decision and this ending, just like any other ending in life- because you cannot change or control the way another person feels no matter how badly it might hurt to hear you have lost your spouse’s love
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that helped you in this work? Can you share how that was relevant in your real life?
Brené Brown is someone I greatly admire not only for her research but also for her insight into shame and imperfection, as her work in this area has been impactful and reached so many people that traditional counseling has yet to reach, so I applaud her for getting the word out in a different way and helping to destigmatize mental health awareness even further. She has a quote in her book, Daring Greatly, that reads, “Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.” I, like many individuals, have struggled to feel comfortable enough with being my authentic self, and I have worked hard to shed the layers of the various identities I’ve clung to over the years in an attempt to compensate for a sense of not measuring up to the expectations of society and those individuals who used to take up space in my life. Over time, I’ve learned to let go of these layers, shedding them one by one, as I’ve finally peeled them back far enough to revisit myself and be kind to the me that has always been there- the kind, sensitive, goofy, sarcastic, quiet, intelligent, soft-spoken, creative child that I learned to hide away for fear that I wasn’t enough. But I’ve learned that I am enough. I’m enough for me, and I’m enough for the right people. I simply wasn’t honoring myself or making room for the right people, and now that I have surrounded myself with the right people and accept myself, I am finding that I very much belong. In my work with clients struggling with similar difficulties around self-acceptance, I find that the personal intersects the professional for me, and at times, sharing parts of my own story and journey have proven greatly beneficial based on feedback from my clients, particularly for women with similar personality traits: the introverted, people pleasing types. These women’s sense of self has been shaken at the news of their spouses wanting a divorce; what was once a salient part of their identity (“wife”) is now something that threatens to no longer hold any meaning and feels much like sand running between their fingers. If my client was in the business of making her partner happy, and constantly tracking on his needs without focusing on her own, imagine what it must mean for her to hear that her spouse is unhappy to the point of wanting a divorce. She will immediately feel like a failure, and in some cases, I have found that this theme of feeling like a failure or not measuring up or being good enough is a common thread throughout this woman’s life narrative, at least in her own mind. My work at this point becomes trying to help repair the immediate, critical level damage that the divorce is doing while also recognizing the longstanding damage that has been done over years of my client telling herself that she isn’t good enough, which typically has also resulted in years of behaviors that aren’t beneficial or healthy for the client as well as relationships that aren’t beneficial or healthy as well. As you can imagine, there is a lot of ground that needs to be covered, and a lot of it comes back to self-acceptance, which I also link to self-compassion (as I mentioned a bit earlier). By helping to create a sense of self-worth and acceptance, I have seen clients go from depressed, anxious, people-pleasing individuals with a history of abusive relationships and toxic friendships to resilient, content, assertive individuals with fulfilling and loving relationships and reciprocating friendships.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
More recently I have been considering ways to become more involved in helping women learn to value themselves and reclaim their inner courage and curiosity in part as a clinician but also on a larger scale. I am in the middle of reading Susan Cain’s work, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and this has struck a chord with me for several reasons:
Because of the position that you are in, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Again- I want women and men to quit buying into this message that something about their core self is flawed or wrong. I hear stories from my clients about how certain people in their lives (usually family) take offense or become upset at nothing at all, and I want to find a way to make this stop. People shouldn’t be allowed to vomit their emotions all over one another and then blame the person across from them from causing their emotional outburst. You are responsible for your emotions, just as I am responsible for my own, and I think that any messages that don’t clearly teach this cause a lot of damage and internal conflict for individuals left holding the remnants of the emotional bile that another person is unloading on them. What I mean by this may be best illustrated by an example. Let’s say a teenager wants to dye her hair pink, and she knows that the school doesn’t allow “crazy hair color” so she does it over the summer in order to avoid getting in trouble at school. And she comes home with pink hair one day without first consulting mom or dad, and mom absolutely loses it! I mean loses it with a capital S#@! Who is in the wrong here? I’m sure a large proportion of parents would say the daughter is- and I would agree in the sense that I think it would have been better planning on the daughter’s part to check in with mom first as a show of trust and honesty; however, that’s missing the point entirely in my opinion. My issue is that mom is (at least in my example) crying, screaming, yelling, and throwing the adult version of a temper tantrum all because of some possibly semi-permanent and even possibly wash-out variety level hair dye. So, again, I ask you, who is in the wrong here? Remember, mom is losing her S#@! over pink hair. So once again, who is truly in the wrong here? Because, no one, and I want to be clear about this, NO ONE got hurt. The daughter decided she wanted pink hair. She did not maliciously wake up one day and think to herself, “I am going to ruin my mother’s life!”. At least, probably not. But the biggest problem with this kind of situation is that it happens all the time. People make decisions because they should be able to choose their own course of life provided it does not have lasting or harmful consequences for those around them, and yet the people closest to them communicate that this is not okay and that they can’t emotionally handle this. In this example, mom communicated to her daughter, “I can’t emotionally handle you dying your hair”; i.e., you are not allowed to make decisions for yourself, and therefore, you must be fearful of any future decision you make because I am capable of losing my cool and freaking out at another time in the future even if the situation does not call for it. The other sad part about this is that the daughter actually put some thought into this, because remember, she knew the summer months were the only time she could have pink hair because her school doesn’t allow it. The most troubling part of this exchange is that the daughter has just received a message from her mother and the world at large that she messes things up and she hurts people even when she has good intentions and isn’t trying to hurt people: Ouch. And that just by being herself (wanting to express herself by having pink hair), she hurts people: Double Ouch. My point to all of this is people are usually making decisions primarily with themselves in mind; particularly teenagers. Other people are pretty good at tracking on how their actions will impact those around them, and in many cases do this to a fault, wherein they have learned to deny their own wants and needs in order to not ever run the risk of hurting others (remember the daughter example, well this learning to deny your own needs is the end result of that lesson getting learned over and over again). We need to do better at taking responsibility for our own emotions and for allowing people to live their own lives as long as those lives don’t somehow impinge (and I mean, reallyimpinge) on our own lives or cause others harm in some way. The mother was not harmed by her daughter’s hair. She became emotional because she is not good at regulating her own emotions, and that is an issue the mother needs to take ownership of and figure out for her and her daughter’s sake because we learn from our early experiences, usually either to hold it all in or to let it all out, and neither extreme is healthy.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
This is probably the question I grappled with the most, and I definitely put off answering it until the very end because I had to think on it for a bit. I would have to say Brené Brown, and I’m sure the poor woman is stalked enough so I hated to even say anything! She has done so much good for so many people just by putting her research and ideas onto paper, and by having a way to promote her message on a grander scale with the likes of TEDTalks and Oprah. I love seeing intelligent, articulate, courageous women working to make a difference on a larger, societal level scale, and she has done this in such a profound way. I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to occupy her world right now, or if she was even expecting this level of recognition when she first set down this path. But she’s the person I would love to meet and just chat with, if nothing else but to say thank-you.