Frequently Asked Questions on Surviving
the Emotional Trauma of Divorce
Based on a Series of Interviews with
Divorce Expert and Clinical Psychologist Mitchell A. Baris, Ph.D
The decision to divorce is personal. But one might consider a marriage over when there's no trust left in a relationship. Trust is difficult to rekindle. It can sometimes be built back, but it takes years. The same thing is true of respect.
Couples often split up in the face of an intensity of negativity between them. In this instance, discussion on any topic is going to erupt into something negative. People will make very destructive remarks about each other, or bring up the past frequently, or they won't stay on the topic, and when they start to talk, this intense negativity and anger come pouring out.
People also divorce when their goals and directions have changed, and the other partner is no longer fostering their individual growth. Sometimes they no longer share the values they once did.
There are some excellent couples and relationships therapists out there who can help you to restructure your communication. In one approach, therapists will look into the past and discuss family dynamics. How did these early experiences impact marital choices? In another approach, therapists help couples fight fairly; they'll break what seems like huge conflict into small components and tackle each element, one at a time. Couples using this approach learn to contain the conflict and to listen to each other at the same time.
Look for someone who does couples and relationship work, specifically. Make sure there's a rapport, and that you feel comfortable with this individual. The most important referrals will come from other people who have worked with a given therapist in the past. You may also request a referral from another therapist whom you trust.
If your safety is jeopardized, if life, limb or sanity hang in the balance, be sure to physically remove yourself from the marital situation. In this case, it is crucial that you make a clean and abrupt break. However, the actual decision to divorce should never be made in anger; it is just as important as the decision to marry, and reflection is key. You will need to live with this decision for a long time, and impulsivity should not be part of it.
Initially, couples will go through feelings of rejection, sadness or anger. But the nature and tenor of these emotions depends, in large part, on whether you are the one who has initiated the divorce or the one who was left. In general, there tends to be differential rates in terms of each partner's acceptance of the fact that the relationship is ended. Typically, one partner has made the decision before the other is even aware of it. That individual has already lived with the decision, and is thus a bit more advanced in working things through.
The announcement will often catch the dumpee unawares, and will create intense feelings of rejection. It generally takes several months for the person whose spouse left to catch up and to feel that letting go of the marriage is best for him or her as well.
After this period of time, divorce can feel more like a mutual decision. For both parties, life will then seem to take on more balance, and the divorce will feel like a step toward personal health.
I've initiated the divorce, and I want to move forward. But my partner is in terrible agony, and cannot seem to accept the decision. How can I help my spouse move on with the next stage of his or her life?
You probably cannot shield the person you're about to leave. It's going to hurt if you are honest and forthright and direct, which is the least you owe your soon-to-be ex. Most people respond with sadness to hurt. Many people respond defensively, with anger, especially couples who have been caught in cycles of anger. You cannot stop these feelings in your partner, but you can help by giving that individual time to catch up to you. You can also help by giving your partner one good, adequate explanation as to what went wrong. Many "dumpees" never get that. They are haunted by not really understanding what happened for the rest of their lives. They never get closure, and it makes it more difficult for them to make the separation and move on.
It's been quite a few months, and I still can't shake my depression, anger and grief. What should I do?
For most couples who are separating, the first year is the most difficult. That's the time when you're wrought with overwhelming, powerful emotion, with mood swings that take you into negativity and into sadness and a sense of loss. If these feelings linger for more than a year, you should seek professional help.
Unless the divorce is, for you, an utter relief—unless living together has been violent or otherwise adverse in the extreme—you will have ambivalent feelings about your situation. You can expect some of this ambivalence to linger. Even after you have gone through the period of grieving, even after you have gotten past the worst of your loneliness and sadness, you may continue to feel regret and ask yourself whether or not you did the right thing. This is absolutely normal. You will miss the positive side of your ex-spouse; if you're no longer living with your children, you will miss him or her. You may, in fact, deeply miss the whole of the life you left. Some parents who leave their primary residence are overwhelmed with the loss of alternatives—they need to keep working to support a family they are no longer living with, and they feel that they now have none of the positives. Whether people have children or not they may despair at the notion that they are older than they once were, and perceive diminished alternatives in many realms, from careers to dating. This sense of lowered potential can, of course, cause the newly divorced individual to question whether he or she should have gotten divorced at all.
But despite such ambivalence, you must move forward. A key is to generate options within the realm of your new life. This is the time to embark on that new career, or throw caution to the wind and take that big trip. This is the time to furnish your new home. If your spouse has done most of the childcare in the past, now is your chance to learn what nurturing your children is all about. If your spouse has earned the money while you've stayed at home, now is the time for you to take that giant step back into the working world.
I was extremely attached to my spouse's family and I want to continue the relationship with them. What should I do?
It is very hard to let go of family members you have come to love. But in the end, it is not viable to maintain the same kind of connection to in-laws that you had while you were married You may pursue any relationship you and your ex-in-laws may wish post-divorce; there are no rules governing this sort of thing. Nonetheless, after the divorce, you will probably have to celebrate Christmas or other holidays in new ways.
Sometimes people hold on to extended families in an unconscious effort to stay in touch with their ex. They simply are not ready to let go, even though that would be the healthiest thing to do.
Under the best of circumstances, you can, of course, maintain a positive relationship with your ex's family. And, if you have children, you should certainly encourage them to continue to visit grandparents.
As a couple, we had a wonderful group of friends. Will both my spouse and I be able to maintain these friendships after the divorce?
Only in the rarest of instances can both partners maintain the same close friends they had as a couple prior to the divorce. Often the friends themselves feel divided in their loyalties. One or the other member of the couple tends to inherit any given friend. The other member of the couple tends to be estranged from that friend. Sometimes, one member of the couple will inherit all the friends. The other person will drift away and move onto something new.
Often, divorce heralds new values and new life directions—the very things that can make finding new friends almost mandatory.
Sometimes those getting divorced feel as if they've become enmeshed in pathological patterns, and decide that their friendships have been negative or stifling. Sometimes people feel as if they have been treated badly by the ex-spouse and friends alike. These individuals make a conscious effort to move on to find other friends so that they can pursue life in a healthier vein.
People who are divorcing may fear that their married friends will no longer have interest in them. But more often than not, this is a projection on the part of the newly-divorced, a myth and not a reality. Couples will still invite you to do things if you are single. They will be sincere in saying, "It doesn't matter whether or not you have a date. Let's still get together and do something on Saturday night." Remember, don't define yourself out of a good time. If someone is your friend, then they'll be your friend whether you're divorced or not.
The newly divorced individual frequently must learn to live alone. They are faced with the necessity of finding a new residence and making a move, sometimes to a different community. They must also often master the art of divesting, discarding the accouterments of the old life to make way for the new. The newly-divorced person, used to being part of a couple, must now master the art of emotional independence as they start to live alone.
One way to help the process along is to establish new rituals for your new life. You don't need to follow the same customs you made a habit of during your marriage, after all. If you always celebrated Xmas with your in-laws in Michigan, this may be the year to celebrate in Paris or Madrid. If you're with the kids, you might even spend the Holidays at Disneyworld.
For some people, the newfound solitude may be especially difficult. But life alone will be more tolerable if one views it from a positive point of view. The situation needs to be reframed such that it's not, Now I've lost everything, but rather, Now I'm free to live life on my own terms and do things my own way. You must work at giving yourself some definition as an individual—decide what you like and what you value, and take some steps to embrace those things. And remember, you'll meet other people who share your interests once you have a stronger sense of yourself and spend more time doing the things you enjoy.
No question about it, rejection may be intense and overpowering, and your abiity to recover will depend on the resiliency you have built in the past. It would be fair to say that those who are not particularly resilient will find it difficult to put themselves back together and build self-esteem in the face of the rejection. If self-esteem continues to falter, though, the real problem may not be the divorce at all, but rather, something more deeply rooted, perhaps in your childhood. If you cannot recover your self-esteem, we suggest you view this as an opportunity to focus in on yourself and make whole the part of yourself that never was.
If you cannot recover your self-esteem, this is the time to uncover major rejections of the past that you have not yet worked your way through.
This, of course, is the long-term answer. In the short term, we suggest you simply act as if you're confident, even if yo don't feel it now. Psychologists call it "self-talk." Try to marshal the power of positive thinking to pump yourself up. Acknowledge that certain situations are risky, but then take the risk anyway. Remember, in any given social situation, the worst outcome is that you will come away empty-handed, no friendships forged or romances begun. But if you stay at home, you won't make any new friends or social inroads, either.
For some people, closure comes in the form of a broad symbolic act like finding a new home.
For most people, that sense of closure comes when the papers are actually signed.
In the final stages of a divorce, when negotiations are still ongoing, people feel vulnerable to each other. But when those negotiations are complete, when everything is down on paper, and when those papers are signed and filed with the court, you may feel as if a huge weight has been lifted.
This is closure. This is the end of vulnerability. This is the beginning of your recovery. This is starting anew.
Even though my divorce has been finalized and the papers signed, I cannot get closure. My ex- and I continue to have contact, and the conflict goes on and on. How can I deal with this?
Long-term conflict may persist long after the marriage has ended, especially when people hold onto anger. Sometimes this anger results because an individual cannot look inward and accept any responsibility for the divorce.
Sometimes it results because people simply cannot tolerate any feeling of sadness or rejection. Then they turn all that sadness and hurt into anger, and the battle goes on.
The best way to avoid this ongoing conflict is to acknowledge your role in the divorce and your feelings of hurt. Once you own your feelings and your responsibilities, you will free yourself to move on.
If you want to walk away from things with less ongoing conflict, we suggest you do all you can to negotiate and finalize your divorce as cleanly and amicably as possible.
Those with children will find it harder to move forward because they must continue to have contact in the process of co-parenting. In this instance, all we can say is this: Please do not have arguments in front of the children, or draw them into battles or split-loyalties between you and your ex.
Finally, do not fall into the trap of rewriting the history of your marriage to make it seem worse than it really was. Sometimes so-called support groups involve people in a downward cycle of negativity that feeds on itself. By the time the others in a group have heard your story, your spouse may seem like the devil incarnate. Breathing sound and fury into the tale to feed the lifeforce of your support group can keep the hurt of your marital break-up alive long past the time it should have been resolved.
You are now in the process of building a new social network; resist the temptation to build that support network with the help of angry people, or you may never move beyond the pain.
For the divorced and the divorcing, work is a lifeline. At a time when your personal dilemma has robbed you of self-esteem, work provides a sense of identity and definition in society and the world at large. If you haven't been working, finding a job you enjoy can be critical in terms of finding fulfillment.
Displaced homemakers, especially, will benefit from a reentry to the workplace, where they can rebuild their sense of worth.
In the face of my divorce, I feel tremendous need for change. Is this the time to go out and get a new job?
Generally, no. By changing jobs right now, you may find that you are compounding the losses. It is not really best to change everything at once. Of course you may have the impulse to just get up and flee. But if you've got a good job, this represents a part of your life that is functioning. It can be very centering to continue with it. Some people find a lot of comfort in that at least their job routine has remained the same. At least they continue to get the same fulfillment out of their job, even though it feels like things in the home segment of their life are undergoing profound change.
Even if you are unfullfilled in your job, this may not be the time to change. Changing multiple aspects of your life simultaneously may not be the best thing to do.
Just as it's not a good idea to divorce impulsively, so, too, one must refrain from making new committments impulsively, too. You must give yourself some time to struggle with issues of redefinition. This is a very vulnerable time for you. Before you commit to another relationship, you must come to terms with yourself as an individual; deal with being on your own; and take some time to feel comfortable with exactly who you are.
Many people become somewhat reclusive immediately following a divorce. This is a healthy, if temporary, reaction that helps the individual regain footing in an independent mode. A period of isolation may be expected.
The newly divorced individual often devotes some time to some sort of experimental dating; expect to try out dating relationships with a number of different people before you're ready to commit to a new one.
The best way to meet other dating partners is through friends you've retained, or through your friends' friends. You will also meet people on the job. Another important avenue is pursuing areas of interest. Pursue the activities you enjoy, and you will meet others with similar interests along the way. Online dating is also another way but please exercise caution and stay safe. Never share personlaa details until you are sure and comfortable regarding the genuinity of the other person, if you do decide to meet, ensure you give details to your trusted friends and meet in an open preferably noisy place
This is something you must think about carefully before taking the plunge again. This is why it's crucial that you not externalize everything and chalk your failed marriage up to the notion that your only problem was mate selection. The issue is: Why did you choose that particular mate? The less insight you have into your role in your divorce, and the less willing you are to recognize that you had a role in it, the more likely you will be to repeat the pattern again.
In addition to self-awareness, those who wish to avoid a second mistake also need time—time to get to know another person before tying the knot. At all cost, avoid impulsive decisions. Knowing someone over a longer period of time can only strengthen your decision to be committed to that person, if that person is truly the right one. It's important to go through experiences together, and to go through some adversity together. If the relationship is going to work, you should be able to solve some of life's problems together. As you do this, feelings of respect and admiration for the other person should grow. If they do not, you might be making a poor choice.
This situation may cause you to revisit the wound of the initial rejection or separation. For children, it signifies that parents will never get back together again, and it does that for adults, too. It signals a new sense of finality to the relationship. The best thing you can do in this situation is to accept reality. Try to move beyond the hurt and anger to a position of disengagement.
The ideal response is to disengage and get to a place where you are more or less indifferent. If you don't have children, you can simply walk away; you literally never have to see your ex and his (or her) new spouse again. If you do have children, you will need to develop a working relationship—a business relationship—with your ex and the significant other. Often, parents who start out with great hurt over the new relationship end up expressing appreciation that the new spouse treats the children with kindness.