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.

The Moment I Knew

doneRecently, Huffington Post put a slideshow on their “Divorce” page that was very enlightening.  They asked readers to respond with “the moment I knew my marriage was over.”  There are over 150 responses in  that slide show and, boy, do they range far and wide!  Yet they do tend to fall into a discrete number of set categories.

One category is the “I just woke up one morning and knew.”  That’s a hard one to work with, as I often liken the decision that the relationship is over to a campfire (appropriate image for the Northwest).  At the end of the night, after staring at a brilliant, dancing flame hovering over intense, glowing embers, we turn in – and upon awakening, sometimes the logs are still there, charred, but partly intact.  If you lift one up you may see a bit of life that, if blown upon intensely enough, will start to smoke and a flame may emerge.  However, other times, it may have rained overnight and in the morning, we emerge from our tent to find a dead fire.  No amount of effort will revive anything.  The fire is simply……gone.  That’s like the woman who responded, “when I took my wedding ring off and couldn’t bring myself to put it back on.”

There’s another category which Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy calls, “relationship traumas.”  Infidelity is, of course, a leading (and searing) relationship trauma.  It is difficult, but by no means impossible, to heal from this, but that’s another story for another day (post).  There are others, however.  Some people responded that they were facing a health crisis and their spouse was unresponsive or disappeared.  An example is, “The moment I knew was when I went into the hospital for emergency surgery and nearly died.  I was in the hospital for 6 days.  He didn’t visit once.  I got no calls and all of two texts.  People I barely knew at least called.”  Others describe an incredibly demeaning statement or attitude, like the one respondent who said, “”when I was picked for a prestigious conference in NY – he didn’t congratulate – asked who would watch the kids.”  Others relate statements made by their partner that just floor them, like one who replied, “When he said he’d divorce me if I went to console my best friend (who is like a sister) after the passing of her mother.”  For sure, these are all blows and there’s a lot of healing that needs to be done if the marriage can overcome the trauma of one spouse’s sense of utter abandonment at a moment of deepest need.  Yet, when I read these kinds of posts, I don’t automatically think, “Well that marriage is over!”  Actually, that’s the way I found myself responding to many of these posts.  Many of the wounds that people describe are sharp and deep and they absolutely need to be talked about.  Honest remorse and forgiveness are necessary and entirely possible, but, again, I don’t think people are able to do this on their own – or for that matter in an office of a couples counselor who acts as an umpire and decides who is right and who is wrong.  It’s really fascinating and heart-full work.  That’s why I love it so.

Walk Away Wife Syndrome

Michelle Wiener Davis is one of the stars of the psychotherapy circuit.  She has enjoyed a long, and well-regarded, career as a couples therapist.  Back in the early ’90’s she came up with an approach to salvaging frayed marriages, wrote a book called “Divorce Busting” and a cottage industry was born.   Among her excellent insights was the notion of the “walk away wife syndrome.”  I love it because it so accurately describes a dynamic I have seen in my office many times over the years.  It works like this:

A woman in a marriage or intimate relationship is feeling disconnected from her partner.  This distance is extremely lonely.  She will reach out to him, trying to get him to understand her distress.  He doesn’t get it, in her view.  Over time, she becomes frustrated and even a bit desperate.  This incredible, and legitimate, need she experiences may never be acknowledged and touched.  She may become more critical in her distress.  He just withdraws.

Then one day, it happens.  She decides she is done.  She says to herself, “I am leaving when ________________.”  Fill in the blank – “when I get a job”….”when the last child is out of the house”….”when I finish school.”  Sometimes it might be, “when I find another man.”  Once she has made that decision, though, she stops being so angry and frustrated…..because she….is…..done.  The criticism stops.  Things overtly are more peaceful around the house.  He, of course, thinks he has died and gone to heaven.  Friends as how his marriage is and he’ll say, “Great.”

Then the even she has waited for occurs.  And with that, she leaves.  He is shell-shocked.  “What happened?” he asks.  “How could this happen?  We were doing so well.”   As Weiner-Davis notes, this may be the first time he really, really gets the level of her desperation.  He understands what he needs to do.  However, usually it’s too late.  She has moved on emotionally.  She is done fire that represents her emotionally commitment to this relationship is extinguished.  It is over.  She has walked away.

Separated and Still Married

The New York Times last week ran a great story by Pamela Paul describing the many couples who choose not to live together, but to stay married.  These couples include Warren Buffet and his wife (who remained married for 27 years after separation and despite his long term relationship with another woman).  The article raises all the questions you face in deciding to divorce – the hassle and expense of divorce vs. the confusion and financial risk of staying married to someone you no longer share a life with vs. the benefits of remaining married (health insurance coverage, for one).  Despite a full-on article about this potential path in the NY Times, this is still a rare choice.  When a marriage or long term relationship ends, almost always there is one partner who leaves and one who is left.  The “leaver” is anxious to start anew.  In fact, the article seems mostly to describe couples who have been together and raised a family so that the press to chart a new course in their lives may not be as pressing.  In any event, its a well written piece and thought provoking.