Supporting Divorce Recovery

Writer, Abigail Trafford once said that divorce is “a savage emotional” journey.  Trafford is but one of the scores of people who have studLicking.woundsied the “divorce recovery process” over the past two decades.  Noted researchers like Judith Wallerstein and Mavis Hetherington as well as leading divorce mediators like John Haynes all agree that the period of “divorce recovery” is about 24 months.  This means that, if allowed to move through the expected steps from separation through a sense of “being okay” and free of the psychologically intense and depressing forces of divorce, most people will take about two years to complete that process.  However that caries with it a big “if.”

If people are allowed to proceed through the process of divorce and not gouge additional psychic wounds in each other in the process, most people will be through the journey in two years.  (That, by the way, doesn’t mean that they will be miserable for two years.  Most divorce experts say that the acutely painful passage occurs in the first six months.)  However, here’s my biggest beef with conventional divorce litigation.  It has been my experience (time and time again – seen throughout the 25 years I’ve been doing this work – first as a lawyer and now as a mediator and counselor) that the conventional divorce process does inflict avoidable damage on both people.  The shame of it is that these poor folks have to devote psychic energy to licking the wounds that are gouged by the divorce process. This leaves them with fewer internal resources to manage the natural progression of divorce recovery.  It will prolong the period of intense distress beyond the normal six months and stretch the entire divorce recovery process out to beyond the natural 24 months.

Divorce hurts.  It is the most stressful experience that many will ever undergo in their lives.  The process of stabilizing a new sense of self; managing the intense emotions and solving a myriad of practical challenges are daunting.  My advice: Find professionals who will help you make good decisions and support you in the tasks of this life transition who will not contribute to prolonging the pain.

That Intuitive Sense of Safety

As one who has worked in the field oembracef intimate relationships for many years, one abiding fascination of mine is the question: What draws us to our partner?    Sadly, many who are in conflict and estranged don’t remember, or dismiss the idea that they were really attracted at all.  As Dan Gilbert says in his wonderful book Stumbling to Happiness, we see both the past and the future through our present experience.  So if we’re really alienated from our lover, we have an almost impossible time thinking of how we felt when we were first drawn to that person.  However, I have observed another reality in my work.

When we get beyond the physical attraction and compatibility, I find over and over that what drew individuals to one another is the force of an intuitive sense of safety.  Like magnetic attraction, it is unseen and not easily measured, while at the same time, it is intense in its invisible strength.   Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is based upon Attachment.   This is a deep need in the center of our being for connection and it exists in all of its intensity when we are infants and persists until our dying day.  However, many of us (perhaps most of us) had these tender, vital and consuming needs thwarted when we were very young.  This left many with a deep, yet not consciously recognized, sense of shame for our fundamental being (after all this is what was rejected when these needs were unfulfilled).  Perhaps we may not resonate to the word or notion of “shame” but somewhere inside we carry some combination and gradation of feeling completely alone or inadequate or unlovable.  We may silently despair of ever being with another person and being truly accepted – to find that safe harbor where we don’t have to protect ourselves from buffeting winds of judgment or rejection “if they really knew what was inside.”  Most of us who carry these wounds inside, learn to cope and carry on.  We can be very attractive, smart, sociable, supportive, accomplished or supremely self-sufficient.  Any one or a combination of these attributes – or any number of others – help us get through life.  Yet, there is a niggling voice, if we are attuned to it, which yearns for a safe place – “where I can be myself.”

I think what often draws us into the intense bond of an adult intimate relationship is that the voice whispers to us (so that whether we actually hear it, the voice registers) that “Here, you have found someone who understands.”  Somehow, you intuitively sense that this person may have experienced loss, or fear, or shame in the recesses of their early life that somehow resonates with your own and that they are safe.  If this is so, then it certainly explains the intensity of the hurt, anger and sense of betrayal when, in the throes of the inevitable intimate conflict, this person flips from uniquely safe, to dreadfully unsafe.  To have taken the risk to open up, only to be judged and rejected is horribly destabilizing.

But there is good news!  With time and working with a good couples therapist, we can find that the judgment and rejection were actually the reaction of their partner to their own fears and pain of feeling rejected themselves.  It takes time, but that safety can be regained.   This will be the subject of future posts.

Springsteen

springsteenIn 1975, I was a year out of law school and a pal asked if I wanted to drive up from L.A. to Santa Barbara to catch a Bruce Springsteen concert.  I hadn’t heard of the guy.  I went up on a “what the heck” ride.  It remains the most rocking, outrageous concert experience of my life.  What I remember now years later is that he had a band that was so tight, had practiced so much, that they acted as one instrument.  The other thing I remember was the man’s energy.  Jon Stewart once said that Springsteen empties the tank in his concerts and that is an apt description.  When he was young, the guy would light up a city when he’d come through.  He did 4 consecutive nights in L.A. in the late 70’s and everywhere you went for days afterward, people were in a daze – “Which night did you go?”  “Did he play ‘It’s My Life’ (an old 60’s classic) at your concert?” “Can you believe it….3 encores!”  Set aside his great melodies and poetic lyrics.  The guy found the thing he knew he was 10+ on a scale of 10 and he did it.  Every public pronouncement from him is admonition to us to do the same.  Embrace the passion of being alive.  It’s a hard road for so many of us and the only thing we can ever control is our belief in ourselves.  Encouragement of that is one of therapy’s goals.  Many of us learned who we were in this world through families that told us we weren’t much (or worse, were burdens and fundamentally bad).  Perhaps more common was the encouragement of aspects of self that didn’t reflect what we somehow knew to be our essence.  This would go hand-in-hand with discouragement or disregard for parts of our character that we knew were truly an expression of our true and best selves.  One reason I think that Bruce Springsteen galvanized so many people to loyalty bordering on idolatry is that his work provided the constant message: “Life can be hard.  You’ll be challenged – but you’re up to the task.”  Seligman would add, “Learn and embrace your signature strengths (see my earlier post).  They’re yours.  Their expression in your life is where you’ll find meaning and happiness.”  Right on, Marty!  Right on, Bruce!