Coping With Separation And Divorce

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Coping With Separation And Divorce

 
 
   
Divorce or separation from a loved one always scores near the top in scientific studies of life's most stressful events. Why is breaking up so extraordinarily stressful? Whether you are the one who leaves, or the one who is left, the disruption may be intense. Your world is turned upside down all at once. Everything familiar has changed. Suddenly you must cope with many different problems, yet the person you would usually count on for support isn't there anymore.

Most people going through a separation or divorce don't expect the intense reactions they experience. Their feelings may change from day to day or even moment to moment. People may feel grief or sadness, loneliness, confusion, fear, anger or a wide range of other conflicting emotions.

There are stages of grief as described in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's book On Death and Dying such as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. People, however, do not move through these stages in an orderly fashion, but tend to move in and out of them in a maddeningly random order.

The initial decision to separate and the beginning stages of separation are never easy. In separating, something major is lost. The loss is certainly the loss of a partner, but it is much more. It is the loss of a love, a dream, and perhaps what has seemed like a secure future. The only thing that remains certain is that nothing will ever be the same again.

Getting through these phases of grief is painful and draining, but there are some basic survival tips that can help to keep you in balance.
  • Survival Tip #1: You are not going crazy and your extreme mood swings are probably not manic depression. In fact, what you are going through is normal and natural. Give yourself permission to feel and, at times, to feel very bad. Trying to avoid or deny the pain will usually prolong the intense feelings or cause them to surface at a later time in a variety of ways that are destructive to others and to yourself.
  • Survival Tip #2: Give yourself permission to function at less than optimal level for a period of time. Many of us feel we are supermen or superwomen and always try to do our best in every circumstance. At this point in time, you may not be able to do your best. You are hurting and your life is changing. You may not be able to care for others in quite the same way you are accustomed to doing. For the moment, you may need to focus on self-care and self-nurturing before you can continue to give more to your family or your job. Perhaps for the first time in your life, allow yourself to function less than optimally (and in some cases, to be less than perfect). You need and deserve this break in order to regroup and re-energize. This will change.
  • Survival Tip #3: Don't try to fully understand what is going on-at least not yet. In the beginning, feelings are usually so intense that cognitive processing is hampered or confused. You may find yourself asking "why?" a million times a day. This rumination may cause you to feel like you are hitting yourself over the head. The result--no greater understanding and a sore head. In addition, memory problems may occur. These changes are temporary. As time passes, your thoughts will clear and you will probably be more able to understand fully what has occurred. Unfortunately, even with greater understanding, you may never fully agree with what has happened. Since cognitive processing may be less than optimal, it may be best to put off until a later date major decisions with long-term consequences.
  • Survival Tip #4: Try not to isolate yourself. You may be feeling hurt, betrayed, embarrassed, or ashamed. You may feel that you can never trust anyone again. You may feel terribly alone and that no one could possibly understand. Again, these feelings are normal and natural. You do not need to feel embarrassed or ashamed. It's okay to need comforting and to reach out for support and caring, even if you have rarely done so in the past! You may be surprised at how others respond. Consider contacting old friends or reaching out to a friend you haven't seen in awhile. Speak to a neighbor or co-worker. Use the telephone frequently for the comfort of a familiar voice. Speak to a priest, rabbi, or minister. They will usually accept, understand, and share affirmations and hope. Isolation at this time can be deadly; time spent with a friend can have a powerful healing effect.
  • Survival Tip #5: The converse--no matter how scared and alone you feel--be careful of leaping into another relationship. You need time to breathe, to think, and to heal as you may find yourself repeating old patterns.

Sometimes these tips may not feel like enough to get you through this difficult time. The Faculty Staff Assistance Program is available to you. A licensed counselor can help you sort out feelings and problems you may be experiencing. The service is confidential and without cost. Please call 545-0350 if you would like to make an appointment.

If at all possible in almost all cases, it's better to try to save a marriage and a family. But, when it isn't possible, how do we cope? Sometimes divorce is forced upon us against our will and sometimes it's a decision we have to make to end a painful or threatening relationship. Whatever put you in a divorce situation, coping with divorce involves rational attitudes to survive irrational conditions. On the subjects of blame, getting along, money, child custody or emotional recovery, following a few rational approaches can help you and your family cope.

Fixing Blame: The best of divorces are horribly painful ordeals. It's natural for us to place blame on the other person to try to deflect some of the pain. It's the nature of disagreement that the other person is wrong. There wouldn't be disagreement unless they thought we were wrong, as well. On the other hand, some of us try to take all of the blame in an irrational attempt to punish ourselves. Fixing blame on ourselves or our ex is a useless waste of energy and emotion that makes it harder for us to recover. It takes two to make a successful marriage and two for the unsuccessful ones. Fixing blame destines us to not learn from our mistakes and to repeat them in the future. Coping with divorce requires the discipline to accept that there were plenty of wrongs on both sides and to learn from the wrongs we endured and those we caused. The really cool thing about taking this approach is what it does for us. You become a stronger, wiser, better spouse should you venture down the aisle again. Our personal recovery and growth is why we try to keep from fixing blame, not necessarily to get along with the ex.

The Amicable Myth: Getting along is the goal of one of today's the most popular illusions, the amicable divorce. Don't get me wrong, coping with divorce requires that we do everything in our power to live at peace. Unfortunately, though, amicability is a bit of a myth. Let's look at why! During marriage, we provided each other financial support, domestic services, companionship and sexual satisfaction. At that time, our inability to get along on some level created the need for divorce. It continues to amaze me how many people expect to get along after removing all the benefits of marriage and adding emotional grief, financial hardship and complex custody arrangements. Regardless of how the ex behaves and how tempting it is to pound them into the dirt, the best realistic outcome is that we personally choose to do no harm. This is coping with divorce rather than creating revenge strategies. 

Financial Facts: Coping is understanding that, before the assets are divided and the spousal and child support agreements are made, everyone in the family will suffer financial hardship. Some have said that money is the number one cause of divorce...I've come to believe that money trouble is just a symptom of a bad relationship, not the cause. Divorce adds about 40-50% to the necessary expenses to pay for a second home and all the stuff required for the kids to live in both. One man told me, though he was living in a separate room from his wife and he was in a committed affair with another woman, he couldn't divorce because he would have to sell his home and his boat and pay child support. The money is so important to some people they will even harm their children to keep as much of it as possible. The financial facts are, the family assets are owned by both people and should be divided equally. If we can't come to an equitable agreement as to how the assets are to be divided, it's better to walk away with only the clothes we're wearing than to give most of it to lawyers in a drawn out court battle. It's just stuff! Besides, the stuff benefits the children when they're with the ex.

Emotional Coping and Divorce
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). 

Your Parents' Divorce
Are your parents divorced or getting a divorce? Although children of divorced parents may not think about it all the time, their lives have been subtly influenced by their parents' divorce. A divorce always affects children, even adult children, and almost always has some lingering effects. For example, consider the following questions: 

  • Do you feel guilt or responsibility for your parents' divorce? 
  • Have you ever felt that you lost part of your childhood because of the divorce? 
  •  Do you feel either of your parents depends too much on you for emotional support? 
  • Do you find yourself in the role of "peacemaker" when your parents argue? 
  • Do you feel that either parent is so involved with his or her own problems or new relationships that your feelings or needs are often overlooked? 

These are but a few of the ways you may have been affected by your parents' divorce, and your answers to each of these questions can represent many issues. Your academic work, your present and future relationships, and even your emotional well-being may all be influenced by how you resolve problems and feelings associated with your parents' divorce. 

Basic Guidelines For Survival And Growth
The following tips on how to take care of yourself may serve as guidelines for personal self-care. Not all are applicable to every situation. Use them as they seem to fit for you. The first three guidelines are based on materials that appear in Mom's House, Dad's House by Isolina Ricci (reproduced by permission of the publisher). 

  1. Don't go through this period alone. Despite frequently touted ideals of rugged independence and making it alone, there is no particular virtue or benefit in going through a crisis completely alone. More realistically, isolation can raise already excessive stress levels, delaying your progress and possibly leading to later complications. Support and acceptance by other people are absolutely essential during big changes. 
  2. Care for yourself emotionally and physically. Adjustment to your parents' divorce takes enormous amounts of energy. If you don't take care of yourself, stress may get the upper hand. Listen to yourself, your emotions are not tyrants, but are parts of you that have a right to be heard and cared for. Make time for your inner self, for contemplation and for quiet time alone. Find safe ways to blow off steam, ways to let some of your tensions escape. Take time out for exercise, rest, and recreation. 
  3. Don't become an emotional junkie. People can get hooked on strong emotions such as anger, depression, grief, blame, guilt, hostility, or revenge. An emotional junkie doesn't work out feelings in safe or structured ways, but instead wants to keep the feelings. Emotional junkies wear their feelings like a badge of courage. To avoid becoming an emotional junkie, it is important to take stock of your emotions to see if they are truly expressions of how you feel or if they are habits, ways of getting attention, or ways to avoid other feelings. 
  4. Expect to experience a range of feelings. Individuals whose parents are divorcing or divorced often experience problems with concentration, feelings of sadness, anger, and depression. They may also be preoccupied with anxieties about the future, and with feelings of responsibility for one or more family members. Reactions like these are normal and healing takes time. Sharing hese feelings with others who have had similar experiences may be helpful. 
  5. Become informed about what is going to happen. Divorces frequently are accompanied by an absence of accurate, open communication with "children." It is important that you break this conspiracy of silence and talk directly with each of your parents. Discuss such matters as when the divorce will occur, who will be living where, and what changes, if any, will happen with your financial arrangements. Focus on what you need to know for your plans, not on information which is more properly in the private domain of each parent. 
  6. Keep clear of unhealthy alliances. Divorcing parents often slip into trying to get you to side with one against the other. This may be done blatantly, by openly criticizing and blaming the other parent, or subtly, by being more needy and vulnerable than the other parent and asking for excessive help or comfort. With few exceptions, these efforts by parents are designed either to get revenge against the "wrong doer" or to avoid the pain and anxiety of their own problems. To protect your own emotional well-being you will need to clearly and firmly refuse to be put in the middle. 
  7. Help your parents understand what you are trying to do for yourself. During a divorce and its aftermath, your parents may have difficulty seeing things clearly or being helpful to you. Your efforts at this time to help them understand what your experiences are and how you are trying to take care of yourself may prevent hurt feelings or misinterpretations of your actions. 
  8. Find out what works for you. Reactions vary widely to the situation of parental divorce. There are no foolproof methods for getting through it. So, pay attention to whatever you find helpful, to whatever allows you to stay involved in your own life productively without ignoring the feelings and issues raised by the divorce. Above all, try to avoid making major decisions and changes in your life plans. Your familiar surroundings, friends, activities, and plans will usually help you keep on the right path. 
  9. Learn to use helping resources outside your family. Families almost instinctively exclude or try to protect themselves from "outsiders" during a crisis. Your parents' divorce makes it especially important for you to be resourceful about other places and people who can help. Friends will listen, and written materials can help you better understand what's going on. In addition, established groups such as your church, self-help groups, and professional counselors can provide additional support in helping you through this time.

 

Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at  MetroSexual LA

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