For Better Or For Worse, And Other Things That Didn't Come True: A Look At Divorce
Updated: May 22, 2019
I never thought this would happen to me. I was raised to believe that marriage is forever. My parents never divorced. Neither did any of my sisters and brothers. Why did I pick someone that did not honor the commitment? I can’t believe my husband left after only 3 years. Thank goodness we never had children. - Elizabeth C.
I just couldn’t take it anymore. The fighting was out of control. The day my husband and I split, I felt relieved. Finally some peace but now the reality of being alone with three young children is hitting hard. Part of me wants him back. The other part of me knows that our relationship was way too flawed. - Melinda T.
The ending of a long-term committed relationship is a traumatic grief experience. Even if we think it’s for the best it is still one of the most shocking, most difficult losses to endure. In many cases, it’s more difficult than dealing with death.
When a marriage ends, many people go into shock. They can’t believe they are really separated from the person that they vowed to be with ‘til death to us part’. No matter what the reason, the end is never easy. Most of us have no idea how to cope or what to do.
Friends give us well-meaning advice that usually doesn’t help:
“You’re better off.” “He was no good.” “I never liked him.” “Men are like trains. Another one will come soon.”
These well-intentioned platitudes don’t help. Ultimately, the newly divorced female feels alone and confused.
Note: Though much of this information is non-gender specific, for purposes of this article, I am choosing to write from the female perspective.
The Female Stereotype: It’s Still Out There Women are taught that a relationship is everything. Even today, little girls like to play with dolls and ‘play house’. They fantasize about a mom, a dad and having babies. Women are geared towards the role of being the nurturer and caretaker. Even those of us who have important jobs and careers still put those other roles ‘on hold’ in order to make a baby and give it a home. Society still supports the idea that it is primarily the female who keeps the relationship and/or family together.
Little girls are brought up with the notion that all they have to do is wait for their ‘prince charming’. Somehow, somewhere there’s this magical being that will sweep her off her feet and protect her from the mean, dark world. Even when women suffer horrible break ups or endure the most painful of relationships they still daydream about this mythical man. They can’t help it. These myths and fairy tales are deeply ingrained. Adults view these same tales in romantic movies, romance novels, tabloids, soap operas and love songs.
The Pain Of A Break Up When a marriage breaks up women feel particularly devastated. They tend to blame themselves. Oftentimes, the relationship was emotionally or physically abusive but the woman stays in the relationship way longer than necessary. This is because she feels pressured to keep things status quo and together. When the marriage finally ends, women often feel ashamed and embarrassed. They imagine themselves as damaged goods. Thus, in addition to the natural feelings of grief as a result of loss or change, comes an unnatural loss of self-esteem.
Women are taught to keep up appearances. Society tells up to ‘keep a stiff upper lip’. Shameful feelings foster feelings of pain, anger, loss of trust and bewilderment. Oftentimes these emotions get stuffed down or pushed aside. We’re taught to ‘deal with it later’. The ways we deal with things later often get convoluted into other situations that are ultimately dangerous.
Hazards and Pitfalls Most of us are unprepared when it comes to loss. We really don’t know what to do. The break up of a marriage is particularly confusing. We took a vow ‘till death do us part’. We never consider the fact that sometimes our partners stray, become abusive, fall in love with someone else, develop conflicting desires or the partnership simply becomes incompatible. In a perfect world, we would learn to ‘screen’ better but nevertheless, marriages break up at an alarming rate. Elizabeth and Melissa are examples of two women who just didn’t know how to cope.
Destructive Behaviors Elizabeth took the opportunity to go wild. She had been brought up in a religious household with conservative beliefs. When her husband left without warning, Elizabeth literally went into shock. Her world was shattered and her family was disapproving. Elizabeth’s broken heart developed into an insatiable hole. She went from relationship to relationship. All of them unsatisfying. Each worst than the next. She unsuccessfully tried to replace the loss instead of looking to herself for the answers.
Melinda just got angrier and angrier. She tried to soothe her anger with lots of alcohol but that only created another problem. So frazzled was she that the state intervened, and she lost the children she loved. Now she’s dealing with one loss on top of the other. Happily, Melinda’s fall to the bottom is finally getting her the help she needs. Melinda is in rehab now exploring unresolved anger issues and hoping to be reunited with her kids real soon.
Elizabeth and Melinda sound like they went to the extreme but we all rely on short term relief to solve long term loss issues. Over eating, drinking, drugging, sleeping, sex, shopping, exercising, running, working are some of the ways we indulge ourselves in order to cope. We simply don’t know what to do and rely on distractions rather than acknowledge the pain.
Isolation Some women tend to isolate after a break up. They no longer want to see their friends because many of these women were the other half of the couples they and their husband socialized with. Likewise, some of these ‘friends’ don’t want to go out with them either. They feel like divorce is a disease and it brings their own vulnerabilities to the forefront. This situation is an unfortunate bi-product of a break up. Fortunately, when one looks deep there are usually other divorced or single co-workers or acquaintances that can be of enormous help. Some of these people turn into life-long friends.
Fast Recovery Beware of being OK too fast. Women have always been taught to put on ‘a happy face’. They act strong for their children. They seem extremely functional to their friends. It’s hard to imagine that anything is wrong in their lives. This very fast recovery can be as dangerous as any of the more overt destructive behaviors. Usually these are women who want to please or not burden others. They act recovered even when they aren’t.
Feeling Tired It takes a great deal of energy to conceal feelings. Many women are so busy stuffing their feelings that they literally wear themselves out. Many people in grief talk about loss of energy or motivation. They don’t understand it takes energy to hold back the tears. A broken heart needs to be acknowledged and nurtured.
There’s no doubt that the break up of a committed affair leaves us feeling bewildered and abandoned. Something has happened that we didn’t anticipate. Someone we trusted has abandoned us. We feel vulnerable. Our hearts our broken.
If You Are Experiencing A Break Up Remember, you are not broken. It’s your relationship that has failed. You are still a whole person with a whole life to live. It may feel absolutely crazy right now, but it’s the situation, not you that has fallen apart. Dig inside and remember that you survived many years without him. You can do it again.
Do not create false memories.
Elizabeth kept going back to the wonderful romantic times she had with her ex. She tended to lament the relationship because the beginning was so magical for her. She quickly forgot her husband’s cold and withholding attitude. As she forgot, she began to mourn a person who didn’t really exist. She made herself feel worse and worse about the break up, blaming herself for not being able to hold on to such ‘a wonderful guy’. She became self punishing by getting involved with men that were in some way unavailable and repeated the same self destructive behavior over and over again. Elizabeth self-punished for years because she created a distorted picture of her marriage.
Do not stuff your feelings.
Let yourself cry. Allow yourself to mourn. Remember taking a pill or eating a cooking will only make you feel different. They will not make you feel better.
Do not blame yourself.
You are only 50 percent responsible for the breakup of your marriage if it’s even that much. Take partial but do not take full responsibility. Each of you made mistakes. Allow yourself to learn from these mistakes so you can do better next time. Be gentle with yourself. Recognize you are in crisis. Your world has been shattered into pieces. You feel like you are going crazy. Remember it’s the situation and not you.
Do not worry about your age.
Many marriages dissolve when people are in there 50’s, 60’s and even 70’s. Our life expectancy is much higher today. There’s a whole community of people in your age range who are in same boat as you. You are not alone. Join a support group to help you meet others in the same boat as you.
Get help. Therapy is a good place to talk. It’s safe, confidential and you will be heard without judgment. It’s never too late to make changes. Learn how to love and nurture yourself. You deserve it.
In Summary It’s not uncommon for newly divorced women to engage in dangerous behaviors as a result of a broken heart and unresolved grief. When traveling down a new path, it’s OK to seek out the help of a guide. Perhaps it’s someone who’s been there before or someone who is has studied the road. Now is the perfect time to seek guidance. You don’t have to be alone.
This article was originally published by the 4 Therapy Network January 2006.
© 2006 Jackie A. Castro, MA, LMFT