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We don’t get married expecting to be one of the fifty percent of the couples who end up divorcing.
The we’re-going-to-make-it expectation runs so deeply that most of us don’t even entertain the thought that someday we might be the couple fighting over who gets the antique desk and the artwork in the master bedroom. Most of us would never even consider gambling our life savings with these odds (a fifty percent chance that you could lose every penny), and yet, when it comes to marriage and divorce, we willingly roll the marital dice even though the emotional stakes are high.
“It’s like a death…” ~Laura, divorced after 10 years of marriage
While not all marital endings are alike, the decision to divorce (or having to divorce because of someone else’s decision) can be devastating.
Divorce is disruptive on many levels. There are the practical and financial upheavals, the untangling of lives once joined so tightly. The impact on children can be considerable. Where love once existed, there is now an emptiness filled with anger and despair.
The slow burn ending
Some marriages unravel over time. For these couples, incompatibilities, ongoing disagreements and emotional distances are a slow growing relational cancer that consumes the relationship until a point of no return is reached. One or both partners may feel emotionally and physically worn out by the time the marriage ends.
The surprise ending
One of the most devastating and disorienting experiences is hearing “I want a divorce” from the person you love. Sometimes the person hearing this had no idea it was coming. In some cases, it seemed like the marriage was healthy and that everyone was happy/content. And other times, there may have been the typical ups and downs that relationships go through, but nothing so extreme to warrant an ending.
Symmetrical versus asymmetrical endings
A symmetrical divorce is when both spouses come to the decision (though not necessarily at the same time) that ending the marriage is the most viable option for them. A symmetrical ending can be amicable or contentious. It may arise out of the hope of a better future apart from each other or as an act of desperation designed to stop the onslaught of emotional pain caused by being together.
In an asymmetrical ending, one spouse wants out while the other wants to save the marriage. Depression, anxiety, and anger/rage (to name a few reactions) may result as our partner falls away from us. Feeling totally helpless, it can seem like we’re coming emotionally unglued. As one wife described:
“I wanted to hold onto Charlie so tightly so he wouldn’t leave me and at the same time I felt a murderous rage toward him. I pleaded with him not to give up on us and I hated myself for becoming so desperate. I never felt a mixture of things so intensely. It was horrible. I thought I was having a nervous breakdown.”
Coping with divorce: 5 things to keep in mind
1) Mourning the death of your marriage
Our need for a deep connection with our partner makes us vulnerable to enormous pain when the relationship doesn’t work out. Couples who are deeply connected to each other take a big emotional hit when the relationship ends. This type of loss consumes us. We’re flooded with grief. And continued contact (if children are involved; because of mutual friends or shared employment) complicates the grieving process.
Allow yourself the emotional space to grieve. You are not losing your mind, you are processing deep pain that needs to run its course. Do not place an artificial time-line on this.
2) Coping with intense feelings
You’re going to want the pain to stop — even a momentary reprieve may be lacking at first. It may feel like you’re emotionally plummeting, and you may fear that the unrelenting feelings will never cease. But this isn’t so (even though it feels like it). Working through the feelings will allow them to decrease in intensity. This does take time, however.
You may find that for a period of time you can only engage in mindless activities because your concentration is scattered. You may cry often (in isolation or with others), sleep more/less, your eating patterns may change, you may feel drained of energy, you may ruminate nonstop about the marriage. All these are normal reactions to the major upheaval of divorce.
In can be helpful to find temporary escapes from your pain, but be careful not to fall into the rabbit-hole of self-destructive escapism (e.g., excessive alcohol consumption; dating people who clearly aren’t good for you; acting-out sexually). Sleep more if you need to and if you’re able; go for walks if you can; zone out in front of the television; call someone you trust and can lean on.
In other words, find the ways that make you feel more centered during this exhausting, stressful time and give yourself the gift of self-compassion by engaging in them without guilt.
3) Do not fall into self-loathing
Divorce can make some of us feel like we’ve personally failed. As one client shared, “This is my second failed marriage—there must be something terribly wrong with me!” Self-reproach is very different from self-examination. Self-examination leads to growth; it makes our life a classroom for continued learning. Self-reproach shuts down possibilities.
Attacking yourself will only add layers of suffering to the pain you already feel. If you have a propensity for depression, be mindful of that internal critic who is looking for any reason to sabotage you.
4) Getting the support you need
Finding support from others can help break the isolation you might struggle with — some of us feel most alone when we’re in emotional pain. Family and/or friends might be a resource. But it will be vital to rely on others who aren’t judgmental of you getting a divorce. If all your friends are married it might feel like they don’t really understand what you’re going through.
Finding a divorce support group can help you connect with others who are journeying down the same path. Accessing professional help from a psychologist or therapist with experience working with post-divorce emotional dynamics can also be helpful if you feel you need more support.
5) Remembering there is life after divorce
Depending on where you are in the post-divorce healing process, this might sound more like a cliche than a reality. But the truth is people create very rich and rewarding lives despite having their marital dreams pulled out from under them. And of course, moving past divorce can also mean falling in love again.
Remember, you are healing from a significant loss. And your healing shouldn’t be rushed. Finding your emotional footing is your priority. Taking care of yourself, being kind to yourself, and putting yourself first (which may feel very foreign to you if you played more of the caregiver role in your marriage) are all needed.
Divorce forces us to face ourselves in ways that can be transformative if we listen to what we are needing. Sometimes these needs will feel obvious to you; at other times, they may be barely perceptible and therefore will require deep listening on your part to discern them.
Learning to listen to yourself is a powerful growth experience that can result from this difficult time.
Dealing with divorce and moving forward is a very personal experience. It’s a painful time and it’s also a time for greater self-reflection and understanding. But like with many difficult transitions, the immediate task at hand is dealing with the intense pain and upheaval in the wake of your marriage ending.
Dr. Rich Nicastro
Psychologist, Georgetown, Texas
(Top photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
(Bottom photo courtesy of Jesadaphorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)