UNDERSTANDING THE EMOTIONAL IMPACT OF DIVORCE WORK
by Phil Rich, Ed.D., MSW.
When you're confronted with legal separation from the person to whom you've committed your adult life, it may seem as though your whole life -- not just your marriage -- is falling into a chasm, and especially if you're not the one choosing the separation. The future stops existing, and only an empty present looms ahead.
For some, the feelings evoked by a divorce and the issues that surround it pass relatively quickly; for others, the anguish and consequences last for years. You're dragged emotionally through the mud, or your spouse is. Children suffer the consequences of split parents who can't resolve feelings or differences of opinion, and the ability to move on with the new lives that develop after the divorce is seriously impaired. But, although often accompanied by grief, the goal of divorce work is not to bereave the marriage and analyze what went wrong, but instead to accept, adjust, and move on as quickly as possible, and in the most emotionally healthy way.
Divorce is composed of both "technical" and "emotional aspects." The technical aspects will be taken care of, one way or another by the legal process, to the advantage, disadvantage, or mutual satisfaction of both spouses. But the court doesn't address any of the emotional issues introduced by the separation, and neither should it. In fact, the legal process may well stir up even more emotions.
The "divorce work" of the legal system is to ensure equity and the legal separation of the partners. The other side of "divorce work" deals with the emotional aftermath. This is your divorce work -- the process of dealing with and working through the sense of loss, emotions, and situations caused by the divorce: dealing and come to terms with the issues and changes the divorce has brought.
Impact of the Divorce
For many, divorce is a new experience, but certainly not for everyone. Plenty of people marry -- and divorce -- more than once. But it would be a mistake to assume that because someone's been divorced once, the feelings, events, and experiences that follow a second divorce are passť. In fact, although you may be better informed, more savvy, and more able to handle the practicalities of a break-up, a second divorce may be even more emotionally traumatic than a first.
One way or another, many of your feelings are no doubt quite "normal" -- the sort of reactions that anyone in your position will experience. In many ways, your reactions may resemble those of someone who has just been widowed. You may be grief-stricken, anxious about how you'll live from now on, and perhaps angry, guilty, depressed, or all three. You'll almost certainly feel apprehensive about having to handle many of the tasks of living with which you may have little or no experience, or may have taken for granted. Unlike the widowed, however, you still having a living ex-spouse who will almost certainly cross your path frequently in the months immediately following the decision to divorce, and perhaps well beyond that even if you don't have children.
The impact of divorce, then, shouldn't be underestimated. Even in a day and culture where the breakdown of marriages is commonplace and divorce an accepted occurrence, marriage is still sacrosanct -- weddings are still built upon oaths of commitment, and marriages are still legally and emotionally binding. Even the most cynical go into marriage with the expectation and hope that this will be the "right" one, developing a life together on the basis that this relationship is permanent. Accordingly, it's serious business when the marriage falls apart.
Sharing Your Experiences and Getting Help
The circumstances of your particular divorce are dependent on the context of your life, your marriage, and your own particular emotional make up. Nevertheless, you're not the first person whose marriage has ended in a divorce. Take heart in the fact that most people going through divorce experience the same sort of emotions as you, face the same sort of challenges, and pass through the same sort of process as they work through the trauma, trial, and tribulations of divorce. And they come out the other side in one piece. Nevertheless, divorce work is difficult. It's about loss, change, and often, self esteem -- a powerful combination of forces.
Seek help whenever you find yourself feeling especially pained, vulnerable, or lost. A support network -- family and friends -- is important during your divorce work, but even so, this might not be enough. If you find the emotional process especially difficult to deal with, seek help from a therapist, divorce counselor, trained clergy, or divorce support group. Under any circumstances, if you're concerned about the legal and practical issues seek out an experienced divorce attorney or mediator.
Burns B., & Whiteman, T. (1992.) "The Fresh Start Divorce Recovery Workbook." Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Engel, M. L., & Gould, D. D. (1992). "The Divorce Decisions Workbook." New York: McGraw-Hill
Kramer, P. D. (1997). "Should You Leave?" New York. Scribner.
Rich, P., & Schwartz, L. L. (1999). "The Healing Journey Through Divorce: Your Journal of Understanding and Renewal." New York: John Wiley.
Schwartz, L. L., & Kaslow, F. W. (1997). "Painful Partings: Divorce and Its Aftermath." New York: John Wiley.
Phil Rich, EdD, MSW, DCSW is the author of "Understanding, Assessing, and Rehabilitating Juvenile Sexual Offenders," the eight books in "The Healing Journey" series of self help journaling books, and two books in the "Therapy Homework Planner," series, all of which are published by John Wiley & Sons. He is the Clinical Director of the Stetson School, a long-term residential treatment program for sexually reactive children and juvenile sexual offenders.
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