Social Worker & Author Joanna Charnas: “5 Things You Need To Know to Survive and Thrive After A Divorce”
An interview with Ilyssa Panitz
Divorce commonly feels like a failure. I think it is healthier to think of it as an ending. Endings are the start of new beginnings. If we can live with that mind set, we leave space for creativity and adventure. If I had remained married, I could not have written a book about dating in my mid-forties. “A Movie Lover’s Search for Romance” is my favorite of my four books. I feel that I have put something good and valuable into the world, which is deeply satisfying. In addition, most cultures believe that marriage should last a lifetime. But even good marriages sometimes have expiration dates. It is important to accept that many parts of life have beginnings, middles, and ends, and this is natural and okay. It does not mean we failed.
I don’t think anyone fully understands divorce. I mean at one point you cherished spending every minute with this one person and screamed with excitement when you got engaged and planned your dream wedding. Hearing the band leader announce to all of your guests, “Announcing for the first time as Mr. and Mrs. so-and-so” were the best words you ever heard and the most memorable entrance you ever made! How many songs did you listen to before picking the perfect one for your first dance as husband/wife? It was a magical moment in time when you were beaming so brightly, you could light up a city. So why does everything unravel and fall apart? Why can’t the relationship be saved, and those recollections, like your nuptials help us dodge the “divorce” bullet? Joanna Charnas has been a clinical social worker for thirty years, and currently works in the Mental Health Department of a large California teaching hospital. Not only has she go through her own divorce but she is also the author two health and wellness books and is out with her latest book, “A Movie Lover’s Search for Romance,” which details her dating experiences in her forties and fifties after her divorce.
Ilyssa Panitz: Lets learn a bit about you?
Joanna Charnas: I was born in New York City and spent the first half of my childhood there. When I was ten my father and stepmother moved to New Mexico and my mother, brother and I moved to Menlo Park in what is now part of Silicon Valley. I spent most of my vacations in New Mexico, riding horses and hiking with my family. My parents were brilliant people, and intellectual pursuits were encouraged. I have been a social worker for over thirty years, a career which has been challenging and rewarding. For the last thirteen years I have worked on the locked psychiatric ward of a large teaching hospital. I have had a passion for film since I discovered movies when I was eleven. I began writing when I was forty, and MSI Press has published my four books. The first three books are about health and wellness, and the latest one, “A Movie Lover’s Search for Romance,” is a memoir about dating in middle age after my divorce.
Ilyssa Panitz: Interesting combination. How did manage to blend the two?
Joanna Charnas: As a tween and teenager, I had a collection of Life Magazines, and I became entranced by the photographs of the late Gordon Parks. I also read his memoir, “A Choice of Weapons.” His work ignited my sense of justice. As a teen my big brother called me “the Jo for Justice Committee.” Social work was a natural career path, which has allowed me to put my values into action. I’ve been a letter writer since my father and stepmother moved to New Mexico, and have been conducting a forty-one-year correspondence with a childhood classmate, Daniel Hays, who co-wrote the 1995 best seller, “My Old Man and the Sea.” Writing has always been a part of my life. I wrote my first book, “Living Well with Chronic Illness,” at the repeated urging of my father, who was convinced I had something valuable to offer as an individual living with chronic illness and as a professional who worked with people with chronic illness, primarily HIV and mental illness.
Ilyssa Panitz: When did you get married?
Joanna Charnas: I was thirty-five when I got married.
Ilyssa Panitz: When did you file for divorce?
Joanna Charnas: I was forty-one when I filed for divorce.
Ilyssa Panitz: You said you tried everything and nothing seemed to be working. Can you please elaborate on what you did to save your marriage before making this decision?
Joanna Charnas: My husband and I went to marriage counseling, which helped up stay in the marriage two years longer than we might have if we had not sought outside help. I tried to learn from my mistakes. My efforts de-escalated some of our conflicts but could not change our core issues.
Ilyssa Panitz: Who wanted the divorce?
Joanna Charnas: I initiated my divorce and let me add, I was still devastated by it. It was my last option. I was stunned by the amount of pain I felt. I found myself sobbing on my couch several times a day for months. I think it is helpful to know that grief is normal, and to feel it instead of suppressing it. 9/11 happened four months to the day after my husband moved out. Our national tragedy helped me re-focus and pivot from my intense personal grief. During this period, I learned that I was resilient, even though I lost the thing I valued most in my life, my marriage. I think it is easy to feel like we are failures when we divorce because we also forget about our strengths. I heard similar stories from other divorced friends: They were heart broken, but still managed to take care of business.
Ilyssa Panitz: How did life change for you once you filed for divorce?
Joanna Charnas: I was both overwhelmed with sadness as well as relief. I had another worldly sense that I had avoided a huge financial disaster. My husband had in many ways withdrawn from the marriage, and we were always very independent, so my life did not change dramatically after our separation and divorce.
Ilyssa Panitz: What surprised you most during the process?
Joanna Charnas: I have said to friends and family that the biggest surprise of my life was how my former husband became mean after our marriage. The second biggest surprise of my life was how he transformed back into the nice guy I had dated immediately after I decided to divorce him.
Ilyssa Panitz: Was it easy to find the right attorney?
Joanna Charnas: Yes, I had a close friend whose husband had a messy divorce from his first husband. I decided to divorce my former husband on a Monday. I called her on a Tuesday to get the lawyer’s contact information and had an appointment with the attorney on a Wednesday. I was very lucky that way.
Ilyssa Panitz: You talked about feeling down, broken, and shattered while you were going through a divorce. What brought about these feelings?
Joanna Charnas: The primary emotions I felt during my divorce were grief and loss. All my other feelings stemmed from those primary emotions.
Ilyssa Panitz: Did you ever feel angry towards your ex or about the situation that was unfolding and if so, how were you able to move past it?
Joanna Charnas: People have marveled that I never felt angry at my ex-husband. We had the world’s easiest divorce and signed our divorce papers in nine days after my decision to leave the marriage. I was just so sad.
Joanna Charnas: You mentioned you are a social worker. Did your professional training help guide you through this complicated divorce maze?
Joanna Charnas: On a practical level my social work background was not helpful during my divorce. But as a licensed clinician I knew that I had to fully experience my sad feelings for as long as I needed to, and not try to be brave or strong. This helped me move through them.
Ilyssa Panitz: People perceive divorce as a failure. Do you agree or disagree with this statement and why?
Joanna Charnas: Divorce is not necessarily a failure. If anything in life is not working after making every reasonable effort, then the reasonable thing is to move on if that is possible. But it certainly feels like a failure of your hopes and dreams.
Ilyssa Panitz: How did you go about rebuilding yourself?
Joanna Charnas: As I said, much of my life stayed the same. I had started writing the first draft of my first book, “Living Well with Chronic Illness,” and I was determined to finish that draft, which I did as I was divorcing. I also decided to study for my California license to be a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. I had maintained my license from Massachusetts, but wanted to have the same license in California, even though I was in a management position at the time. In the middle of my divorce I was studying with my study group five nights a week and yes, I passed!
Ilyssa Panitz: As you started to put the pieces back together, what did you learn along the way?
Joanna Charnas: I learned that I was strong and capable. Getting my license and finishing the first draft of my book helped me to feel that way.
Ilyssa Panitz: Did your social calendar change when you were going through a divorce?
Joanna Charnas: We had not socialized very much as a couple, and I had always made time to see my friends, so my social life was the same post-divorce as it had been during my marriage.
Ilyssa Panitz: Was that a hard aspect to accept (no more couple’s nights, friends may shy away/disappear)
Joanna Charnas: Nothing much changed for me, so that part of the divorce was a non-issue.
Ilyssa Panitz: When you found your footing, tell me what was different about the new “YOU” and why she is better than before?
Joanna Charnas: The post-divorce me had completed the first draft of a book and passed a test with an almost fifty percent fail rate. I felt strong and confident, and assured that I would find romance again. I was right!
Ilyssa Panitz: Congratulations, do tell…..
Joanna Charnas: My former husband and I remained friends until he died in 2013. He apologized to me several times, each time many years after our divorce. We were no longer romantic partners, but we loved each other until the day he died. I am deeply gratified that our love survived even though we could not be married to each other.
Ilyssa Panitz: People associate the word 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?
Joanna Charnas: Divorce commonly feels like a failure. I think it is healthier to think of it as an ending. Endings are the start of new beginnings. If we can live with that mind set, we leave space for creativity and adventure. If I had remained married, I could not have written a book about dating in my mid-forties. “A Movie Lover’s Search for Romance” is my favorite of my four books. I feel that I have put something good and valuable into the world, which is deeply satisfying. In addition, most cultures believe that marriage should last a lifetime. But even good marriages sometimes have expiration dates. It is important to accept that many parts of life have beginnings, middles, and ends, and this is natural and okay. It does not mean we failed.
Ilyssa Panitz: When people are an emotional mess, which is typical when you are going through a divorce, they tend to make un-necessary mistakes. What can be done to avoid that?
Joanna Charnas: I think the biggest mistake people who are divorcing make is to lay blame. Even though my former husband, by his own admission, behaved badly, I chose not to blame him. When people cannot live together, they act out in ways they might not ordinarily. Not everyone is in touch with their feelings, or able to articulate them. Instead, they communicate through behavior, which is often hurtful to their spouse. I chose to say to my husband that we were a bad fit, and not lay blame. I think my ex- appreciated my choice, which allowed us to become good friends eventually. We loved each other until he died in 2013. Blaming ourselves is just as damaging. We need to show the same non-judgmental attitude towards ourselves as we want from other people. Everyone makes mistakes, often big ones. We need to be as kind to ourselves as we would be to our best friend.
Ilyssa Panitz: What are suggestions do you have to help lessen the stress of a divorce?
Joanna Charnas: Taking care of your body and finding something that gives you a sense of purpose can help people live through their grief. But the anguish cannot be willed away. We must experience it and live through it. That being said, any meditative practice can help center us; yoga; walking without music or other distractions; listening to a meditation tape. They will all calm our nervous system somewhat. I have been listening to the same meditation CD for over twenty years. Making time for it when I am stressed is especially important.
Ilyssa Panitz: What is the one thing people going through a divorce should be open to changing?
Joanna Charnas: There is not one thing. We should always be open to learning and growing. Every experience is a chance to be a better version of yourself. One of the things that gets me through my worst moments is my commitment to growth. No matter how bad something is or what mistake I have made, I know I have done my best and that I’m committed to try to learn from the experience. I often joke that people in my family live until their mid-nineties and that at sixty I am going to need each of the next thirty-five years to evolve into the person I want to be.
Ilyssa Panitz: Do you have a mantra or favorite quote you live by?
Joanna Charnas: Mark Twain allegedly said, “All you need in life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.” These words have guided me my entire adult life. It is so easy to be spooked by perceived obstacles.
Ilyssa Panitz: What are 5 things you would advise someone in order to survive and thrive during/after a divorce?
Joanna Charnas: One: Find something that gives you purpose. I finished the first draft of my first book immediately after my husband left. My family could not believe I had the internal fortitude to work on the book. Even though writing it was challenging, finishing a first draft gave me a sense of purpose that I needed at the time. I urge other people going through a divorce to focus on something that they care about, even if it is a small thing, like exercising twenty minutes a day.
Two: I believe looking good when you head out the door is important. This advice was given by my brother’s mother-in-law to someone else, but I used it during my divorce. I splurged on some new clothes, which made me feel attractive. I was not trying to be attractive to others, I just needed to feel good about myself in the world. Divorce often feels humiliating. Feeling good about your appearance is something tangible to counteract those negative feelings.
Three: Create some structure for yourself. The structure gives us a framework to get through the day. Work, taking care of my animals, and committing to finishing my first draft provided me with the structure I needed during my divorce.
Four: Decide what is important to you on a daily basis and make a list. My list had things like; eat less sugar; pray; meditate; walk. I am a Social Worker, so I joked that I made myself a treatment plan. The list should have things on it that are achievable, and then people should try to accomplish as many things on the list as they can each day. This will give you a sense of accomplishment. Any day during my divorce that I refrained from self-soothing with sugar was a good day.
Five: Take care of your body. Practice basic wellness. Eat three balanced meals a day. Plan to sleep eight hours a night. Try to exercise, even if you can only take ten-minute walks. It would be so easy to spend every weekend binge watching TV while eating Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream on the couch during a divorce. That is alright for a day or two but also taking care of our bodies is important in managing any crisis.