The first and most important tool to surviving and thriving through a divorce is to practice radical compassion. Nobody plans on getting divorced when they marry. As humans, we intuitively internalize the disappointment when divorcing. The very experience threatens our identities which activates our fight and flight response. That old reptilian brain will go to any length to protect us, hijacking our higher self. That means, if our fight and flight response runs wild, we wind up saying and doing things which we will regret. Practicing self-compassion when I wanted to act out against myself ( start drinking, say cruel things to myself ) or key his car etc.etc.etc. saved me. So learn about how to notice and regulate those feelings. Practice pumping the brakes of that wild puppy part of your brain. If you don’t have the tools…get thee to a therapist and a class! I went to workshops almost every other weekend.
As part of our series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive After A Divorce Or Breakup” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jaynie Henely.
Ms. Henely has been in the social work field for over 30 years, focusing on psychotherapy in the last 15. A writer, speaker and teacher, Ms. Henely is a devoted learning geek who prioritizes time for her friends, the outdoors, her three children, their partners, their dogs and her DNA-changing grandchildren. After experiencing a life awakening midlife “surprise” divorce, she is dedicated to helping others navigate the devastating, challenging and rewarding dynamics of the next chapter of their lives.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I was tall, so in my small midwestern town, I detasseled corn before I was 14-yes- that midwestern work ethic is real. I am a middle child of six, my mother one of 12 and her mother one of 14. Having fun, singing, playing cards; Caring for and about others was essential. And right in step with Prairie Home Companion-the women were strong, the men good looking (ahem) and all of the children were above average. I truly believed there was nothing I couldn’t do.
In early adulthood, two of my siblings died, one in a car accident, the other to leukemia. Both were 18 when they died within two years of each other. Your world is forever changed after you have spent a year on an oncology pediatric ward, and buried a kid after a jeep accident. There are not words to describe the devastation nor the understanding of how precious our time is. While I would never wish that fate upon anyone, I am grateful for the perspective.
I married a good man dedicated to serving people with disabilities and raised three children with a daily inquiry of how have you been of service today? There were times that we were paying our Visa with our Mastercard at first, but that clarity about what matters never waned. We had fun.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The career really found me. In my undergrad, I wrote about Carl Rogers, a therapist who introduced client-centered therapy. Given my history connecting with people during their struggles, offering support and tools came quite naturally.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
I have a pretty good sense of humor, I think a survival tool of being a middle child, but my field and the stories are pretty heavy most of the time. I’ve had clients bring in their precious animals in superhero costumes. I treasure witnessing their growth and how they light up.
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?
Hmm, the only one that comes to mind which requires a bit of a demented sense of humor, “ Never schedule Friday afternoon clients and if you do make sure you are the one closest to the door”. Early in my career, I served folks with more severe and persistent mental health challenges. There were some pretty tricky moments!
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Pay attention to what matters; play the long game-
Play the long game. Your actions will follow you like a shadow.
We can get so caught up in our egos and what we think matters in this or that moment. We are here for 2 reasons: to love and to be of service and being of service is love. It is simple. After experiencing such grief, I recognized that when helping others, we all rise. It was never more clear to me then when going through the divorce process. I was hardly a saint, but I was able to recognize that there were many hearts involved. I am so grateful for the tenacity in keeping the focus on love and service while minimizing harm for the long run.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, so exciting- The story of Grace Untethered.
A colleague wound up going through a similar divorce situation at the same time as myself. Her house sold sooner than expected, so she and her high school son wound up moving in with me. The two of us were emotional messes who managed, upon each other’s shoulders, to continue working and functioning in the world. Then we wound up taking a “DIvorce-a-moon” vacation to Thailand. Both of us were psychotherapists who had worked with people struggling with the agonies around divorce. Yet even with the tools we had worked with to help others, we were blindsided by the multitude of challenges presented in a midlife divorce. We had led women’s groups with requests to do more and decided to create Grace Untethered, an organization dedicated to assisting in the struggle, the awakenings and the empowerment that divorce can birth.
We are launching a class designed specifically to coach and support women who are in the brutal trenches of grief, anxiety and enlightenment around the divorce process. What a gift to guide and witness women utilizing new tools to awaken.
Ok. Thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell us a bit about your experience going through a divorce, or helping someone who was going through a divorce? What did you learn about yourself during and after the experience? Do you feel comfortable sharing a story?
What I know about divorce so far is that not a damn thing about it feels comfortable. My divorce happened after 30 years of marriage. I could feel my partner pulling away but he kept reporting that it was just the stress of work and I believed him. He initially stated he wasn’t sure he wanted to be married, asked for time to figure things out. I complied. There is a reason marriage therapists won’t work with couples when one is having an affair. Few can hold that dissonance for long. Still he persisted with his confusion until I said enough. It was brutal to divorce someone you love and with whom you had had such great memories. As with so many, he could not hold that dissonance of wanting to be single and wanting to stay married, without acting out which was uncharacteristic of him, but nevertheless, it prevailed. It was brutal upon myself and our family. Perhaps it wasn’t uncharacteristic of him and more likely that I wasn’t willing/able to recognize an ego run wild.
When things got messy, given my values, it made sense to me to stay and try to make things work. People continuously said to me, “this is not about you, don’t take it personally” and “you need to take care of yourself “ at the time seemed nothing short of insane. But that is exactly what I learned. My partner’s path was his choice. I am not responsible for him. I can only be responsible for my side of the street, for my response. What I learned and what I have helped others learn is despite the days, which feel like decades when you are in the eye of the hurricane, the human spirit will persevere. Although my belief in the power of love waned, ultimately it prevailed as the outpour of love and support within my community was humbling. I was also amazed at how I could function with so little sleep; we are so much stronger than we think.
In your opinion, what are the most common mistakes people make after they go through a divorce? What can be done to avoid that?
Do the work, Do the work Do the work
Get a good therapist, take some classes to learn healthy coping tools. Listen to your intuition.
Compassionately accepting mistakes right-sizes the shame. Take the time to go into the cave and examine the shadows of the relationship. Create a team to help you examine your perspective and practice bountiful self-care.
People generally label “divorce” as being “negative”. And yes, while there are downsides, there can also be a lot of positive that comes out of it as well. What would you say that they are? Can you share an example or share a story?
The compassion and blossoming of other relationships: new friends, neighbors, colleagues, old friends and family blew me away. Specifically, I was close with my Mom but it was a difficult relationships. Shame was a frequent tool in her family and she could be pretty harsh around money and various things. When she witnessed my pain, she wrote me a large check, when I told her I felt unlovable, she took off her engagement ring and gave it to me and said do not forget how much your father cherished you and how lovable you are. Although we lived a distance away, she picked up the phone and held me in a way that changed my DNA 24/7. What a gift to have that reframing of our relationship in her final years.
Some people are scared to ‘get back out there’ and date again after being with their former spouse for many years and hearing dating horror stories. What would you say to motivate someone to get back out there and start a new beginning?
The beginning starts where you are. So the first thing I would say is honor wherever you are in this process. If you are super scared then start with the goal of an acquaintance/ friendship. Don’t future trip about what am I going to buy them for Holidays- just go for a walk or coffee. If you are heterosexual and being around a man feels scary, just spend some time getting to know you. Take a risk on a book club, a kayaking photography or an underwater basket weaving class, a trip etc. Build trust within yourself and listen. I had to spend some time emailing someone before I met them because my nervous system was so out of whack. When we did get together we had a blast. If somebody doesn’t want to be patient about that process, then kindly thank them for giving you an early flag and saving you time. BAIL If the goal is to find a relationship where you feel cherished and heard, start with listening to yourself and then nudge ahead, one step at a time.
What is the one thing people going through a divorce should be open to changing?
I would say be kind to yourself and listen-the first time.
A piece which I find difficult to this day is managing my brain around the trauma. As we know, nature moves forward. I had children with my ex, our family was close. The kids married, finished grad schools and are having children. The opportunities abound for gatherings. The self who wants to take the higher path, be gracious and kind is in constant battle with the protective self who screams “ what the hell are doing being near someone who blew up that which was so close to you? they lie.! Be kind and give yourself whatever space you need to manage challenging situations. Far better to have the kindness you give to yourself reverberate through your family system than seductive snarkiness. Let love win Remember your words and your actions will follow you like your shadow.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. 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?
1) The first and most important tool to surviving and thriving through a divorce is to practice radical compassion. Nobody plans on getting divorced when they marry. As humans, we intuitively internalize the disappointment when divorcing. The very experience threatens our identities which activates our fight and flight response. That old reptilian brain will go to any length to protect us, hijacking our higher self. That means, if our fight and flight response runs wild, we wind up saying and doing things which we will regret. Practicing self-compassion when I wanted to act out against myself ( start drinking, say cruel things to myself ) or key his car etc.etc.etc. saved me. So learn about how to notice and regulate those feelings. Practice pumping the brakes of that wild puppy part of your brain. If you don’t have the tools…get thee to a therapist and a class! I went to workshops almost every other weekend.
2) Play the long game. Take the time to talk to your future self, the person two years from now who has walked through this. What does she want you to know about taking care of yourself and your integrity? That really helped me.
3) Build a team. This is a big deal so don’t depend on just your perspective. I put Jennifer Anniston, Sandra Bullock, Madeline Albright (women who’ve been betrayed) My grandmother who raised 12 kids as well as friends, my therapist and athletic acquaintances all on team Jaynie- got me thru the darkness of the night and a sprint Triathalon.
4) Beware of over-functioning. Martyrdom is murder of the self.
Get clear about what is yours to clean up and what is theirs. Clarity is kindness. I was so devastated at first, I questioned myself really over functioned. That was big-time Bulls*#t!
5) Get a good playlist and exercise like your life depends on it, because it does. Fluids will be leaving your body one way or another, why not have it be in a way that strengthens you and your esteem? I wasn’t super athletic but completed a sprint Triathalon. It was uber empowering!
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts etc?
GraceUntethered.com register for a class and Grace Untethered’s Spotify for a kick ass playlist.
Runaway Husbands, when Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron, books by Susan Anderson.
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. 🙂
Reach out to others and find your community of people who are experiencing similar struggles. We are wired for group healing. I went to several classes and workshops and connected with other women searching for answers. I believe we truly do recover on each others’ shoulders.
That was the inspiration for our company, Grace Untethered. The very name connotes that we can untether from relationships with our higher selves, regardless of our partner’s behaviors. We strive to support people to thrive in this transition. That, my friend, is an empowering movement.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Madeleine Albright- the story of her husband’s betrayal and her stalwart resilience was an inspiration. She raised her daughters, went on to learn more languages, continue her schooling and ultimately became the first female Secretary of State of the USA.
Thank you for these great insights and for the time you spent with this interview. We wish you only continued success!