How to cope with divorce
The world of relationships is no longer one of “till death do us part”. The statistics are familiar to most of us now: 43 per cent of marriages end in divorce. While it’s often a painful process, once divorced, the vast majority of people are clear that they would not want to return to the marriage. And after the initial difficult phase is over, most people report an improvement in their wellbeing and satisfaction.
We hear of divorce disaster stories where people end up in court, use their children as weapons or maintain bitterness and acrimony for years afterwards. But many people negotiate the process with emotional maturity, limiting the amount of damage to each other and themselves. And others are even able to use it as a means of personal insight and growth.
Sometimes, it’s just fear that keeps people together. Fear of how they would cope alone, fear of the future. So they stay tied together in misery rather than go through the courageous journey that many others undertake. Yes, divorce is painful, but it can be a catalyst for personal evolution.
When you divorce you have to face your fears. There is no one to lean on any more. You may develop emotional strength and independence. You may become more creative or competent as you are forced to become financially self-sufficient. And if you have to parent alone, you have to be the grown-up. “I was only half a person in the marriage and now I think I am being forced to become whole,” said Lisa, a divorced mother of two.
There is another phenomenon that may also be influencing the divorce rate. The pace of life has changed incredibly over the past few decades. No longer do people stay in one job their whole lives. They may have two or three different careers within a lifetime. We seem to squeeze three lives into one lifespan now, compared with earlier generations. This is necessarily going to mean there are different stages and phases in a person’s life. And this has to impact on relationships.
Maybe it is OK to have two or three main relationships in your life. Perhaps these relationships will match the different stages in your life. Maybe some relationships have a definite lifespan and then it’s time to move on. Perhaps the couple have done all the growing they can do together and they have to be with someone else to develop further.
Once you drop the paradigm that longevity is good in and of itself, other possibilities arise. Perhaps relationship success should be measured by the vitality and creativity within it, by the growth and development it supported for both parties. And by the emotional maturity and wisdom that are modelled for the children. Use these criteria and perhaps relationships that have ended can still be called successful.
Admittedly, even if divorce is the best course of action, it’s still a painful process. Here are some hints or suggestions that may help.
Prepare your partner
Unless you have to leave quickly for reasons of safety it’s otherwise an act of emotional terrorism to sneak away without letting the other person know your plans. Even though it may be uncomfortable to bring up difficult issues, you need to generate the courage to name what is going on for you. Do this repeatedly over a period of time. If your partner still hasn’t “heard” you, then at least you did the best you could to prepare them.
Imagine a future
Imagine yourself into the future. Picture what you will be doing. Go into detail. Sort out practicalities. This process will reduce the shock when you find yourself in the new situation.
Expect pain. You aren’t just losing a partner. You may lose friends, familiar roles and routines, security, self-image and identity. You may have less contact with your children. It’s the end of some of the dreams you had for the future. Men as well as women find that talking through things helps. It may be tricky talking to friends about it all because of divided loyalties, so if this is the case, go to counselling or a support group.
What to expect
The emotional roller coaster
Again, expect pain. You may have trouble sleeping. There may be mood swings and unpredictable bouts of crying. You could feel manic on one hand or totally lacking in energy on the other. You may be tempted to increase addictive behaviours. You may feel unable to go to work. It’s best to try to maintain some routine to balance out the amount of change you will be going through. But be gentle and give yourself some leeway. Letting colleagues know what’s going on may be useful, depending on your work environment.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
When Gayle was going through a trial separation, she found herself looking more fondly on her partner and the relationship. This confused her and she wondered whether she was doing the right thing. It may just have been that her partner looked good again through the lens of absence. At this stage, some people tend to romanticise the past, minimise the bad and talk themselves into going back. A lot of this behaviour is just an unconscious way to avoid the necessary pain of going forward.
Pursuer and distancer
Gayle also spoke about experiencing a common relationship pattern where one person wants to be closer than the other. This can change after separation and lead to confusion. If you were the one who avoided closeness, you may find that, if your partner leaves you, you become the craver of closeness. What is happening here is that people tend to avoid true intimacy because it’s actually scary because it requires openness and surrender.
So, unconsciously, people set up a pattern that maintains a distance between them. Often, one person, as was the case with Gayle, gets stuck in the role of avoiding intimacy by pushing the other away while the other tries to get their partner to come closer.
These roles are an illusion in that they do not belong to just the person playing out that role. Both roles belong to both people. Both are ambivalent about closeness; both want it and both are wary of it. It can be due to personality or family background that one person falls into one role and the other into the alternative.
In separation, when the roles reverse it’s understandably confusing. Suddenly, you really want to be with your partner. So take yourself back to what actually went on in the relationship. Why did you leave? What wasn’t working? Have these things actually changed at all?
This goes without saying but it’s worth the reminder: as with any emotional event, remember to look after yourself physically. Your body will have to carry around your broken heart, so give it the best chance possible. Avoid drowning your sorrows in food or alcohol and keep up an exercise routine. This way, you may avoid sliding into a downward spiral of depression or despair.
It’s not personal
“I just feel like the ugliest, most unattractive person on the planet. Why would anyone love me?” This was from Lisa, who had recently divorced. Some people take divorce as a blow to their self-esteem because they feel they have been rejected. But even if it was your partner who chose to leave, it actually says nothing about you. Lisa sat gobsmacked for a few moments when she realised this truth: whether someone likes you or not is a comment on them not you.
When someone falls in love with you it simply demonstrates that the person found particular qualities attractive and that the combination of your two energies “worked”. You may have other qualities they don’t notice at first. Over the course of the relationship they may find they don’t like these qualities. This says nothing about you. You didn’t change. They just decided they didn’t like what they found. Nothing to do with you. It’s their stuff, not yours.
It may also be that the energy combination of the two of you evolves in a way that no longer has such good synergy. Again, it’s not personal. You are still as worthwhile as ever and still an attractive person. Lisa resolved to remind herself of this on a regular basis.
Remember the bad times
It may sound silly, but when you are tempted to give the relationship yet another go, remember why you got to this place in the first instance. Otherwise, you may just go through another round of reconciliation, re-emergence of the problems, distress and decision to end it and, there you are, back where you started and no further along in the separation process.
If you really want to separate, you have to break the bonds between you, and this requires a break in the intimacy. Otherwise, the bonds remain and it takes so much longer to achieve the break. This just draws out the pain. So decide how much contact to have and stick to this. Definitely don’t have your children be your support person or have them step in to fill the absent dad or mum’s role. As a psychologist, I have seen way too many people who have suffered because of such damaging expectations from their parents.
Aim to give clear emotional signals. It can be easy for wires to get crossed in such an emotionally charged time. For example, if you feel guilt about leaving, it may lead you to say or do overly generous things for the other person. This may give off a misleading emotional message and may lead your partner to falsely hope for reconciliation.
Similarly, if you feel misunderstood, you may have ongoing dialogues to try to get the other person to understand your position. They may take this as a sign that you want to keep the connection, again leading them to false hope.
Another scenario can occur if your partner is angry and you pacify them by saying anything to calm them down and make them feel better. This will lead them to false expectations and may generate further anger in the future when they realise you didn’t mean what you said. You develop courage and strength by staying firm in the face of someone’s anger. Once you have given them a reasonable hearing, then ask them to finish or else leave. Definitely don’t stay if it becomes abusive.
Don’t fall into the trap of either taking the blame for the breakdown or blaming the other person for it. It is a mutually created situation. Blaming just takes the focus away from your pain. It keeps you powerless and focused on the past. You miss the opportunity for personal growth and insight if you think it was all the other person’s fault. It’s far healthier to examine your role in the relationship. What were your weaknesses or oversights? What would you need to do differently in the future?
Even if getting a divorce was definitely the best thing, there is still a loss to be experienced. You may well be glad to be away from the person, but you are still losing the structure and identity the relationship gave. “There was so much love when we started out and now it’s gone. My dreams for the two of us have been shattered,” said Lisa in tears about her loss.
As with all transition times, expect to feel wobbly and scared. You have left the old and the new has not yet formed, so it’s an uncomfortable in-between time. Don’t rush to fill it with new structures and order. Allow the discomfort. These times in our life let new things arise within us. We need times of stability but these need to be interspersed with breakdown. The breakdown opens the way for new possibilities to emerge.
This time is an opportunity to forge a new identity. It’s easy within a relationship to fall into predictable patterns and ways of being. This can stop each person remaining vital and constantly growing. (Which is why it can be good to have times apart while in a relationship.) Take the opportunity to explore new things and try out activities you never had time for while in the relationship. You may uncover or develop new skills or new insights. There can be exhilaration amid the pain.
Going for gold
What would be a best-case scenario for the end of a relationship? I have seen couples who have ended their marriages with dignity, compassion and generosity, even in scenarios where there has been an affair or something where it could be easy to fall into the trap of blaming the “offending” party. This outcome is dependent on the maturity and emotional competence of each individual, but it is possible.
Negotiating a conscious divorce is more achievable with the assistance of some third party such as a therapist who can “hold” the process during times when one or both of the couple are in too much pain to do so. The process takes courage and openness, but it offers a unique opportunity to develop emotional resilience, the capacity for unconditional love and untold levels of self-awareness.
James, a 43-year-old engineer expressed it well. “I loved my wife. I still do. It broke my heart to end the relationship. But it wasn’t working. And we tried our best. There is only so much therapy you can have. And, even though my heart was torn apart, it has healed and there is even more space within it now. I am capable of so much more love. And, even though we went through some rugged times, I never lost respect for her. I chose to marry her. Those things I loved never went away. This remains forever. And she will have a place in my heart forever.”
Cynthia Hickman is a psychologist working in private practise in Melbourne. Tel: 0417 103 018