When my first ex casually informed me one evening that he was no longer sure if he was in love with me, I was living in my hometown of NYC. I had enough good friends nearby that I was completely moved out the next morning, all my stuff on its way to storage, prepaid for three months, and someone making up the futon in their living room for me.
When my second ex and I broke up, I was living all the way across the country from those people who dropped everything to come to my rescue. What was worse was that for three years I had been married to a narcissist who systematically alienated almost everyone I knew. I felt alone and was alone. Sure, I knew people, but they weren’t the type of friends who’d come over at 10pm and spend the night helping you pack, while devising intricate and dastardly plans for revenge. They were, instead, people I knew from work, casual acquaintances, or neighbors, most of whom my ex made me swear not to tell that we were breaking up.
During times of stress, such as divorce, having a strong social net into which you can fall is so important. These are people upon whom you can call for all different types of support, whether it’s a sympathetic shoulder to absorb your tears, someone who’ll get you out of the house on a day when you’re feeling particularly burdened, or just someone who you know will regularly pick up the phone and make sure you’re alive.
How to Weave Your Social Net
Not everyone is as fortunate as I have been. I am 46 years old and still friends with more people that I know from the early elementary school grades than I can count on both my hands. These were some of the people who rushed to help me the first time around.
The second time around, though, those people were far away physically and emotionally, having chosen to not be particularly involved with me during the four years that had been the courtship and marriage to my narcissistic second ex. And so, when I found myself falling again, I had to go about weaving a different net. At first I thought I didn’t need anything or anyone. I was in pain and grieving my failed marriage. I was ashamed that I had made a bad choice again. But, after a few weeks of sitting alone in my apartment, screening all my calls, feeling sad and lonely, I realized that my self-imposed exile wasn’t helping my situation.
Step One - Hold Out Your Hand for Someone to Take
I took a baby step. I made a phone call. I looked through my address book and chose one person I’d like to be closer to and called them. Making a connection with someone, just to talk, was the first step. The subject of the conversation wasn't really important at that point, but getting in touch with even one person can work wonders.
Reaching out serves more than one purpose. People often won’t approach someone who they think won’t be receptive to their advances, and many people think that when you’re going through a difficult period, you’d rather be left alone. If you don’t take that first step of alerting the community at large that you’re needing, you may just find yourself sitting alone by the phone, not because people don’t want to help, but because they think they’re honoring your wishes.
In my case, no one reached out to me because my ex made me swear not to tell anyone. He was a very private person, choosing to divulge only what information he felt he could control. No one at work knew. None of the neighbors knew. None of the local people I knew knew. Who was going to help me through my divorce when people thought I was still happily married? No one.
The friend whom I chose to call was a person who I knew my ex hated. He used to refer to her as “Peter Pan” saying she’d never grow up. He felt that if she and I forged any sort of friendship, she’d corrupt me in some way and ruin my life. I chose her because I liked her and felt she’d be a good friend and a fun person. The fact that she and my ex would never cross paths was merely a bonus.
During one conversation, this friend and I happened to get on the topic of movies we’d seen recently. I confided in her that that was something I missed now that I was “alone,” being able to see movies. After she stopped making fun of me for thinking I could only go to movies with another person, she gave me a homework assignment - go out and see a movie, that night, any movie, and then report back to her. I didn’t want to. I was scared and embarrassed, but I did it.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a better time seeing a movie than I did that night. I went out to see “Sexy Beast” starring Sir Ben Kingsley, a movie my ex had no interest in seeing, and so it was a movie I just assumed I’d never see. I took a Thermos full of tea and some grapes, threw them in my backpack, went to the theater, sat down, and watched a movie - uninterrupted. It was gorgeous, actually. I thought I’d feel alone being surrounded by a bunch of strangers, but it was the exact opposite. We were all there for the same reason and, even though we didn’t know one another, there was a unity of purpose, a shared experience.
This experience opened up a whole new concept for me - the beauty of solitude. That is just me, though. I have grown, over these years since my divorce, to enjoy being with myself, but that is not for everyone. Your mileage may vary, as they say. And that bring us to our second step, joining a community.
Step Two - Form a Circle
I like to think of these types of connections as analogous to a life ring that someone on a boat would toss to a person who’s drowning. They help to keep us afloat. One person is great, but as the saying goes, you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. One other person has their own life and things they must attend to, and so won’t always be available for you when you need them. Not so in a social circle.
There are all sorts of communities out there, religious organizations, book clubs, Stitch-N-Bitch, playgroups for every age of child, singing groups, writing groups, click-happy travelers, people who like to skydive dressed as Abe Lincoln, you name it. If someone’s interested in it, there’s a group of like-minded people meeting somewhere to talk about, practice, or plan around it. I am a knitter. A quick Google search of the words “knitting groups” in my local area yielded 1.7 million results. I’m Jewish. A quick Google search of “Jewish knitters” brought me to web sites that knit for charity. Anything you’re interested in, there are other people out there to connect with.
Joining a group of people not only puts you in contact with others who share your passions, but also puts you in a position where others can bring you into their lives, invite you to events - Thanksgiving, Super Bowl, birthdays, retirements, come over and meet the puppy/baby/grandma/exchange student. These types of events bring us back into the daily lives of others, closer to humanity. They help to heal our spirits and give us something to focus on than our misery.
Doing community service is also a great way to grow your social net. Volunteering at your local church, school, homeless shelter, animal shelter, library, anyplace where budgets are low and need is high, can be a great way to lift your spirits by getting you out of the house, together with like-minded people, helping the community.
Step Three - Reach Out and Embrace Yourself
One thing about being involved with a narcissist is that the daily emotional and verbal abuse obliterates your self-esteem and confidence. Now is a perfect time to rebuild your self-confidence. You are no longer with your narcissistic ex, so there is no one to tell you that you’re anything but fantastic. The only person left to criticize you is you, so why not take the opposite approach and identify and focus on your strengths, while taking some time to change some things that you may have been wanting to work on?
Find a divorce support group. You can find one in your community online, or through your local community, religious or otherwise. Check with your medical insurance company, it might sponsor a group for its members. Oftentimes, all it takes is asking a friend or relative who’s been divorced.
No one should go through any difficult period alone. Reaching out and bringing people close to surround and support you is a much more efficient use of your energy than sitting alone waiting for someone to help you. Take charge of your happiness. You have the power and you’re worth it, regardless of what your ex may have tried to get you to believe.
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Images Courtesy of Lily Atherton