Divorce can be worse than bereavement
On countless occasions clients have told me that it would have been easier if their partner had died than if they had been divorced.
I agree. Most lists of life’s most stressful situations put ‘death of a loved one’ and ‘divorce’ at the top, with ‘death of a loved one’ coming first. But the truth is that, depending on the circumstances, divorce can be worse than the death of a spouse.
Divorce and death of a spouse have a lot in common. Both involve massive loss and each can leave us disbelieving, angry, anxious and depressed. But then there are specific issues which apply to divorce and mean that a divorcing client will have special needs from the therapist.
Of course, much depends on the particular person, but they will tend to need a mix of emotional support and processing and coaching in practical steps. They will need the emotional resolution of answering questions such as “how did this happen?”, “how did we individually contribute to this divorce?”, “what have I lost?”, “what do I do with my anger?”, “how do I contain my anxiety as to what happens next?”, “how do I regain my confidence?” and “how do I regain trust?”
But divorce has other particular twists, precisely because the ex-husband or wife has not died and they can get in the way of practical and emotional progress. Even in the best scenarios they need to be considered in any arrangement with might concern them. At the other end, ex-spouses can be awkward, difficult or impossible, and their very presence can be a continuing reminder of the unhappiness the client is trying to get over.
Anger is a big issue here: directed not only at the former spouse, but also at the friends who do not understand or have taken sides. Plus the sheer discomfort of the new and unwanted situation can also cause huge anxiety. Chances are that the client will be finding it hard to see the wood for the trees. The client and therapist have to think their way through new parenting issues, how to meet new people, financial matters, getting a job, how to entertain and, of course, how to avoid loneliness. Some clients need to learn how to keep house, buy clothes for the kids and talk to their teachers; how to pay the bills.
What therapy can do
These are all things which create massive blockages for the divorced person, who may, emotionally speaking, be running on empty. Here, the role of the therapist is to help clients to manage their anxiety in the face of life’s obstacles, and ultimately to show them how to do this themselves. The main thing is to ensure that the loss which you have suffered does not kill your spirit. After an unhappy time, divorce can be a great springboard from which to lead the rest of your life and you have to learn how to make the dive.
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About Leslie Sheinman
Dr Leslie Sheinman is a counsellor and psychotherapist working in London W1. Formerly a solicitor and senior academic, he has a particular interest in the issues of divorcing and separating clients.