Divorce entails loss, even if you wanted the divorce. Aside from the ending of the relationship with your spouse, you may be losing your home, time with your children, your relationship with your in-laws, extended family, and even friends. There are inevitable financial losses, loneliness, a change of lifestyle, imagined losses of what might have been, and of memories of what once was. It may involve a move to a different city, a change of jobs or schools, or entering the workforce for the first time if you’ve been a stay-at-home mom.
To successfully move on, each loss must be mourned. Much of the grief work can precede the physical and legal divorce and smooth the way. It can be helpful to recognize what stage of grief you’re experiencing as you progress through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance; the emotional stages of divorce, death or any kind of loss as outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Guilt is frequently part of the process, as is shame.
Not included in the stages of grief is fear, which is a predominant emotion in times of transition. All change is stressful. Facing the unknown provokes anxiety. So many important elements of one’s life are in transition all at once, that the stress is enormous. When I practiced law, I worked in Conciliation Court and mediated divorce and visitation agreements. It was abundantly clear that divorce is harder on the spouse who is less prepared or feels “left behind.” It can shatter your self-esteem, particularly if it was unexpected, or if your spouse left for another woman or quickly meets someone else. Not usually talked about is the loss of identity – as a wife or mother.
Ending a marriage frequently rekindles the pain associated with past losses, such as a death, or your own parents’ divorce. One man I spoke with so idealized his late father who had died when he was only four years old, that when his own son reached four, he not only divorced but moved out of state, claiming he needed to get away from his ex. But the proximity to his ex-wife was not the real motivation. It was the painful, hidden memory of his father’s abandonment and the prospect of tarnishing his father’s idealized reputation by meeting his own son’s needs.
Using Anger to Stay Connected:
Many times, there has been both a prior loss and lack of separation from a parent, as in the case of a woman who was overly close to her mother following the death of her father. She hadn’t finished grieving her father and hadn’t separated emotionally from her mother. In such cases, the threat of loss is overwhelming. This made “letting go” of her marriage nearly impossible. She created disputes and obstacles to her divorce settlement in order to postpone the divorce, thereby avoiding her grief, feelings of helplessness, emptiness, and abandonment. Anger can be used to separate, yet on-going fighting is a way of staying in contact.
Struggles for Control:
Often spouses fluctuate between attachment and separation, sometimes being compliant, then resistant. They cannot cooperate without feeling they are giving up a part of themselves. For example, everything can be agreed upon but one insignificant item – one piece of art, or custody on Halloween. One couple had everything worked out; the father would pay for the children’s daycare, named in the agreement. When the facility unexpectedly went out of business, he refused to pay for an alternative daycare and instead wanted to take custody of the children.
An endless struggle for control over every last detail can represent a last-ditch effort to avoid finality of a marriage and the pain of separation, loss, and abandonment. In therapy, you can work through your fears of separation and losses. You learn to distinguish the earlier trauma from the present and resolve your anger and grief towards your parents and ex, which can help you heal and move on. To get tips for overcoming the pain of rejection, see “Recovery from Rejection and Breakups.” And, listen to the seminar, Breakup Recovery.
Social support is especially important. If you’re newly divorced, you may not be ready to date or feel uncomfortable dating after married life. Creating a single lifestyle takes time, especially if you’ve never lived alone. You may not be used to attending cultural and social events alone or have a companion with whom to go. Church and support groups, such as Divorce Anonymous, Parents Without Partners, and New Beginnings all can provide both support and a social network.
Take time out from your stress. Make time for yourself and find an activity that involves and relaxes you. Exercise that is fun, such as dancing, hiking, sports, or biking give you double benefits. A creative hobby will nurture you. Try meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises for deep relaxation.
The worst will pass, and you will be stronger.