The Psychological Divorce: Putting the Pieces Back Together

The psychological reality of ending a marriage is complicated by numerous concrete problems, many of which can seem overwhelming.

Adapted from How to Divorce in New York by Grier Raggio and Michael Stutman (St. Martin's Press, 1993), with special thanks to Lowell K. Halverson and John W. Kydd.

Whether or not you are the one making the call that your marriage is over, divorce is painful. Both you and your spouse may experience guilt, rejection, anger, or fear. It takes most people months or years to come to terms with these feelings--but the process is worth the struggle.

Can You Get Back Together?

In 25 years of practicing family law, I haven't seen couples get back together after a long period of unhappiness—and I continue to be amazed at how long people stay in bad marriages. A client who has been married for 20-odd years may report being unhappy since the first year. The reasons for staying married vary, but often boil down to embarrassment and fear.

Two important things that sustain a marriage seem to be friendship and sex. My divorcing clients often say they respect their partner, or feel affection, loyalty, guilt, and a range of other emotions, but they almost never say they're good friends. And when a new client reports that sex in the marriage stopped or became very infrequent years ago, my experience tells me that the marriage is over.

Changes When a Marriage Ends

The psychological reality of ending a marriage is complicated by numerous concrete problems, many of which can seem overwhelming. The funds that maintained one household must now be split between two, and money disputes are likely. One or both of you may have to abruptly alter your standard of living. Divorce also sends a shock wave through your social network, and your new single status may distance you from your social circle.

Adjusting your life simultaneously to familial, financial, and social change requires a lot of energy. You should pat yourself on the back occasionally simply for being able to deal with these changes.

Don't Use Litigation to Vent Negative Emotions

It's better for everyone, especially your children, if you get an uncontested divorce, and don't use legal procedures to punish your spouse. In my practice, spouses and attorneys can almost always agree on custody, support, and property division issues.

If one spouse is too angry to reach a reasonable settlement, the divorce court will impose a solution. But you'll pay a price in money, stress, time, and emotional damage to you and your children.

Remember that fighting with your children's other parent is very painful for the children. That may seem self-evident, but in the turmoil of divorce, even the best parents can lose sight of their children's pain and confusion. Each of you should maintain an active relationship with your children and should encourage each other to spend time with them. When negotiating the specifics, keep the children's best interests paramount. Don't use them as a bargaining tool to manipulate your ex-spouse.

Recovering From Divorce

The fundamental enemies of divorce recovery are not the other spouse or the legal process, but rather enemies we may carry within: guilt, self-doubt, perceived inadequacy, and fear of relationships. Here are some recovery principles on which most mental health professionals seem to agree.

You're no angel, but you're not so bad, either

Many spouses define themselves by their marriage and are devastated by the prospect of divorce: "If my marriage is a failure, then so am I." You may also see vividly where your spouse is at fault. Many people, whether they initiated the divorce or not, see themselves as victims. It is important to remember that a relationship is a two-way street, and both parties contribute to its success or failure. Consider seeing a counselor or reading self-help books to help you to deal with negative emotions, build a positive outlook, and boost your self-esteem.

Help is around the corner

One of the most painful feelings that results from separation or divorce is loneliness. You need to learn to become comfortable doing things by yourself and for yourself.

Many people deal with loneliness by joining a support group. These groups can be very helpful, not only in helping you understand your feelings but also in helping counteract a natural tendency to feel that you are all alone. But if group members tend to blame the other party or encourage self-pity, do yourself a favor and find another group. Their advice, while it may be tempting to accept, will not help you move on with your life.

Accept the past and get on with your life

Particularly if you did not want the divorce, your first emotions may be shock and denial. You may question whether the time you spent married was wasted. However, you cannot obliterate the past, so try to salvage something positive from it. Don't let resentment toward your former spouse take too much of your energy; redirect your emotional investments toward maintaining yourself.

When you finally do let go, you may have the urge to act—for example, rearrange the furniture or purge the house of anything that reminds you of your ex-partner. This can be an exciting stage. After coming through it, most people can feel good about themselves, their bodies, and their capacities as creative and autonomous adults to deal with whatever life throws their way.

Love yourself

Some divorced people find it easy to love others and difficult to love themselves. But a love based on a fear-filled flight from loneliness is unlikely to last. To have a productive, vital, growing relationship, you need to accept yourself and appreciate your strengths and weaknesses.

Self-love does not mean that you love only yourself, but rather that your capacity to love and accept others is founded on your love and acceptance of yourself. There are many exercises to improve your self-esteem. For example, you could list five adjectives that describe yourself and then put a plus sign after each positive one. Then look at the other adjectives and see if you can find anything positive about those aspects of your personality. The harder you look, the more positive things you're likely to find.

Remember that your children need to love themselves, too. Many children of divorce feel unlovable, since one of their parents has left. Help them by reassuring them that they are deeply loved.

Start with friends, not lovers

It is common for a recently divorced person to be totally uninterested in sex, and later feel a deep longing for sexual contact. Recognize that we need to be touched and held, and that sexual contact is not necessarily the whole or the only answer to this need. Affection shown by and to friends and children can be a warm and reassuring way to maintain human contact until life broadens out again.

After a long time out of the dating scene, the resumption of sexual relationships can be both frightening and fascinating. Trusting someone may be difficult. You'll be ready to proceed when you are comfortable going out with potential love partners, you know your moral attitudes and values, you feel capable of having a meaningful sexual relationship, and your sexual behavior is consistent with your morality.

Make the most of your freedom

Once you have loosened the bonds of negative patterns that have controlled you, you'll have the freedom to fulfill your potential. This does not mean that you will never run into problem relationships. But when you longer focus on the past, you'll be free to make the most of the present.

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