EP 144: Self-Care during Divorce Chaos – Interview with Dr. Robbin Rockett, host of Solo Parent Life

“When your feelings get big — whether they’re sad, or grief or anger or helplessness — slow down and breathe. Really take a moment. If we respond when we’re feeling really emotional, it may not be the real twist that we wanted to make in the long run. It might feel really good in that moment, but it might not be so helpful in the bigger picture.” — Dr. Robbin Rockett

In the middle of divorce, the range of emotions can feel overwhelming. In this episode, we interview Dr. Robbin Rockett, a clinical psychologist who experienced divorce. She discusses how to find a support group, why you need a therapist and ways to take care of yourself during the divorce process.

You’re going to want to listen to this episode more than once!

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Shawn: Today on the show I have with me Dr. Robbin Rocket, a licensed Clinical Psychologist, and also host of the podcast called Solo Parent Life. Robbin, welcome to the show.

Robbin: Thank you Shawn, for having me on. I appreciate it.

Shawn: We’re going to start with a little bit about your background and your story. You went through divorce, and you have some kids. Why don’t you just set the stage for the listeners.

Robbin: Sure. I’d say about almost five years ago, I had very small children at the time. They were six, four and one. I have two boys and a little girl. My divorce happened sort of unexpectedly. I had worked when I had my first two kids, and stopped working after I had my second kid. During the divorce I was actually a stay at home mom, even though I had kept my license up as a psychologist. So it was unexpected and I was like “Wow, now what do I do?” I had to figure a lot out. I had to be a single mom. I had to go back into the work force, something I hadn’t done in like three or four years, and in a new community because I had a private practice.

I’m in Marin, which is on the other side of the golden gate bridge from San Francisco but my practice had actually been in the East Bay, which was over by Oakland. It was a journey, and that’s what inspired me to create Solo Parent Life. I realized when you’re going through divorce it’s a lot, it’s overwhelming on so many different levels, but there’s not a lot of resources for single parents. In my situation my kids were so young. A lot of my friends weren’t getting divorced. That’s different now, a lot of people have or are in the middle of divorces as our kids have gotten older. Back when they were so young I felt pretty alone. I want to shout out to you Shawn. I wish I would have known about your podcast, Divorce and Your Money because that would have been an incredible resource.

I have a private practice. I created one in Marin, and I see kids, teens and families. I created a family, I worked really hard about finding support for myself, not just form family and friends. I joined a divorce support group that was invaluable and I just had a friend that I met in that support group on the show the other day, to talk about her journey as a single mom.

Shawn: This is good stuff. You already have a lot, I want to get into a little bit more. Let’s start with something you said at the beginning. You said the divorce was unexpected. You’re a psychologist so why don’t you tell us a little bit about the emotions that you experienced and also what people experience. At first you know what’s going on, it all of a sudden hit that this is happening.

Robbin: I think it’s overwhelming. I want to say that in my case the one being left or the one leaving, I think it’s hard for everybody. I think if you’re the one being left and you weren’t expecting it, that’s kind of what I was saying. It just felt pretty unexpected in that way. The different feelings; overwhelmed, terrified, scared, sad, mad, lots of anger. Feeling scared about the future, I think that was the biggest one. The other one too that was really strong was loneliness. My situation, there weren’t a lot of people going through divorce. So I didn’t really have people close to me to talk to about it and get what was going on. Frankly, because it was unexpected, it was unexpected to our community. A lot of my friends were just as shocked as I was. We were all kind of regrouping. That’s why I really dug deep. Maybe it’s because I’m a therapist and so I want to reach out to people that I think can support me because I do that for people. It’s why I really reached out to this support group.

I also was in individual therapy for a little while, just to kind of get grounded and to have a space. The support group met twice a month and the biggest thing for it was one, to deal with that loneliness and not feel so alone in this really overwhelming situation, but also have a place to put all of those feelings; the fear, the anger, the sadness, the grief, so that I could go back to being a mom everyday, and working on my career and do those other things. I found that was really essential. I think sometimes we want to compartmentalize it and put those feelings away, or we want to start dating quickly and get into a new found love. Those early days as hard as they are, it actually is important to settle down and really get in touch with the feelings about the fact that there’s essentially a death here, a death of the family, a death of the marriage, and cope with that so that any future decisions you make whether it’s financially or in mine it’s sort of self care or parenting, it’s with more groundedness.

Shawn: So let’s jump into the support group a little bit more. How did you find a support group in the first place?

Robbin: I googled it. I looked for divorce support groups in my area. There weren’t a lot. There were only two. I also looked through Meetup at the time, and the one that I chose was Susan Gadoua. She had written a couple of books about divorce and she had been doing this support group for a long time. The other one was run by a couple and so that just seemed to be a good fit for me. Then I gave her a call and we talked for a little bit. Sometimes they’ll do interviews, they’ll meet with you before the support group. She didn’t do that; we’d had a fifteen to twenty-minute call on the phone. That helped too. I got a sense of her, she got a sense of me, and then she let me know if there was space available for it.

Typically, what they do is they ask for a commitment. I think it’s important, like three months or six months. Again, it’s hard to open up to people and know if they’re going to understand you or if it’s going to be safe, can I trust these people? The essential part of the support group is that it’s confidential. When you go in and you talk about your situation, your soon to be ex husband, or ex wife, or the kids, it’s meant to be supportive, safe and a confidential space. The leader is there to guide and make sure that the conversation is going in a way that’s productive, helpful, and supportive.

Shawn: And when you’re in the room of a support group, are you sharing your story? How does that work for someone who is thinking about it? Do you bare your heart to everyone? Or do people share similar things? How does that all work out?

Robbin: I think each leader has their own style. The way that Susan did it, which I thought was quite lovely is, first of all if was an hour and a half. They run between an hour to two hours, this one was an hour and a half. Some meet weekly, bi-monthly, or once a month. Mine met twice a month. I felt like every two weeks was the right amount of time. Once a week is a little more intense, so I had time to process in those two weeks. When I came in, it was a lot of in the moment baring your soul. At the same time, not constructive. So you’re not going in to bash your ex or anything. You might have some angry feelings that come up and you might say some things that you want to say to them, but you can’t say it in the group. The whole premise again is to sort of help you understand your feelings, what your plan is, and how you want to move forward. You have to start with your feelings; talking about them, feeling them. Again, I find with being a single parent, you can’t be mad or sad all the time. You’ve got to show up for your kids, you’ve got to show up at work and you’ve got things you’ve got to do. It’s all on you now. To have that consistent space to do that, at least for me, it was very healing. It allowed me to sort of move through it. How I felt in the first three months was very different how I felt six to nine months later, and how I felt a year to two years later. It’s a process that everyone goes through.

Shawn: You said you also went to therapy too. What was the purpose of doing both, and what’s the difference between going in the group and sharing your feelings vs going to a therapist and sharing your feelings?

Robbin: That’s a really good question. The support group is more supportive. They are usually run by a licensed therapist, but not necessarily. It’s meant to be more of a check in of how you’re doing and then how you want to move forward. Individual therapy goes deeper into that, depending on the type of therapist that you’re seeing, but more about the patterns in your life that maybe were coming up in your marriage; how you feel about yourself, how you’re taking in this loss, how you’re grieving it, does it bring up any old family patterns or memories? To kind of work through it on a deeper level.

I kind of look at individual therapy as helping people gain more insight on who they are in the world, how they see themselves in the world, and how they see others. When we go through a big traumatic experience like a divorce, all of our stuff is going to come up. It’s just going to get upheaved, and that can be very painful and hard but also can be an opportunity for growth; an opportunity to go “You know, I need to do this differently,” or “I need to try to see this differently,” or “This is how my marriage was and I can see how I contributed to it,” with compassion, but with clarity, and how I want to do things differently moving forward.

Shawn: We’ve talked a little bit about external help, be it a therapist or a support group. What about yourself? You’re in charge of you at the end of the day and one of the things that I see even thought I don’t necessarily have any expertise in them is people will eat poorly, or a big one I see amongst the guys in particular is a lot of drinking, a bunch of visits to the bar instead of the gym. What kind of things did you, or you recommend people do, to take care of themselves through this process?

Robbin: First it would depend on where you are in the process. I think it was very early days when people are feeling pretty shaken up; really basic self care, and you’re not always going to want to do it. It’s not unusual for people to go through some really big depressive feelings; feeling really sad and grieving. You’re grieving the loss of something. So the basics of just eating and sleeping, getting a good night’s rest, reaching out to others, having a place to process your feelings so that if you do find you’re going to the bar regularly, pay attention to that and find another way to grieve. Going and drowning it in some beers every night is probably not going to be helpful. If you have a friend going through this and you see them going to the bar often, really approach them with compassion and remind them, “Hey, I see you’re going through a hard time. What could you do differently.” Being aware, having expectations that you’re going to hit the gym a whole bunch or eat healthy everyday is also too high. When you’re really going through the grieving process, you might overeat or under eat. I know that for me, I had a really hard time eating. I was quite anxious. I found that I lost weight because I was so anxious. My appetite was less and so I was eating less. I noticed it and friends and family noticed it.

What I try to do is be mindful of what I was eating, and make sure I was eating. Even if it was half my plate it was a healthy salad. Even if I didn’t always feel like it. Then again, I also really made sure I had space to be heard and to process my feelings. It doesn’t always have to be individual therapy or support groups. Maybe it’s just a friend or hanging around other single parents who just get it. Maybe it’s finding a new hobby. The other thing I did that helped was I really go into tennis. I hadn’t been in tennis in a while and I didn’t just want to go to the gym, that was too isolating. I wanted to be around other people, so I started playing tennis again. I got onto a team and made friends that way. It was perfect because it got me outside, it got me moving my body, it got me being social and it got my mind off of the divorce for an hour during that lesson, or an hour during the tennis game.

Shawn: What about during the moment? What I mean is that sometimes something will happen. Maybe you get a letter from your spouse’s attorney or you have to go to a mediation session, or any number of things flare up and all the emotions you talked about before, they have that instant where all of a sudden they hit you, one or many. What do you do to kind of protect yourself and keep calm in the instant?

Robbin: First of all, it’s so important right? You don’t want to respond in an email or a text because that’s a record. Especially if you’re having to go to court to run finances or run custody. I think when your feelings get big, whether they’re sad, grief, or they’re anger and just helplessness, is slow down, and breathe. Really take a moment. If we respond when we’re feeling really emotional, it may not be the real twist that we wanted to make in the long run. It might feel really good in that moment, but it might not be so helpful in the bigger picture. So slow down, breathe.

The other thing is to give yourself options. One thing I found helpful and other people have found helpful going through those early days is if you do get a letter from the attorney or let’s say a difficult text from your soon to be ex, call a friend first. Have somebody identified; a friend, a brother, a sister, someone in the family, and say “When I get something and I don’t know what to do and I feel really upset, can I call you before I call them?” Text or email them and just vent. Just be like “oh I got this and this is how I’m feeling.” Get it out, because when we’re feeling really emotional, we’re not thinking, we’re not using the parts of our brain that make the really good choices. We’re using that back primitive brain; fight or flight, and really emotional. To be able to make good choices we have to slow down.

The other one that a mediator told me about is wait 24 hours. If you get a difficult email or a text and you’re really upset about it, confused, upset, angry, don’t respond for a full 24 hours.

Shawn: Yeah I have a friend actually, on that very point; a business person. They would get an upsetting message and they would actually write out exactly what they wanted to say in that moment, just in a different program so it wouldn’t actually get sent. They would then wait 24 hours and reread it and say with perspective would that send that same message. Universally, they deleted the whole thing and wrote something a lot more pleasant or they’ll just say a little bit more professional. It was for that very reason. When you’re in the heart of it you have that fight or flight response and all of a sudden you want to fire off some sort of response and it’s not ultimately productive in the long run for you.

Robbin: That’s exactly right, and I love that he was allowing himself to have a voice for it, right? So he wrote it in a different program. When you say he had a different perspective, part of it is, again, he calmed down so he was using the parts of his brain, the executive function, the frontal lobe, the part that we use to make the good choices in our life. No one accesses that part of their brain when we’re feeling really emotional. It doesn’t mean we’re not suppose to feel emotional. It’s sort of like giving yourself permission to feel emotional, and be upset. It’s going to be really hard but also permission that you don’t have to know the answer, or respond right away. You can figure this out tomorrow, or you can call a friend to get some perspective and calm down.

Shawn: I think that’s great. I want to shift gears for a moment. Your podcast is called Solo Parent Life, and so I know you have many thoughts on parenting, and that’s not a subject we cover a lot on the show. I do want to get some advice from you on some subjects in particular. At the time, the kids were young, I think the oldest was six when you went through divorce. How do you communicate what’s going on? That mommy and daddy aren’t going to be living in the same house anymore?

Robbin: That’s a hard one. They were six, four and one. The conversation at that time mainly happened with our oldest, Steven, when he was six. Tyler, who was four at the time was kind of there but wasn’t quite understanding what was going on. The first thing I tell parents when they need to tell their kids mommy and daddy are separating or divorcing, is to first try to get on the same page about what they want to say to their kids. Also, take into consideration the age of your kids. What you say to a six year old is going to be very different from what you would explain to a sixteen year old. Ideally, you want both of you in the room with your kid, which is what we did. We had talked before we talked to Steven about we wanted to say. We kept it very brief, and left more room for him to have his feelings and reactions.

A lot of times kids, no matter what their ages are, are going to be usually most concerned about how this is going to affect them. When am I going to be at whose house? Who’s going to get me to basketball practice? Who’s going to take me to school every morning? Where am I going to do my homework? And that kind of thing. Just understand that’s normal and not unusual. It’s kid’s way of putting their world back into perspective. If you can work through those before you talk to them, it’s not essential but with your partner, at least at the beginning a basic plan of sort of when they’re at moms house, when they’re at dads house, who’s going to be taking them to school and all those kinds of logistics and be able to answer those questions, that can be really helpful to kids.

Really the main thing is to give them space for their feelings and let them know that both of you still really care about them. Let them know it isn’t their fault and that you love them and that even though this is sad and going to be hard, it’s also going to be okay.

Shawn: I think that’s great. Do you monitor them? I guess only Steven was of fully cognizant age at the time of what’s happening. Do you monitor changes in behavior? How do you keep an eye on them?

Robbin: Absolutely. Kids are kind of different in how they move through this. We all know that divorce is hard for the kids and the parents; hard for everybody. Research shows on this, the long term effects on divorce, the ones that we’re really worrying about for kids, it’s when there’s conflict. Whether that’s a married couple or divorcing couple, when there’s conflict around the children such as arguing, belittling, physical violence, emotional abuse, that does the biggest damage long term. Divorce is hard and there’s going to be grieving, and the kid’s going to need to work through that, that’s not typically what causes more of these long term issues for children. It’s really the conflict.

Shawn: What would be an example of a long term issue?

Robbin: Different kinds of either during transition times like drop off, pick up, the parents getting into arguments, when one kid is at one house that parent is talking badly about the other parent very openly. You’re putting kids in a position of having to choose. If mom is putting down dad while the kid is at mom’s house, that’s really painful because the kids love both mom and dad and so that can cause a lot of pain, and I think repercussions later in life. The other thing is just mom and dad arguing in front of the children, even if it’s something simple like Johnny left their basketball shoes at the house and they had to go back and get them before practice, kind of thing. This is what’s really hard for parents because they’re emotional and they’re going through a really hard time too.

My podcast, I really try to reiterate that, what you’re asking me a lot about, that self care. Being compassionate and having a lot of space to take care of yourself so that when you do have to interact with your ex, or the kids were saying, “Yeah we were over at dad’s house and we got to play three hours of video games.” You’re not going to be negative in front of the kids. You’re going to be able to breathe, slow down, and have a neutral response so that the kids aren’t put in the middle in all of that. That’s the biggest gift you can give them really. It’s very hard to do, especially if you have a lot of feelings about the divorce, or a lot of anger towards your ex. Keeping your eye on that bigger picture. The kids need to be able to love each parent and have a relationship with each parent, and all of those adult issue as to why they’re getting a divorce, is adult issues, and it’s not to try to protect the kids from those by allowing more of a neutral loving space for them to be with both parents.

Shawn: Over time, as the years go on, how does that relationship develop with the kids separated? How do you keep them from having a negative perception of relationships between parents?

Robbin: The way I look at it is, I always go back to, they need to be able to feel loved. When you were a kid we all wanted to be loved and accepted by our parents. All of our parents and all of us parents are very imperfect. We’re human, and we make mistakes, and we don’t always get it right. From the child’s perspective they want to feel loved and accepted, and they want to know that it’s okay that who they love is also accepted. I find if I’m having a moment, a common one with a lot of families, some of my rules are very different from my ex’s. The kids like to talk about that and as they get older, that’s a great opportunity to put down the other parent, put the kids in the middle and then, like you said, them to have a negative attitude towards the other parent.

Neutrality is central. Breathing, slowing down and not sweating the small stuff. If the rules are different, even if it’s not a rule I would never have in a million years in my own house, is it a safety issue? No. Then, it’s okay. That’s what I’m saying in my mind. That’s how I’m talking myself down. It’s not something I need to make a big deal. Being neutral with my kids and saying it’s different at mom and dads house. “I hear you’ve got that going on over there, that’s not my rules. This is what I do here. You’re okay with what’s going on over there? You’re okay with what’s going on here.” That way, as they have the feelings about the different houses, the different parenting styles, maybe different partners, you’re not putting yourself in the middle, you’re being neutral so that the kids have an opportunity to have their own feelings about it, and work through it. That’s how they’re going to process through stuff. They get stuck because they can’t talk about the differences in the family because it makes that parent mad or upset, or has a phone call, an angry phone call to the other parent.

Kid’s are going to shut down, and they’re going to figure out to keep the status quo, I need to pull away my feelings or thoughts, or needs in this moment. That’s what we don’t want to do. We want to open that up for that. The best case scenario, you’ve got a strong co-parenting relationship, so that if your kids are talking about stuff, that you need to question or you’re not sure about, you can call, you can email that co-parent and say “Hey this is going on.”, or “Hey, I’ve noticed this change.”, or “I’ve noticed more questions coming up and they’re upset about me or you. I just wanted to give you a heads up.” Best case scenario, you’re working together as co-parents, on supporting that child’s emotional needs at the time.

Shawn: I think that’s very helpful information. Robin, where can people learn more about you?

Robbin: Soloparentlife.com is the website. I don’t have quite as many episodes as you, but I’ve got some really great episodes on co-parenting, mediation, and parenting and dating. You were just on with finances and so I just encourage people to check it out.

Shawn: Awesome. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes. Robbin, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Robbin: Thank you, Shawn. I really appreciate it.

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