Dr. Elizabeth Cohen, aka The Divorce Doctor, joins Zibby to discuss her book, Light on the Other Side of Divorce. Through her work as a clinical psychologist focused on helping those going through the end of their marriage, Dr. Cohen strives to take the shame and suffering out of the process and directs her patients instead to think about how they can find their strength again. She offers some of her best tips and tricks for rebuilding yourself to Zibby and opens up about how her own experience with divorce helped shaped the approach she shares with others.


Zibby Owens: Hello, Dr. Cohen. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Light on the Other Side of Divorce: Discovering the New You.

Dr. Elizabeth Cohen: Thank you for having me so much. I’m really excited to be here.

Zibby: Last time when we did our IG Live, I was calling you Lizzy. I’m like, I’m sure nobody else calls you Lizzy. We’ve known each other for a very long time. It’s very nice to be in this Zoom together talking books.

Elizabeth: Yes, thank you. I’m so happy to be here. It is amazing to think back. I’ve known you so long. Where my life has gone, where your life has gone, I think both of us really used what we went through to create something new and, as were just saying earlier, maybe shift some stigmas and shift the way some things are.

Zibby: Yeah, go us. Also, both of us have gone through a divorce. You wrote really openly about it in the beginning of this book. I love that. I open up your writing, and it’s like, here’s my story. I’m like, great. That’s all I look for when I open books. I just want to know, what is this person’s story? I want to cut through all the other stuff. You laid it all out there right away. Then of course, once we know you, it’s much easier to take your advice. It’s much easier to take advice from someone you feel a connection with than just jumping into someone’s book and being like, oh, okay, I’m supposed to listen to you? Maybe you could tell listeners a little about your story that you shared in the book and then even why you decided to make this book and your treatment and your whole career now centered on helping others?

Elizabeth: Thanks. It’s actually funny that you say that, that you want to hear someone’s story in order to then be taught by them. As a trained clinical psychologist, we’re taught completely the opposite.

Zibby: Oh, sorry.

Elizabeth: No, but I think that was actually a really big step for me, was actually to realize that my story was powerful, that I could help people even more not being a blank slate, not being someone who didn’t have a story, but really shared the story so that I could get it. A lot of times people, even with therapists, think, I know you’re empathic, but do you actually get it? You can never ask your therapist that question, so I answered that very openly. I went through a divorce when my children were six months and two years old. They were tiny babies. I was married to someone who struggled with the addiction of alcoholism. I didn’t want to get divorced. I wanted to continue. I, as a therapist, thought I could help him. I could guide him. I could make it all better. I did everything I most possibly could until I just couldn’t anymore. It felt scarier to stay in the relationship than to leave, and leaving felt terrifying. That’s how scary it felt to be in the relationship for me. I didn’t have any friends at that time — I was about thirty — who had gone through a divorce. I grew up in the same marinated space that we all did. I thought it was really terrible to get divorced. I still thought it was broken home and I failed. Here I was this high-achieving person. I had failed. I had a lot of shame about it.

I was also really unsure of how I was ever going to raise kids in a way that they felt okay without this, what I thought, this Disney idea of a marriage. I felt really gutted. I remember looking at, on Google, looking up divorce recovery programs and really finding nothing. That was sending me a message that I guess I wasn’t going to recover. If there isn’t something out there, then I must not. I pieced together, because of the privilege of my training, a program for myself, one step forward, two steps back, just to try to get through all of the crap around it. I was so surprised when people would come to me and say, oh, my god, you seem so much happier. You seem so much better. How did you do it? I thought, yeah, no one talks about how you can actually heal and thrive after a divorce. People only talk about the sad stories. I thought, I want to share this with other people. I want to be able to help other people step through this. I have a better life now than I ever could have. People say this. I’m grateful to my ex-husband for what we went through because I wouldn’t be who I am now, I wouldn’t be in the relationship I am now, I wouldn’t be the parent I am unless I had to face that deep pain and my own shit, basically. I can curse on this, right?

Zibby: Go for it.

Elizabeth: If I hadn’t dealt with my own stuff, I wouldn’t have been able to move through. The divorce brought me to my knees, but it also brought me to my best strength.

Zibby: It’s funny how the worst times tend to do that. That’s the trade-off? I don’t know.

Elizabeth: I know. I think if you’re willing to look into the darkest times. I can tell you that many people just try to find another thing to fill that. I tell this story in the book. There was a moment where people asked me, in the playground, about my ex-husband. I told this drastic story, which w all real, but this really dramatic, intense story. I left. I don’t know if I’m just remembering this. You know how memory is. I was in Central Park on 100th Street. There were these two paths. I could go one or the other. I remember thinking, Liz, are you going to tell this story? Is this going to be your story that you’re going to tell for the rest of your life? Are you going to tell his story, essentially, and you as the victim, or are you going to figure out compassionately and lovingly how the hell you ended up here? You ended up here somehow, sweetie. This didn’t happen overnight. Let’s try to understand how you got here and how to make sure that doesn’t happen again compassionately and lovingly.

Zibby: Wow, that’s that nice self-care voice we’re all supposed to use, right? Is that what it sounds like? I haven’t heard it, actually. I’ve been trying to conjure it.

Elizabeth: Just so you know, adding words like honey, sweetheart, that really does help.

Zibby: That’s the trick? Okay. All right, good to know. You also talked about your eating situation and how you were so overly restrictive and all of that and how that played into your treatment at the time and all of it. Can you talk a little bit about that piece of your life?

Elizabeth: When I was in college in my senior year, I was in a relationship that was very unhealthy for me, probably very similar to my relationship with my ex-husband. I couldn’t control that, so I started controlling food. When I graduated, I came back to New York City. This was before there was a Just Salad on every corner. I had been used to eating salads in the dining hall. I couldn’t find any on Broadway. I walked for like two hours in a panic. What if I couldn’t find this one thing that was going to make me feel okay? I decided to go to therapy because I thought, okay, I don’t think it’s supposed to take two hours for you to decide what you’re going to eat. The therapist said to me, “I think you have a problem with asserting your needs.” When she said that word, needs, I really recall thinking, I don’t know what that word means. I know that’s an English word, but it feels like a language I don’t speak. I don’t have any needs. I take care of others. I think about other people. I manage myself, but I don’t have any needs. Just so people know, this works takes a long time. It’s not like I suddenly had some amazing epiphany and changed my whole life. No, that was about ten years before I got married. I was still in the not acknowledging my needs for a long time.

Zibby: It’s really hard to acknowledge the needs, especially when you’re in a situation in which you’re not going to be able to meet them.

Elizabeth: Exactly. If you don’t even know what you need, it’s really hard to know who you want to be with. My needs were so focused on — he was really “crazy in love” with me. I thought that was all I really needed, was someone to be crazy about me. I didn’t realize there was other things besides that like humility and mutual respect and ability to communicate. I never was taught that that’s what makes a relationship. My parents didn’t get divorced, but really should have. They really still continually dislike each other but never left each other. They thought it was to help me and my sister. Really, it was not helpful. It was really painful.

Zibby: I think it was useful to me to have this role model of my parents both being really happily remarried and my grandparents both being really happily remarried, as if that’s what I’m supposed to do. Now I’m very happily remarried. My poor kids are just doomed. They’re like, “Does everybody have to get a divorce?” I’m like, “No, everybody doesn’t have to get a divorce. This just happens to be the way it is in our family.”

Elizabeth: Also, if you start thinking about divorce the same way you’d look at switching a job, that something works for you for a period of time and then no longer and you release it and you transition to something else, then maybe it doesn’t have to be doomed. It can just be how we accept transitions in relationships. No one says to you, why didn’t you stay in that same job for fifty years and celebrate it at an event? We just don’t put that pressure, but we do put that pressure on marriage, which is really unfair.

Zibby: It’s true. Sometimes now I look at couples — we just were with this couple over the weekend. They’ve been together twenty years. They’re our age. Actually, they’re younger than me. They’re five years younger than me, which is crazy. I’m like, wow. I just was kind of looking at them. Sometimes it blows my mind that people can stay together for that long. Maybe it’s because of my own failure that I have so much respect. They seemed really happy too, which is the thing.

Elizabeth: I also think you should be careful, more self-care, about using the word failure. I don’t think it’s a failure. Getting divorced means you saw that something wasn’t working for you or for the other person. You went with it. You went with the reality of what was happening as opposed to resisting what was really happening.

Zibby: We’re not going to talk about me.

Elizabeth: Sorry, I can’t help it as a therapist.

Zibby: That’s okay. I’ll call you later. No, I’m kidding. In the book, you outline all sorts of things, journal exercises, charts, everything. Let’s say someone has a friend who’s getting divorced. A lot of people have friends who are getting divorced, probably more so than the people who are getting — anyway, we’ll do both. What should we say? What can people do when their friends are getting divorced?

Elizabeth: Such a good question, besides buy the book for them.

Zibby: Aside from buy the book, which is the first thing you need to do, Light on the Other Side of Divorce.

Elizabeth: Buy the book for your friends. I don’t know if this happened for you, Zibby, but when I got divorced, people had either one of two reactions, either, I’m so sorry, that’s so terrible, how awful, or, how did you do that? You have two young kids. Tell me how you did it. I have learned a long time ago as a therapist, what everyone says to you is just a projection of their own stuff.

Zibby: Yes, I have learned that too.

Elizabeth: You’re just a Rorschach. Please, when you’re talking to someone who’s getting divorced, ground yourself in your own stuff and be like, okay, what’s this bringing up for me? Then ask them the most important question, which is, how can I support you? Not, sorry. Not, oh, my god. Not, what did he do or they do? How can I support you? That’s, when going through a divorce, what you need more anything, which is support. It might be, I need you to make me a meal. For me, it was, I need you to take my kids. Just ask how you can support someone. Don’t assume how anyone is feeling.

Zibby: I had one friend just burst into tears, burst into tears. I remember telling all these people. Then someone said, is this is a good thing or a bad thing? She was the first person who didn’t — I found out later she had been divorced, which I didn’t even know. That’s a good question to ask. How can I support you? Basically in any kind of traumatic situation, to be honest, that’s a good go-to line.

Elizabeth: Exactly. It also puts the focus on the other person so the other person gets a moment to reflect on, oh — talking about needs — what do I need?

Zibby: They might not know.

Elizabeth: That’s okay.

Zibby: I always think, also, just send food. That’s just my own bias. Send food is my go-to. Send food. Send flowers.

Elizabeth: Don’t say anything about the ex. Don’t say anything about your worries about them. They’ve heard it all. They have heard it all. Just ask how you can support them.

Zibby: It’s kind of like, no matter what, you’re going through some sort of an earthquake. The ground is shifting under you. Your whole family structure is changing. You might be moving. Things are going to change. Whatever the cause of it, it doesn’t even matter. Your family is shifting. How would you help someone with a shifting family?

Elizabeth: How would you help someone with a huge seismic shift?

Zibby: What about the person who’s considering, should I be getting a divorce? Is this just what marriage is? How do I know if I need a divorce? Is it really that hard? It seems so hard. What about that person?

Elizabeth: First, I like to always say that people think there’s, should I stay, or should I go? There’s actually three positions. There’s, I should stay, I should go, and I’m not sure. I really encourage people to honor, if you’re in the “I’m not sure,” that that is a real state to be in and to allow yourself to share with your friends. I’m confused. I’m not sure. We’re so uncomfortable with being confused. We want to have a narrative that makes sense and is closed. What if we say, I’m just not sure? It takes a while for people to decide that it’s right for them. I want to encourage people to take whatever time they need and do whatever they can to listen more to themselves. Journal more. Meditate. Reflect on how you feel when you’re with the person. Be very curious. Don’t get so hung up on, I have to decide by this certain point. It’s much more important that you are more grounded, I want to say, in your decision than sure, actually, because you might never be totally sure. If you can work on being grounded in your decision, that’s way more important than doing it at the “right time.”

Zibby: What you said earlier, too, when you said you got to a point where you had to, you get to that point.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. On my podcast, “The Divorce Doctor,” I interview women and ask them about their stories. They always say, that moment, it’s a buildup of all the other moments. One person’s like — they’re at the taco truck, and he ordered the wrong thing. It’s a small thing, but it’s that moment when you’re like, okay, I’m done. Only you can know what that is. Just so you know, I get it. When you have a friend who’s been complaining for a really long time about their relationship, you want to be like, just leave. Just know that they’re going to do it when it’s the right time for them. You really just want to encourage people to continue to connect to what they’re feeling and be curious about what they’re noticing. It’ll come to them if it’s meant to.

Zibby: What about managing kids? We both had kids. I had really little kids at the time too. It’s been almost six years at this point. What is the overall advice, particularly surrounding custody and the moving back and forth and the stress on the kids when they have to do that?

Elizabeth: My two biggest pieces of advice, first, never talk smack about the other parent. Bottom line. It is hard. You have righteous anger. In my book, I talk about righteous anger. You have reasons to be angry. They might be parenting really poorly, but kids cannot handle hearing one parent talk about the other negatively. By the way, if you think you’re being subtle and talking neutrally, you’re probably talking negatively. I promise you. The reason is because kids need to feel connected and safe to both parents. They just have to no matter how often — in my situation, my kids weren’t seeing their father that much, but they still needed to feel like he was of value in their life and they could feel safe with him. You can talk to a therapist, you can talk to friends, you can talk to coaches, you can talk to your lawyer anything you want about what an asshole the person is, but please do not talk to the kids about it. Also, if kids hear you talking smack about the other parent, they know somewhere that one day, you’re going to talk smack about them. It makes them feel very emotionally insecure. Just keep that in mind. That’s the first thing, really. That’s one of the hardest, hardest things.

Zibby: I adopted this because, as a child of divorce, I knew that the person speaking ill of the other person will never get you to change your feelings about the other parent, ever, no matter what, no matter how bad. No matter what they could dredge up, you will never change how you feel about that person based on anything they said or anything they did in that relationship. It just won’t happen. All it does is poison the other relationship. I keep that in my mind all the time.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. I think that’s such a good point, Zibby. Also, you just dig your heels in more. Even if you want them to hate that other person, they’re going to defend the other person. That’s just natural because it’s your adaptive biological need to feel connected to both of your parents. That’s the first thing. The second thing is really to notice when you get triggered versus when your kids are getting triggered. For example, your ex is late to pick your kids up. That might enrage you because that has happened, of course, probably, over and over to you, but you notice that your kids are kind of fine with it. They’re stoked to have more time on the iPad. They’re not that disturbed. You need to really look at, who’s being affected here? If it’s you, again, talk to someone else about it. If they’re not being affected by it, you don’t have to go all out and either attack the other co-parent or even talk to your kids about it.

I tell this story in the book about — my ex-husband is remarried. He was having a baby with his wife. I asked my kids when they were young, how do they feel about the baby coming? They had never lived primarily with their dad, and the baby was going to live with them. I kept asking how they feel, how they feel. One day, my nine-year-old son turned to me and said, “Mom, I’m okay, but how are you doing with this? You keep asking me about it.” I was like, oh, god, he’s right. I was really having a hard time with it. Here this person who wasn’t there when I had little kids was now going to be this ideal father, in my mind, I thought. I was angry. I was upset. I almost shifted their visitation because of the baby. I was like, they might be having a reaction. They really weren’t. I really had to get clear on my stuff instead of putting it on them.

Zibby: Interesting. How do you get clear on all your own stuff? It sounds like you have a really good therapist of your own.

Elizabeth: I have a really good therapist. This saying, I always think about. If you’re hysterical, it’s historical. The stuff that’s getting you all worked up is likely from a time before where you were having a similar situation and didn’t have your needs met. I try to get out of this moment and figure out what I need. Usually, it’s that I felt abandoned or that I feel unheard or I feel unseen because that was some of my early childhood experiences. Then I go to a friend who sees me or my partner. I try to help that part so that I can be there for the kids. Oxygen mask on yourself before the kids. This is like an emotional oxygen mask.

Zibby: What about moms who are dealing with — these hypothetical moms, all my questions. What about these hypothetical moms who suddenly have time to themselves without their kids after being — not that everybody listening is necessarily a mom. Just for those moms who, the thought of not being with their kids keeps them where they are, and then if they end up leaving, having those times where the rooms are empty.

Elizabeth: I really want to just take a moment to say how hard that is. That is not what anyone who got married and had children was planning for. Sometimes that can be the most painful part for moms. Also, if you’re used to being in a relationship that wasn’t working, you did a lot of managing, and so you probably didn’t have a huge focus on what you liked and what you needed. Suddenly, you have all this time with yourself or a new partner. It’s a learning process. I don’t think it happens overnight. There’s the first year, the second year, the five-plus year. I think that time alone really shifts and changes. I think there’s a lot of expectations about how it’s supposed to feel. Sometimes it feels great. Sometimes it feels terrible. I just recommend leaning into whatever those feelings are. Don’t have any expectation. You can make plans. You can’t always keep them. Make plans. Cancel if you need to. Do what you need for you because it is a hard, hard time.

Zibby: My advice on this — not that you’re asking, but I’m just going to, unsolicited, offer advice because that’s what I do all the time. My mom, I never asked her to do this, but every Thursday at six when I would drop the kids, she would call me right away no matter what. Some weeks, I was okay. Some weeks, I was a mess. She did that for years. I always knew when I was about to walk away from the door that she would be calling. Now she doesn’t do that. It still is really upsetting a lot of the time. Actually, she was like, “Remember how I used to do that?” I didn’t want to be like, yeah —

Elizabeth: — Can you keep doing it?

Zibby: I’m like, I can’t ask you now. I’m a middle-aged mom. Why am I not over this sadness? Sometimes I’m really not. It’s really hard to not be with your kids. People think it’s so fun. People come over and they’re like, this is my dream come true. You have a weekend all the time without your kids just to be with yourself. It’s like, okay, yeah, I have time. I have been able, personally, to create this whole book little world because I have all this time. I would never have done this ordinarily if I hadn’t have been divorced. However, I would much rather have my kids every day.

Elizabeth: I’m so glad you brought up about your mom calling because I really do recommend bookending, before something happens and after something happens, having support, I think it’s so important, and to not ever assume what someone is feeling. One weekend, you might stay in bed. I read what you wrote. You might stay in bed the whole day and for the whole weekend. That’s no different than having a great, fun weekend with your friends. It’s just however you need in that moment to spend your time. It is really hard for parents. There’s a biological connection. When you’re not with them, it hurts.

Zibby: It’s really a joke that I position myself as any sort of stable person because I’m constantly getting so upset about things. Some woman I didn’t even know on Instagram yesterday was like, well, you’ve had quite an emotional weekend. One day, I’m so sad. On 9/11, I’m sobbing. The next minute, I’m celebrating. That’s as crazy as I feel. Same thing with divorce.

Elizabeth: That’s human. That’s the human experience, someone who’s feeling your feelings. I talk about it as the golden and. You can be so deeply in grief and so incredibly grateful for what you have. We live in a world where we think we can only feel one feeling. We can feel more than one feeling at a time. You can feel relief and grief about your divorce. You can be so grateful to be able to eat cereal for dinner when your kids aren’t around and looking at pictures of them because you miss them so much. Both of those things can be true at the same time.

Zibby: True. Cereal is great. Don’t knock the cereal.

Elizabeth: I love that. There’s a lot of things that are really lovely about it. There’s also parts that are really hard.

Zibby: I know. Sometimes they leave and I talk to Kyle, my husband, now, and he’s like, “What do you want for dinner?” I’m like, “Ugh, I don’t want to talk about dinner. I don’t want to think about food. I’m so sick of figuring out what the kids — nothing sounds good.” Oh, my god, I’m so over it. If people are really in need of some extra counseling, are you still accepting new patients? Do you do Zooms? What is your own practice like?

Elizabeth: I run a group practice in New York City. I have clinicians who have been trained in the way that I teach how to heal through a divorce. I also have a few slots for intensive coaching that I do. We do it over Zoom now. I’m available, also, to answer any questions that people have. I mostly want people to know that it’s so brave to take on either accepting that someone wants a divorce from you or that you aren’t happy in your relationship. It’s so brave.

Zibby: It is brave. What is your website? Where can people find you?

Elizabeth: My website is drelizabethcohen.com, which is D-R. On Instagram, I’m @TheDivorceDoctor.

Zibby: @TheDivorceDoctor, amazing. I’m so excited that we chatted again and that you wrote this book and that you’re spending your life helping people get through a really, really pivotal moment and a time of a lot of pain. This sounds ridiculously cheesy, but you are that light, I bet, to a lot of people. Just having someone out there helping them through is sometimes, that’s it, that’s the difference between never getting out of bed and being able to get to the next day, having an ally in it. If it’s the book, that’s great. If it’s a community or it’s a family member, I think it’s really important to feel connected somehow when you’re going through this stuff.

Elizabeth: It’s really important. I also have a membership for women who are going through a divorce to support each other. It’s powerful when you see other people going through it supporting each other. We need each other. We really need each other to get through these hard times.

Zibby: Do you have a group for people who just get sad when their kids leave? I would join that group. Maybe you could do “doesn’t matter how long you’ve been divorced” group.

Elizabeth: It’s also an ongoing experience. Even if you’re over the actual divorce, there’s the lifestyle parts.

Zibby: Yes, the lifestyle parts, exactly. I don’t think we’re making it sound very pleasant. There are really good things about getting out of a marriage that isn’t right. I didn’t mean for this episode to sound in any way dissuading. I don’t know, maybe I haven’t. Anyway, just go buy the book, Light on the Other Side of Divorce. Thanks for coming on.

Elizabeth: Thank you so much for having me. It was so good to see you. Congratulations on .

Zibby: I hope to see you in real life soon. That’ll be really fun. I would love that.

Elizabeth: I hope so too. I would love that. I assume you’ll have a lot of book stuff. I can’t wait to hear all about it, all the events.


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