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How I Survived My Surprise Divorce

By Lisa Stephenson 5 min read

How to have the greatest adventure after you’ve been hit unexpectedly by events that leave you reeling and feeling out of control.

Nine years ago, every certainty I thought I knew about life collapsed. That sounds so dramatic now, but that was absolutely my truth then. My beautiful life, the previous chapter in my story, had abruptly come to a very definite end. It was a simple one but I had loved it. All I had ever wanted was a great marriage to my best friend, to be a mostly-at-home mum and to coach some clients on the side because I had always loved to work.

Instead, the new chapter of my life was an impending divorce and I had to, quite suddenly, create a career that would provide financially for my three little people (aged two, four and eight) and myself, and work out what my new version of success would be. I had no idea what happiness was going to look like going forward. I felt ill-equipped to be a single full-time working mum and I was overwhelmed by how much there was to do and learn.

I was that woman! The one who seemed to have it all. My family and friends were just as shocked as I was when my husband at the time left me and made it clear he was never coming back. In that moment, I had to find a way to be both the mum and the dad. I went from feeling grateful for my life and planning a trip to Africa, to sitting on the shower floor hoping the sound of the water would stop the children from hearing me cry.

There are days I don’t remember and moments of grief that are etched on my heart forever. I was engaged to him at 19 and married at 21. I had no idea who I was without him. “Divorced” and “single mum” were not labels I had ever considered I would have to own.

It was abundantly clear that my soon-to-be ex-husband would not take responsibility for our three little people in any way. He was knee-deep in depression. I call it that but neither of us, to this day, is really sure what label to give it. Essentially, he decided he no longer wanted to be a husband or father—full stop. Keeping us safe—emotionally, financially and physically—would become a full-time job for me.

The courts granted me full custody of my children; I reverted to my maiden name and so did my children. We moved house five times in seven years. The children moved schools three times in two years. I found myself so deep in grief that I forgot to eat and I avoided sleep at all costs. I cried secretly and smiled publicly.

I’m certainly not the only person who has had to deal with divorce, miscarriage, financial loss and emotional bankruptcy. My point is that we all have a story with lessons to learn and challenges to cope with. Bad things really do happen to good people. But it’s what we do in the middle of a crisis that counts.

Some months in, I realised that it was not helpful to think about how we could be happy without him. What I discovered was that my journey was about becoming resilient and strong. By deliberately embracing all the discomfort and change, I started to feel possibility and optimism. I proactively identified opportunities that would stretch me further and guess what? I started to trust myself and feel lighter. The happiness was coming as a result of investing in my ability to be resilient and thrive.

The easy option would have been to go and get a job. But if I was going to build an amazing life, I needed to make amazing choices. Simmering beneath the surface of uncertainty was a voice that I now know was the inner-entrepreneur and woman who was going to find a way to be successful in life. I was quietly determined to draw on everything I had ever learned, read and experienced. I decided I was prepared to do what was required to be the very best version of me. I needed to attach myself to that goal and my children needed me to as well.

If only I had known how amazing the ride would be for my children and myself. I set an ambitious goal to take my children out of school for an entire term so we could live, explore and heal in Italy. It took years of planning, dreaming and saving. It was so worth it. We ate pizza and gelati every day. We slept in late and didn’t have dinner until 10 pm most nights. I woke up with my children every day for three months, which was the greatest blessing, given my “normal” life now requires me to travel regularly.

We missed trains, got lost and felt earthquakes. We sat on top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and on a different day, we pretended we could hear the tigers in the Colosseum. We went on the “canoes” (as Mabel called the gondolas) in Venice. We caught the chairlift to the top of Capri and went ice-skating outside at 11pm in Lake Como. We avoided riots in Florence, ate dinner in castles and conversed with locals using hand gestures. Watching Italian ladies hand-make pasta brought us joy and the colours of the Cinque Terre still find me in my dreams.

This was also when I started writing my book, truly letting go of the pain and realising my children would be OK. In fact, they would be more than OK.

How to make life the greatest adventure

Play and plan big 

This is your one shot to live an amazing adventure, regardless of the current challenges you face. Be ambitious in your dreams. Consider what you want to be able to say about your life when you are 80 years old and sitting on your verandah reflecting on the experiences you’ve had. What are you really capable of?

Make yourself an important project 

Investing in yourself is the most important investment you will ever make. Think strategically about how you are living and where you are heading. Set deadlines and consult experts who will support you. Create a vision board, identify blockers and review your progress. How can you make yourself and your future the most important focus?

Do what other people aren’t prepared to do

The world is full of people who start projects and never follow through. Keep going, even when it’s hard and you don’t want to. Don’t wait and don’t give in. When your motivation has passed, it will be your commitment that keeps you going. Are you prepared to do what’s required?

Find your tribe 

Surround yourself with people who want you to succeed, who will challenge you to be more and who understand your true potential. Your tribe extends beyond friends and family—they are the people who will challenge and celebrate you. Identify those in your world who you trust and will tell you the truth. No energy leeches allowed! Who do you know?

Get uncomfortable 

It is true, the greatest learning happens in discomfort. To know what you are really capable of, you have to test out your resilience and capabilities. You don’t know what you don’t know about yourself yet. Intentionally look for new experiences and meet people out of your network. When was the last time you felt really uncomfortable?

Honour your future self 

Imagine yourself in two years’ time. How much more will you know in five years? And then in 10 years you will be so wise! When you are planning your future success, consider what your future smar-ter/wiser/funnier/more experienced version of yourself would do right now to make your dreams come true. The best way to predict your future is to live it now. What advice does your future self have for you?

Be resolute, committed and courageous 

There really is only one you on this planet. No single other person looks the same as you, has your beliefs or experiences. Put your big girl pants on and enjoy the ride of being you. Be brave on all the days you can manage it. The future version of you is someone to be proud of.


Watch Lisa's interview, Why I Choose to Put Myself First.

Lisa Stephenson is the author of "Read Me First" and has decades of experience as a global speaker, leadership consultant and success coach. She is also the founder of the global, Australian-based consulting firm, Who Am I Projects.


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