Because relationship therapist have the inside track on all things commitment and wedded bliss, it’s easy to assume they’re immune to much of the drama that can happen in a long-term relationship. But no matter your area of expertise, divorce happens—as Crystal Rice, a licensed therapist at Insieme Consulting in Maryland, knows firsthand.
“Being a relationship therapist helped me in the aftermath, but proved less helpful in the throes of divorce,” says Rice. “If anything, it made me stay longer in an unhappy relationship because I felt the pressure to make it work, despite knowing in my gut that we weren’t a good match,” she says. “Emotions are hard, and they’re no easier to work through even when you know what to do with them.”
Three years post-divorce, Rice shares what she learned and wants everyone to know about keeping your relationship healthy and when to call it quits. (Heal your whole body with Rodale’s 12-day liver detox for total body health.)
Discuss how you deal with stress.
- If you and your partner react to times of tension in ways that don’t jibe—like he pulls away, while you prefer to reach out for comfort—being there for each other when the going gets tough is almost impossible. Rice learned that this mishmash of styles can morph into the killer iceberg of a relationship. “Knowing and openly discussing each other’s styles right from the start of the relationship can help you feel more connected to each other,” says Rice, not to mention keep you from getting blindsided down the line.
Stop avoiding conflict.
- “I found that I had become so careful not to rock the boat in the relationship that I stopped being honest,” she says. “I just worked to keep the status quo, all the while becoming angrier that my needs weren’t being met.” Now, she speaks up no matter what, as sidestepping those tough conversations can cause a ton of heartache and hurt down the road.
Set aside space for yourself.
- Rice admits that she was too quick to compromise personal space for a relationship. “In marriage, we often forget that our sense of identity has to be reflected somewhere in our environment,” she says. If it’s not, we lose our sense of self, and that will almost certainly damage a partnership, says Rice. Creating a woman cave that’s yours—an area unedited by anyone else—can be the lifeline you and your relationship need, she adds. If you don’t have the space or the means to create a place to “do you,” find a coffee shop, library, or other chill hangout to go when you need some me time.
Think about what you want out of your relationship.
- When people start to wonder if divorce is the answer, they usually spend a lot of time stacking up their partner’s faults. But it wasn’t until Rice turned the focus on what she really wanted out of her marriage—and why her partner was no longer fitting the bill—that she realized she needed to end the relationship. When you focus the conversation of divorce on what you really want from your partner instead of blaming him for not having those qualities, it clarifies whether or not this is a relationship you should be in. Plus, that perspective sets you up to find a successful partnership in the future, she says.
Don’t shut out your mutual friends when things get rough.
- Once Rice started to seriously consider divorce, she withdrew from her family and friends. “Over the years, most of my friends had become ‘our’ friends, and I felt no one would be able to fully empathize and support my decision because of the shared relationships,” she explains. But once the news came out, it threw everyone for a loop and made the aftermath of divorce that much more isolating.
Losing friends and family happens.
- Losing your partner post-divorce is a given, but losing friends and family, too? It can feel like a giant kick in the face. For Rice, the experience helped her learn to appreciate relationships (of all types) on a whole new level. “I always hear these quips about how true friendships last forever, or that family should love you no matter what,” she says. But relationships are complex, and it’s possible that some of your mutual friendships will fizzle out after your split. Though you might not spend much time with each other anymore, remember what you loved about those friends and forget everything else, Rice says. “Ultimately, that minimizes their impact on your life,” says Rice.