Author Kirsten Mickelwait: 5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive After A Divorce
Remember who you are. Who were you before you married? How are you still that person, only better now? When you stop defining yourself within the context of your marriage, you’ll discover that you have qualities — like strength, creativity, compassion, and resilience — that may not have been fully developed when you were part of a couple.
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 Kirsten Mickelwait.
Kirsten Mickelwait is the author of the upcoming memoir, The Ghost Marriage (She Writes Press June 2021). She’s also a writer and marketing specialist at UC Berkeley, as well as a successful freelance copywriter and editor. Her memoir details her 22-year marriage; her devastating divorce, which left her personally responsible for $1.5 million of her ex-husband’s debts; and how she re-envisioned herself to land solidly on her own two feet. A strong theme throughout her memoir is the critical step of forgiveness in order to be able to move on with your own life after a crippling divorce. Now a single mother of two grown children, she spends her non-writing hours singing, cycling, and hiking.
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 raised in Palo Alto, California, when Silicon Valley was just a few guys in a garage. My dad worked in the electronics industry and my mom was a preschool teacher. Their marriage was as perfect as a marriage can be: respectful, loving, rational, and full of shared interests. They raised my sister and me within a big community of friends and I have such fond memories of play dates, art classes, cookie-decorating parties, Christmas caroling, and camping trips. I thought that a good marriage was the norm; I later realized what an achievement this was.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was raised to believe that I could go anywhere and become anything I wanted. Most of my life I had studied to become a dancer, but in college my knees gave out and I pivoted to English at UC Berkeley. I’m so glad I did — I’ve built my entire career on writing and editing. I wrote my bachelor’s honors thesis on James Joyce, then my first job out of college was as an editorial assistant at McGraw-Hill’s San Francisco magazine office for Aviation-Week and Space Technology magazine. Talk about a paradigm shift! I suddenly had to switch from verbose academic writing to terse journalistic style. My career then traveled through positions in travel PR, as an entertainment press agent, nonprofit fundraising writing, and pretty much every other possible gig for a writer. It’s been an education of flying by the seat of my pants.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
Saying you’re a writer can get you access to all kinds of fun things. I was living in Rome in 1984–85 and during the summer the Goodyear blimp “Europa” flew over the city each day. I talked my way (in bad Italian) onto the dirigible by claiming I was a travel writer (which was mostly true), even though Goodyear didn’t want any publicity about access to the blimp. The memory of sailing over the historic center of Rome will stay with me always.
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?
When you’re an independent contractor, you need to say yes to every assignment and then figure out how to fulfill it. As a typical woman — and already in my fifties — this was really difficult for me when I was starting out — I was mortified at the prospect of disappointing anyone, or failing in any way. I was not in the habit of over-selling myself, or even selling myself at all. But failure was simply not an option. I was a single mom, raising two children in an expensive town with zero alimony or child support. I became fierce about each new assignment, and Google became my new best friend. I’d learn just enough to get me through the kick-off meeting, ask probing questions and present an air of utter confidence. But it was a complete charade! Lesson learned: You really can “fake it ’til you make it.”
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
A.A. Milne wrote, “You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” I don’t think I discovered this quote until my divorce struggle was over, but it confirmed the journey I’d experienced. With every challenge or obstacle that was thrown at me, I refused to cave in. And I was miraculously given the resources with which to fight each battle — whether it was launching my freelance business or taking a real estate mogul to court or standing up to my powerful, angry ex-husband. If you resolve to fight the good fight, you’ll be given the tools you need to win. At least that’s been my experience.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The Ghost Marriage was a book I didn’t want to write, but others convinced me that I should. I’m now at work on a novel that I’ve been thinking about since I was twenty years old. I’m obsessed with the “Lost Generation” of expatriates in Paris in the 1920s, and my novel focuses on one couple who lived and created in that remarkable culture. I’m not sure it will help people in any specific way, but if you love everything Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Picasso, etc., stay tuned!
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?
Until I was thirty years old, I was a fiercely independent, curious young woman. It’s quite remarkable, actually, that I met a man who was willing to take me on. Our first 12 years were really quite happy, filled with children and friends and travel. We looked to many, I’m sure, like the ideal couple. But at about year 13, Steve began to change, and I had to make myself smaller and more compliant in order to keep things smooth on the surface, especially with two children involved. I’m quite sure there are many women out there with a similar story. Eventually it felt like I was directing all my energy into keeping him happy and the family intact. At one point, I’d just had enough, but standing up to him to say I wanted out of the marriage was the riskiest thing I’ve ever done. He wasn’t physically abusive, but he was a former litigator — manipulative, aggressive, and used to getting his own way. He made my life scary and miserable for about six years, until he died.
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, for most people post-divorce, it’s something that defines them for a really long time; often until they meet someone else to partner with. I don’t think this can be avoided, but I do recommend building your new life as soon as you can. Develop new interests, meet new people, find ways to define the new path you’re charting for yourself. Live proactively, not reactively. To the extent possible, wipe the slate clean. It’s so exciting and empowering to discover new aspects of yourself.
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?
My horrible divorce was the catalyst for an incredible period of spiritual growth, which probably wouldn’t have developed if I hadn’t been pushed to an emotional precipice. I worked with a “spiritual life coach,” and I consulted with a medium to help me understand the lessons I was being taught. I began meditating and praying. I joined a chamber chorus, which was like church for me. Joseph Campbell said that “Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging,” and I’ve found that to be 100 percent true.
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?
I’d say that there are many ways to create a new beginning, and dating again is just one of them. I’d advise first working on really making yourself whole again before trying to find a new partner. Even in the most amicable divorce, we emerge feeling a bit battered and disoriented. That’s not the shape you should be in when you try dating again. Instead, get to a place of new equilibrium, whether that’s feeling financially secure, being healthy and physically attractive, or having a new creative outlet. Once you really feel great about yourself again, that’s the time to get out there and start dating. Having said that, online dating in midlife is a subtheme of my memoir, and let’s just say the results were somewhat tragicomic. In some ways, dating now is so completely different from when we were in our twenties, and in other ways, it’s exactly the same. Keep your sense of humor intact!
What is the one thing people going through a divorce should be open to changing?
Everybody’s experience is different, but in many cases, divorced couples find themselves in “reduced circumstances” once they’ve split up their assets. In my case, I went from living in a big gorgeous vineyard property to a much smaller house in a more urban neighborhood. I had to divest myself of about 50 percent of my belongings to make the move (my wine glass collection went from 40 to 8!). I would say, resist the urge to consider this a sad or shameful event. Change can be good for the soul, and ridding yourself of physical belongings can be incredibly freeing. I now live in a beautiful condo on the water, with about 25 percent of the belongings I had 15 years ago. It feels great.
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?
- Indulge yourself, then get on with it. For some people, the period of self-pity will last a week; for others, years. I can’t prescribe the right amount of time for you, but I can promise that the sooner you leave the pity party and start focusing on what you want next in your life, the sooner everyone will be happy (except, possibly, your ex).
- Remember who you are. Who were you before you married? How are you still that person, only better now? When you stop defining yourself within the context of your marriage, you’ll discover that you have qualities — like strength, creativity, compassion, and resilience — that may not have been fully developed when you were part of a couple. This is particularly true for women, who often modify their careers or activities in order to support their husbands and children in the home.
- Create self-worth. For many people, divorce can destroy their self-image. Now they may need to go back to work, relocate, or redesign their life as a single person and possibly as a single parent. Reinvent yourself professionally, find ways to be of service to others, discover a new passion. One thing you shouldn’t do is make your future happiness conditional on finding another romantic relationship. That may well happen in time, but don’t make it a requirement. Find your own balance. What makes you happy? Do that.
- Let it go. Eventually, you’ll need to forgive your ex for all the ways he/she hurt you, all the damage they wrought in your life. You’re not doing this for them; you’re doing it for yourself, so you won’t go around with an angry knot inside your heart for the rest of your days. You’ll be amazed at how much love and energy it’ll free up inside you, which you can now spend on other things, like yourself and your children. When my ex-husband died of colon cancer three years after our divorce, he left me with $1.5 million of his debts that were still attached to my name. I had a very specific timeline for when I thought I’d be able to forgive him, which was calculated upon when I thought I’d be financially secure again. In fact, I spontaneously forgave him, quite accidentally, within a year of his death. I think my subconscious just knew that another eight years of anger would do me no good.
- Make joy and love a daily exercise. Maybe it’s your kids. Your cat. Your friends. Whomever. Find someone or something to love each day. Recognize and celebrate that feeling. Be grateful for it. You’ve probably been through a lot since going through your divorce, but unhappiness doesn’t have to be a permanent lifestyle. The sooner you look toward the light, the sooner you can get to happily ever after.
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?
Develop at least one practice of self-care that you can follow regularly. Exercise is a must. Meditation can work wonders. I made sure to walk or cycle every day and went to yoga every Saturday. If therapy’s an option, definitely take advantage of that. If not, schedule regular dates with friends when you can complain, laugh, and let it all out. Community is such an important element of healing.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources related to this topic that you would recommend to our readers?
It’s been almost 15 years since my own separation and divorce, and so many great resources have come out since then. I’d say find a good “how-to” divorce book and follow it closely. I wish I’d been more strategic about my own divorce journey, but when your soon-to-be ex is an accomplished litigation attorney, it’s hard not to be in a reactive position. My approach was to ensure my own success financially and emotionally so that whatever he did to me, I’d be okay on my own.
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. :-)
The theme of my memoir is that life isn’t limited to the tangible reality we experience on this earth, and that our worst adversaries can become our greatest teachers. I would love to spread that message: that we’re so much more than what we perceive, we’re here to learn some big spiritual lessons, and life continues beyond our physical deaths. It’s a message that not everyone is comfortable with, and I respect that. But this has been my own experience.
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 :-)
Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, or Amanda Gorman. Or all three! Can you imagine getting those remarkable young women together at brunch? All our world’s problems would be solved by noon.
Thank you for these great insights and for the time you spent with this interview. We wish you only continued success!