Balanced self-care: An indispensable part of a good life after divorce involves good self-care. The approach I say works best while getting started is a routine focused on both mind and body health.
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 Richard Brydson.
Richard Brydson is a Family Mediator and the Owner at Aligned Choices Mediation in Ontario, Canada. In his work as a Family Mediator, he assists couples to formalize the end of their relationship without the need for financially and emotionally costly court proceedings. When he isn’t working, Richard enjoys reading, hiking, and cycling.
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 had a childhood that I am very grateful to have had. I didn’t know or feel it at the time, but I know now how much my parents deserve the recognition for making it as happy and loving as anyone could hope for. From a young age they made it a point to have me find my own way. They enrolled me in any activity that interested me, but as I got older they wanted me to feel free to explore my choice of major belief system — whether spiritual or philosophical. This really got me started and hooked on the many gifts of a life of self-discovery.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My road to becoming a family mediation started in my previous line of work in the healthcare industry. As a privately employed care worker in long term care facilities I had many opportunities to work one on one with and advocate for my senior clients who were often unable to speak for themselves.
These interactions left me looking for ways to balance how I supported the rights of the vulnerable people I cared for while protecting the collegial and friendly relationships I had with staff in the facility. Learning about conflict resolution taught me how to soften the activist spirit in me, and especially how to ‘separate the person from the problem’. Nowadays it’s not difficult for me to model kindness amidst adversity.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
In December 2019, I left my part time office job — at a time when my work in healthcare was slowly winding down — with the intention to devote all my time to becoming a full-time family mediator with Aligned Choices Mediation. When the pandemic hit, my grand plan had to change considerably and I shifted focus into pounding the pavement virtually to build inroads into both my professional community, but also with family lawyers and therapists in order to build a referral network.
The interesting part of this story was that I learned there were many ways to build a business with almost no start up capital. Learning to use as little money as possible was definitely worth the effort and helped me build new resiliencies and areas of competence that I would not have had if I had hired a marketing firm to launch my practice. I have many good connections these days including a regular social call with other mediators, and the referrals have started flowing both ways between me and other helping professionals.
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?
Early on in my internship, I brought the wrong notepad into the first session with a couple who were separating. I had spent hours working on my part of the topics to be discussed and, needless to say, it was a revelation when I discovered my error.
Thankfully I ended up not needing my notes at all because there was an unexpected spirit of collaboration between the clients. I learned that sometimes my meeting preparation was overly focused on having my talking points ready, and that I needed to balance this with a presence of mind that helps motivate cooperation in others — as well as making sure to check that I have the correct notes with me.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“The dangers in life are infinite, and among them is safety” Goethe, J. W. von
Seeking safety is a normal and healthy response to adversity within a relationship.
From a broad perspective, what can happen when this natural reflex becomes an ingrained habit is that our sense of safety will become more difficult to maintain over time. Our feeling of safety will be eroded by having to re-confront our aversion to certain feelings and a growing list of situations that threaten us.
I learned over many years that, because the experience of feeling unsafe only returns with a greater intensity everytime we turn away from it, that there is immense value in turning into it thus exposing myself to the unwanted feeling as a way of emotional strength building.
Conditioning yourself to welcome the fear you have of getting hurt can result in a greater tolerance of relational hardships, and in time you may be able to meet people who are expressing strong judgement with non-reactivity and fearless understanding.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I have made some inroads recently with a few family lawyers in my home city of Toronto, Canada. This has afforded me the opportunity to mediate cases where lawyers have negotiated an almost complete agreement between a separating couple.
The new challenge with these cases is that the councilors are representing their clients in the room as I’m working. This has not only helped me begin to adapt to a new type of process, but also gives me the opportunity to help people settle issues that they would otherwise have to litigate.
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?
I was coaching a client a few months ago on his dilemma of whether to continue trying to reconcile with his spouse. We had had a couple of conversations on how it had affected his presence in his daughter’s life and resulted in the loss of several mutual friends. He did choose to stop trying to revive the relationship, and to devote energy to healing, growth and his daughter.
Through helping a client verbalise their feelings of being torn between staying and letting go — or validating the experience of someone who is ready to leave through reflective conversation — I have found myself acting with greater care and less attachment while guiding the person to what’s true for them.
In your opinion, what are the most common mistakes people make after they go through a divorce? What can be done to avoid that?
I think there are two main trends that can come up for people after they get divorced. The following examples are interchangeable and could apply to either the party who initiated the separation, and the one who was caught off guard by it.
- Moving on with their life with the emphasis firmly on action. Feeling motivated to move forward may just be a joyful expression of a new found freedom after divorce. However, if the pace proves to be unsustainable the overactivity may indicate an avoidance that will need to be addressed lest it lead to unavailability in other important relationships. Be on the lookout for unexplained stress or habits which have a “strained activity” to them as when someone is holding onto a “making up for lost time” or “now I can finally…” mentality, they may be heading towards a burnout.
- Feeling stuck or unable to rejoin the world. It will be no surprise for me to say that the shock and hurt of a separation can take a long time to heal. The inertia in your life during the period of grieving is not one that can be rushed. Although you may have thoughts about changes you want to make for yourself, take the time to breathe deeply while considering them, feel into the potential of the actions that seem to be good for you.
Most importantly, be aware of negatively reinforcing thoughts, and be kind to yourself by letting them go. Asking for help is a good idea, whether you have a support network, or have to start out in search of one. You are worth it, and deserve compassion and support.
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?
For those looking to make the best of the end of their marriage I can think of no more important time to learn about yourself than after it has dissolved. A reflective practice such as meditation, or meaning making through journaling are indispensable tools for this kind of inquiry. A rich and rested understanding of why the conflict was happening can renew and sustain your peace of mind, leading to potentially stronger intimate relationships in the future.
I value this rested understanding because I see it as a product of my self-inquiry and the insight I gathered about my contribution to the conflicts I used to experience. It turned out that my actions were inseparable from the stories I told myself about others.
I learned that the beliefs which sparked the most difficult conflicts had hard or tense physical descriptions associated with them. This clue gave me the frame of reference to later discern that if I felt tense, or said something was hard that my self-knowledge on that topic was not complete.
I invite you to see the appearance of tension as an opportunity to learn about yourself, as opposed to why another is making you feel a certain way.
Whether you find out what is underneath the tension reflexively, or by playing out the scenario that happens in your life the next time it re-surfaces, the insight and a rested understanding will come about eventually.
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?
When someone asks me for advice my involvement is to share a story from my life that feels connected to their needs or desires. If I felt they were open to starting a new intimate relationship I would motivate them to first find a creative life pursuit where they could meet other like minded people.
I value this as a launching point for a relationship because all my best relationships — especially the one I have with my wife — came when I wasn’t actively searching for someone. The pairing is more intuitive if we notice someone while enjoying ourselves. There is also something to be said of how we may miss the clues or red flags that come up during the dating phase when we really want or need to find someone.
What is the one thing people going through a divorce should be open to changing?
Looking deeper at the reasons you have accumulated for why your marriage has ended would be my number one invitation for those who have gone through divorce.
I say this because perhaps you have oversimplified the situation, or totalized the other person’s contribution to how it unravelled. These kinds of thoughts can lead to our anticipating another experience of hurt from those we are in conflict with. We may either lash out first in the moment, or withdraw again from the other person.
Not wanting to be blamed or having a fear of experiencing more pain stimulates greater reactivity in people over time. I ask that the reader consider shifting their conflict perspective from harshly spoken words like “responsibility” and “intentional harm” for concepts like “mutual contribution” and seek their equal need for repair and acknowledgement.
Attribution of wrongdoing is common activity is intimate relationships which diverts our attention away from talking about our deeper meanings that need to be felt and honored if we are to express our love freely.
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?
I haven’t organized my list in order of importance, and have included some points that are obvious and essential along with a few that may be new for you.
- Balanced self-care: An indispensable part of a good life after divorce involves good self-care. The approach I say works best while getting started is a routine focused on both mind and body health.
– Take care of your body as much as possible. From balancing your diet, to activities like yoga or Qi-gong, there are few practices like these that will not serve your wellness moving forward. I would make time for these activities every week, but be kind to yourself if you get busier at work or with family responsibilities and your routine is temporarily affected.
– Learning something new. For me there is nothing more rewarding than a life of learning and discovery. There may be things you’ve had on the back burner for some time or perhaps there is a team sport you want to start up again. I would leave out major life shifts like returning to school for a second degree or masters program for a later date.
- A retreat or at least a trip: As it will likely be some time before long distance travel becomes a safe and available option for most of us, in-home virtual retreats and long weekend getaways are alternatives to consider. If retreats are not your thing, I would encourage you to not plan out every minute of your getaway in advance. I ask you to consider either of these options because much of my wellness and peace of mind have become pretty effortless to maintain because of the silent retreats I’ve been on. Whether at home and abroad, making time to let go of all my responsibilities for a while gave me a chance to reflect without interruption. Finding perspective through retreat frees up the energy to willingly recommit to your current life choices, or act with greater clarity about the changes that needed to be made.
- Suggested activity for your retreat time — Give time and space to acknowledge the good in the marriage along with what wasn’t working. One element in a mediation process that I ask my clients to consider is for us to spend some time during our first joint session talking about their origin story, how they came to be in mediation and what they want moving forward. I do this because on one occasion it led to an unexpected apology. My co-mediator and I were stunned and very happy to see the flowering of a co-parenting relationship without much assistance from us. If there is little chance to work through these three topics with your former spouse I invite you to do them on your own. You could contemplate them on a walk, or in writing if it helps you focus your attention.
- Giving can be no different from receiving: For those who are starting out without a strong support network a practice that really helped me in the past was volunteering my time to make others important for a few hours a week. The shift in perspective on the topic of giving came while caring for seniors in my previous career. Many of my clients had dementia and communication difficulties and I found that when I was fully there for them my devoted attention became something I recognized as a gift in itself.
- Learning about letting go: For those who think that it’s not possible or are seeing little benefit from how they have learned to let go, I have an alternative context that I think could be of use. My revitalived understanding of this concept comes from my experience of reconciling with my father a couple of years ago, after a long estrangement. If you have chosen to let something or someone go, but the memories keep resurfacing, I would urge you to spend the time to see what’s underneath the hurt feelings. I have written about my insights at length on my blog, but to sum it up, I was unable to be at peace with the separation because I needed to live through the hurt feelings and the buried love I had for him. This was an internal work I needed to do alone to make the reconciliation possible, and it really helped me stay present for all the conversations we’ve had since.
The stress of a divorce can take a toll on both one’s mental and emotional health. In your opinion or experience, what are a few things people going through a divorce can do to alleviate this pain and anguish?
For those with a support network this is time to seek the connection that will bring you the validation, and perhaps even give you the opportunity to blow off a bit of steam. This seems like an obvious statement, but I feel it bears repeating as many people may be worried about imposing on friends and loved ones in tough times. I would say to push past that worry and reach out, and let the other tell you how and to what extent they can help you.
Reconnecting with a creative activity that used to be special in your life is a great way to play into a healthier frame of mind. Whether you like playing music on a saxophone or piano, an hour a week can begin to enliven your spirit and even become part of your long term return to wellness. If your past was without musical pursuits, perhaps you used to create art in your spare time. I never considered myself artistically gifted, so to process pain in the past I did coloring exercises in art therapy books, and even a few collages made of images and patterns I tore out of art magazines. It was very cathartic and helped me make things with my hands that my inner critic temporarily speechless.
Starting to look at living your life as a single person will, at some point, be an area to work on. Donating or putting keepsakes away that remind you of the other person is an important part of letting go. Additionally, there are likely daily activities that your former spouse took care of exclusively. Maybe they handled certain important aspects of the everyday finances or were always available to fix the next thing that stopped working. During your transition to feeling secure as a single person there are areas that you will gradually turn into new competencies.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources related to this topic that you would recommend to our readers?
I have two favorite books that are related to helping people thrive after divorce. They are helpful because they broaden understanding of why people behave aberrantly and explain in detail how people develop these adaptations to the social worlds they were born into.
The first book is by pediatrician and researcher W. Thomas Boyce. For more than 30 years he studied stress in children, and how both biology and social conditioning contribute to how resilient an adult will be to stress. His research and revolutionary insight is presented in a book called, “The Orchid and the Dandelion”. I highly recommend it for both people who have ended a relationship with a highly sensitive person, as well as to parents of a child who is hypervigilant to their rights being transgressed or has recurrent and unexplained illnesses.
The second book is called, “The State of Affairs” by Esther Perel who is a bestselling author, speaker and psychologist. In this book she discusses questions like, “Why do people in happy marriages cheat on their spouse” and “Why does an affair hurt so much?”. I would say that this book is sensitive to those whose life has been upended by infidelity, but is also an eye opening examination of the complex life experiences of couples who experience it.
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.
To live a healthy life as an individual is not possible without other people, nor can we participate positively and sustainably without caring for ourselves. Knowing how to draw flexible boundaries is what I would want to inspire a movement on as it has been a primary product of all my work on communication and conflict resolution.
Balancing the needs for autonomy and connection is no easy task. For those looking to live a free but rich relationship with their spouse, I have come to see it as an indispensable area for self-inquiry. I will now outline how you can start engaging differently in your relationships for the better. There are many in all but two perspective shifts in particular come to mind that will help you grasp the potential of my proposal.
The first has to do with exploring where our sense of responsibility to our spouse starts to breakdown during a conflict. If you found yourself asking for something repeatedly during your previous relationship, I would invite the keen observer to be honest with themselves and ask if they were practicing what they were asking for. If this is an automatic, “yes, of course”, slow down your thinking and find out what makes you so certain.
If you found your actions didn’t match your expectations, I would invite you to explore the many meanings underneath. This way the next time one of your boundaries are crossed you have the opportunity to emphasize your needs while communicating with the care and understanding you have needed from others.
The second has to do with verbalizing how someone could reliably show care in a way that matters to you. This point is crucial because it could be that you have never consciously thought about how to speak about your needs and ask for change mindfully. Further questions could be, Is there only one way? can another’s way of expressing closeness be admitted into our understanding? The truth is we can be us, and they can be them. That it’s possible that often they will give in their natural way, and that if they receive recognition they can then freely act and reciprocate in the ways more natural to you.
Knowing ourselves in these ways can help us ask questions and learn about our former partner and could very well lead to greater peace of mind, as well as feelings of both greater independence and connection moving forward.
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.
My number one choice for this special meal is Mediator, Arbitrator and Author Kenneth Cloke. Ken has been active in many areas of peacebuilding in the US and around the world for decades.
He inspired me to be fearless when building my practice as a family mediator and I am so grateful that I read his book, “Mediating Dangerously”, and to my mentor Mike MacConnell for suggesting I read it during my training. Ken is consistent in his invitations for practitioners to self-inquire, as well as in advocating the equal importance for conflict resolvers to be bold in taking chances, but for them to learn to do so without losing kindness or compassion in the process.
I had the pleasure and honor of taking a course with Ken at his home in Santa Monica in the fall of 2018. When the opportunity came up to train under his guidance I had my travel arrangements made in less than 3 days. I would love to speak with this genuinely good human being for a private meal.
Thank you for these great insights and for the time you spent with this interview. We wish you only continued success!