Divorce statistics tend to obscure the emotional impact of divorce. Whether a divorce is chosen, imposed, contested, litigated or mediated, divorce is difficult.
What often adds to the difficulty even after a divorce is finalized are lingering thoughts and feelings that bewilder, disturb, preoccupy and interfere with moving forward in a self-productive way.
- “ I can’t believe that when he walked into the teacher’s meeting for Carrie, I actually felt something toward him…what’s wrong with me after all he put me through?”
- “She said she fell out of love. I thought we were great. I will never be able to make someone happy.”
- “ How does a man leave? The kids don’t understand that even though he sees them, he ruined everything.”
- “I felt unappreciated. Yes I strayed, but I didn’t want the marriage to end.”
Understanding the emotional fallout from divorce and the ways in which thoughts and feelings persist, may make it possible to cope with them and transform them into lessons learned.
The Chemistry of Intimate Attachments
- The fact that a divorce is final does not shut off feelings. While people may feel relief that it is over, in the aftermath of a divorce few people feel neutral about their ex-partner.
- Regardless of who initiated the divorce, we respond to the presence of that person differently than to other people on many levels.
- Our reactions are often confusing because they are a function of the neurochemistry associated with a shared history of intimate attachment. We may feel some attraction.
- You may imagine that your x-partner is going to turn into the perfect partner to someone else. You may feel the primitive anger born of fear when a basic human bond is broken or you may feel the need to hold on due to the basic human fear of abandonment.
- Such feelings don’t imply that you made a mistake, that your ex-partner will magically change, that you don’t know what you are doing, or that these feelings will persist.
- They mean you are human and you have just faced a stressful life change. It would be impossible not to have a mix of feelings for the man/woman who has stopped being who you thought they were or who they once were to you.
The Cost of Re-Writing History
- It is not uncommon that as a way to buffer loss, rationalize betrayal or tolerate rejection there is a preoccupation with casting the ex-partner and the years of marriage to him/her as unhappy and without value.
- This often brings with it blame of the ex-partner which is fueled by the need to corroborate with evidence from family and friends. This can become so persistent that it becomes a strain on family and friends.
- It is particularly difficult on children as it often is confusing or discrepant with their reality of the past and their present experience with the other parent. While divorce changes children’s lives, the impact is most negative when children are placed in the middle, asked to take sides, or are unable to resume their childhood with both parents because of the divorce.
- The negative re-writing of history is emotionally costly to you, also- especially when it traps you in regrets and self-blame. As such, it locks you into the divorce and holds you responsible for events you could not have predicted for yourself or your partner.
- Keep in mind that most people make the best decision they can at the time they are making it with the resources they have. No one has a crystal ball.
- To “ rip up” all of your memories because you are angry or hurt is to steal a chapter in your life story. It may have been good and then turned bad or always very difficult; but it is one that you have managed to come through.
The Human Capacity to Adjust
- The best and worst about us as humans is our power to adjust. It is what enables us to re-set a world-view of hope and trust after traumatic events and it is what makes us eventually take for granted the beautiful ocean view outside our window.
- In the right balance, adjusting to a partner is a good thing if it allows tolerance of imperfections, familiarity, predictability and the safety of feeling loved.
- In marriages that end in divorce, adjusting often equates to taking the other for granted, mistreatment, lack of interest or tolerating dismissal, criticism and even violence as the norm.
- It is common after a divorce to ruminate about what you tolerated or how you treated your partner.
- Given that negative ruminations of blame of self-blame have proven to increase both emotional and physical stress, there is little to gain from them.
- Replacing negative rumination with self-empathy and self-reflection is a productive alternative. It gives you the distance to translate what happened into lessons learned for you: What did I need? Could I really be myself ? What was I unable to do? How did I contribute to the stress? Did my history get in the way? Did I overlook warning signs about the other? How different were we as people? What would I do differently?
The Time to Grieve
Few legitimize the time necessary to grieve after divorce or to recognize how much of the mix of feelings one has reflects the grieving process.
Loss of Self
- It is often difficult for friends and family to understand that although the marriage could not survive—you are suffering with the loss of who you were.
- Particularly soon after a divorce, many report, that they don’t want to be with their ex-partner but they want to be a married person. They want their home, their couple friends. They want their children to have parents living in the same house. They don’t want to be single. They don’t even know how to be single.
- It all makes sense until you factor in how you may have tried to make it work, how much you both may have tried and how emotionally destructive a relationship can be both on the partners and on the children.
- This is a vulnerable time as there can be the urge to minimize the loss by replacing your ex-partner with a new permanent connection. Given that the rate of divorce increases with second and third marriages, taking the time to find self is crucial.
- It is often not until the pain and loss of a divorce subsides that both men and women begin to identify those aspects of self that they never found, celebrated and nurtured in their former marriage.
- Making new friends and connections, finding and using your personal resiliencies (intelligence, physical strength, social connections, spirituality, business savvy, artistic abilities, etc.) even adapting to different financial and living conditions, can become a way of defining a new, happier and stronger self.
- Over the years, I have seen people change in dramatic ways both emotionally and even physically. They move forward with lessons learned, they co-parent their children, they take on new careers and often as one man just told me, “ I was devastated with the divorce—now I often think I should thank her.”
“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” Maria Robinson
Last reviewed: 21 Jul 2014
Phillips, S. (2014). Understanding and Using the Thoughts and Feelings After Divorce. Psych Central.
Retrieved on March 3, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/healing-together/2014/07/understanding-and-using-the-thoughts-and-feelings-after-divorce/