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Emotional Coping and Divorce

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. & Kathryn Patricelli, MA

Divorce is generally a stressful and unsettling event. At minimum, a major relationship is ending, all sorts of routines are upset, and in the midst of the stress of transition there are legal hoops to jump through before things can be resolved. Add in the volatile emotions that are frequently associated with divorce and you have a difficult situation indeed. In this section, we will talk about practical ways that divorcing people can cope with and make the best of their stressful circumstances.

There are really two sides to the divorce process; the human emotional side and the formal legal side. Different coping strategies and skills are appropriate to address each of these aspects of divorce.

Emotional Coping

Divorce can trigger all sorts of unsettling, uncomfortable and frightening feelings, thoughts and emotions, including grief, loneliness, depression, despair, guilt, frustration, anxiety, anger, and devastation, to name a few. There is frequently sadness and grief at the thought of the end of a significant relationship. There can be fear at the prospect of being single again, possibly for a long time (or even forever), and with having to cope with changed financial, living and social circumstances. There can be anger at a partner's stubborn obstinacy and pettiness, abuse, or outright betrayal. There can be guilt over perceived failures to have made the relationship work. There can be overwhelming depression at the thought of the seeming impossibility of being able to cope with all the changes that are required. Any and all of these emotions are enough to make people miserable, and to find them wanting to cry at 3am in the morning.

Painful as they are, these sorts of emotions are generally natural grief-related reactions to a very difficult life-altering situation. Though there is no 'cure' for these feelings, there are some good and healthy ways to cope with them so as to suffer as little as possible, and to gain in wisdom, compassion and strength from having gone through the experience. The emotional coping process starts with allowing one's self the freedom to grieve and ends with moving on with one's life.

  • Allow grieving to occur. Grief is a natural human reaction to loss. Grief is not a simple emotion itself, but rather is an instinctual emotional process that can invoke all sorts of emotional reactions as it runs its course. The grief process tends to unfold in predictable patterns. Most commonly, people move back and forth between a shocked, numb state characterized by denial, depression, and/or minimization of the importance of the loss, and outraged anger, fear, and vulnerability. The dialog between numb and upset continues over time as the person emotionally digests the nature of the loss. Ultimately, enough time passes that the loss comes to be thought of as something that happened in the past, and that is not a part of day-to-day life. Grief doesn't so much go away as it becomes irrelevant after a while.

    Fighting grief is often counterproductive. Most of the time it is best to allow yourself to grieve in the ways that come naturally to you, at least part of the time. Eventually life comes back to 'normal' and the intensity of loss retreats. Different people take different amounts of time to go through their grief process and express their grief with different intensities of emotion. The amount of time people spend grieving depends on their personalities, and on the nature of their losses. Someone whose marriage was betrayed might take a longer time to work out their grief and to do it in a more vocal way than someone who chose to leave a marriage of their own accord. Someone who found out suddenly about their spouses' affair might grieve differently than someone who has watched their marriage deteriorate for years.

    It is not realistic that grief over a lost marriage should be worked out in a month or even several months. Most people will continue to deal with the emotional ramifications of loss for many months, sometimes even several years. Several years is a long time, however; really too long to spend exclusively grieving when life is so short. People who find that grief has not for the most part abated after 12 months have gone by are strongly urged to seek the assistance of a professional therapist.

  • Choosing to move forward. While grief can be immobilizing at first, after a while, most grieving people find that, little by little, they are ready to move on with their lives. For a time, they may find themselves moving on and grieving at the same time. Over time however, if everything goes well, the grieving process loses steam and more energy becomes available for moving on with life. Discussion of the moving forward process is handled in a later section of this document.

Methods for coping with emotion

As a practical matter, there are a number of things that people can do to help themselves cope while grieving the loss of a marriage.

  • Prioritize. Unfortunately, life doesn't stop just because one is hurting. Despite grief, there will be chores that need doing and bills that need paying. There may also be any number of extraordinary tasks that must be accomplished during the transition from married to single person (such as finding an apartment, turning on utilities, changing addresses, etc.) which add to the general stress. Creating a list of such necessary chores can help to reduce their stressful impact on one's life. All chores should be placed on the list in the order of their importance. Starting with the most essential, each chore is then worked through and crossed off the list as it is completed. The simple act of prioritizing and checking off list items helps make sure that all necessary chores get accomplished, and further helps to generate a feeling of control over what might otherwise be experienced as unmanageable demands.

  • Put things away. As soon as it is practical to do so, start living as a single person again. Put old photographs and mementos away where you don't have to look at them all the time. Start paying your own bills and handling those aspects of life that your ex-spouse used to do for you. Limit your contact with your ex-spouse. In general, do what you can to confidently look forward towards the future, rather than backwards at your divorce.

  • Talk about it. Many grieving people find that their suffering is somewhat lessened when they are able to share their hurt feelings with a sympathetic audience. For this reason, it is often helpful for grieving people to tell trusted family and friends that they are getting divorced, and to request assistance from these trusted people as they are able to offer it. Finding someone who can and will listen and allow one to vent their hurt emotions and fears and offer comforting advice often proves very helpful. Not everyone is a good listener, however, and those who are will have lives of their own and may get fatigued over time, especially if one's grief process is not brought under control. Some friendships might also prove too fragile to survive one's divorce and will be lost in spite of best efforts. It is best to use judgment when deciding with whom to share, how much to share, and how often to share so as not to overly fatigue one's supports.

    If existing supports prove inadequate, other support opportunities can be created by attending support groups or by working with a professional therapist.

    Support groups are self-help meetings attended by people going through the same sorts of circumstances. Generally sponsored by community centers and religious institutions, divorce support groups provide a face-to-face forum where people in different stages of adjustment to their divorce come together to educate and support one another.

    Online divorce support groups are also available 24 hours a day on the Internet, offering a less personal, but more accessible support format. One caveat with regard to online support forums is that they can be plagued by 'trolls' - people who are there to insult and ridicule legitimate members. Keep your thickest skin and sense of humor handy when using online supports.

    Psychotherapy and counseling can also be excellent options for obtaining divorce support. A qualified therapist is a trained and empathic listener with an expert understanding of how divorce affects and changes lives. He or she will be able to provide a safe place where the divorcing person can vent their emotions and talk about their fears, especially those feelings that are too private and intense to talk about elsewhere. He or she will also be able to provide expert guidance on managing stress, grief, and self-defeating thoughts, remaining an effective parent to your children, and rebuilding an effective life in the aftermath of divorce. The 'chemistry' between therapist and client is important. It is often a good idea to interview one or more therapists prior to committing to work with any particular one so as to find one who feels safe and best appears to offer appropriate guidance.

  • Support yourself. In addition to seeking support and guidance from others, there are also good ways you can help yourself to cope.

    Maintaining (or starting) healthy routines is a primary means of self-support that frequently gets overlooked. Divorce is a stressful time of change, and many of the good habits one has formed to help maintain health can be lost in the shuffle. At a personal level, making time to exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and eat regular healthy meals can help to preserve health and reduce the effects of stress. Keeping select important pre-divorce family routines intact (such as eating together as a family, or attending religious services) is also advisable as this continuity can be a comfort to all.

    Keeping a journal of your thoughts and feelings as you go through your adjustment to being divorced can provide many benefits. Most pressingly, journaling allows a further outlet for emotional upset. Describing pain and the difficult situations being coped with in writing helps one to gain a better grip and perspective on those emotions and situations, both in each immediate situation described (it feels good to purge pent up feelings), and also across time as growth and movement become apparent. Journaling is cheap, requiring only a notebook and a pen, and can be done at any time of day or night, making it an ideal self-help strategy.

    Distraction. Sometimes it's not enough to write or talk about how one is feeling. In such situations, being ready and able to distract one's self can be helpful. Watching a television show or movie, reading a book, surfing the net, exercising, cleaning the house, organizing files, and other attention-demanding tasks and chores can get one's mind away from painful feelings that otherwise might drag out into depression. It is helpful to prepare in advance a list of what needs doing, and to get copies of compelling books and other media handy so that when distraction is needed, it will be easy to pick something healthy or worth doing with which to distract one's self. Although television is always available, it is not necessarily the healthiest or more edifying choice.

    Self-soothing. Divorced people are often wounded people, and wounded people need to be gentle and compassionate with themselves while they heal. Treating yourself to a few comforting and healing experiences you might not otherwise allow yourself can be in order. Massage, relaxation routines, a long bath or hot shower, or a plate of one's favorite food can help produce relaxation, calmness and a sense of being cared for, all of which can be balm for a bruised soul. Religious, yoga and meditation retreats, vacations, and similar excursions can have a similar effect. So long as finances allow and healthy routines do not get bent too much, such comforts and small extravagances can help smooth the healing process.

  • Explore dormant interests. In divorce, one door slams shut, and people tend to spend a lot of time adjusting to that closure. What they come to see after a while, however, is that when one door closes, others open. Divorce is thus a beginning as well as an ending, and a perfect opportunity to explore new interests. Finding one or more causes, clubs, fields, hobbies or projects one is interested in (and wants to work in/on) is beneficial in a number of ways. New interests capture attention and bring it into the present, away from a focus on the past. In so doing, they help people to start thinking of themselves as explorers and decision-makers and not simply as victims of circumstances outside their control. Exploring interests can make you happy and also help you to make new friends.

  • Avoid dangerous and self-defeating coping behavior. Divorcing people are often wounded people, and wounded people sometimes hurt so much that it clouds their judgment. When one is hurting, one can be tempted to do most anything that promises to remove the pain. The problem is that some solutions for removing pain work well in the short term, but can be dangerous in the medium and long terms. Failure to use judgment in deciding how one will cope with emotional hurt can result in negative, sometimes severely negative, outcomes:
    • Avoid using drugs or alcohol or gambling or promiscuous sexuality as a means of coping with pain or loneliness
    • Avoid diving into a new intimate relationship just because you're lonely
    • Avoid acting on angry impulses you might have towards your ex-spouse
    • Avoid stalking your ex-spouse
    • Avoid cultivating revenge fantasies involving your ex-spouse. Your successful life post-divorce will be your best revenge
    • Avoid making large decisions for a while after your divorce (divorce arrangements notwithstanding).