Divorce - gateway to the future or trapdoor to the past?
Divorce is a known major life-changing event which is often associated with psychological problems such as depression and anxiety, with unhelpful coping strategies emerging (or re-emerging) in the scrabble to cope with very high stress levels. Furthermore, the period during the divorce through to the first two years afterwards is the time of most acute stress when the massive changes in life circumstances, the loss of familiarity and changes in self-image (who was I to you?) test the ability to cope and adjust.
There are a number of reasons for this. Divorce is often adversarial which triggers issues around survival as it’s not known what will be the subject of dispute and loss. When the basic components of life as it has been lived up to that point are up in the air (finances, home, contact with children) it’s not surprising that mental health problems can result. Unfortunately, the process often also leads to the splitting of friendship groups and family alliances. This can lead to further losses of emotional and practical support, as well as creating additional shock and bereavement to manage in addition to the original loss of the marriage itself.
For many women the loss of financial support, protective social status and a partner to share in the workload is deeply stressful and can often lead to juggling between impossible conflicting priorities. For many men who are often separated from the family unit, the loss of family status and ordinary contact with the children can lead to feelings of isolation, meaninglessness and potentially a diminishing of emotional investment in the children which is extremely painful for all concerned.
For divorcing parents, whilst the personal relationship has ended, the parenting relationship continues. The ex-partners often have to work around the issues which often led to the split in the first place as well as the feelings arising from the divorce process itself. This can be particularly difficult where there has been an affair.
For others divorcing in later years when the children have left home, one partner in the relationship may decide that the relationship has run out of steam. It may come as a considerable shock to start again in later life with all the re-adjustment and change that will bring.
Given the above, feelings about new relationships in either direction can be strong, pushing us into a relationship quicker than we are really ready for, or alternatively making us averse to the possibility of it. However, research shows that long term positive outcomes post divorce are associated (amongst other important factors) with the formation of a new, loving, supportive relationship with a stable partner. But to what extent can our new relationships avoid the pitfalls of the past and to what extent can we make something stronger and better?
Individual divorce counselling can help by understanding what was the ‘unconscious couple fit’ or underlying dynamic between the couple, helping individuals to work out a new divorce ‘story’ based on a realistic and deeper understanding of what happened at the psychological and emotional level.
When we know where we are and how we got there, including our contribution to it, we are in a better position to work out the future direction. This may lead to new goals emerging and the identification of new skills which we need to learn. In this way, the divorce can potentially become the beginning of a more positive and hopeful future.