Surviving the Breakup: Dealing with Grief

by BARBARA TALBOT, Ph.D.

Divorce involves many losses: the relationship, material possessions, family, friends, and social status. These must be grieved. There are three possible scenarios: a mutual decision, the wife initiates the divorce, or the husband initiates it. Very often the one who initiates the divorce seems to be handling the divorce process better and functioning with less difficulty than their spouse. This actually is not the case. The person who finally begins divorce proceedings does so after having thought about it for some time, and therefore has already done some preliminary grieving. Thus he or she is just further along in the process than the partner. Studies show that, in the long run, both people experience an equal amount of distress.

The grieving process in divorce is similar to mourning a death. Although divorce does not involve the physical death of a person, it is a death of a relationship, and must be mourned in a similar fashion. Social scientists define five tasks of mourning, and these can be extended to divorce.

Accepting the Reality of the Loss

Some people deny the actual loss itself. I.e, “We’ll get back together,” ‘This is only temporary,” etc. Others deny the meaning of the loss. In this way the loss is seen as less significant than it actually is. E.g., “The marriage was lousy” “I’m glad to be free of him or her” and so on. While there may be some truth in these statements, the reality is that even if it wasn’t a satisfying relationship, it still is a loss. Another way to deny the toss and not deal with the grief is to focus on something in an all-encompassing way. This might be work, or one might perhaps become heavily involved in another relationship.

Experiencing the Pain of the Feelings

The individual must acknowledge and work through these feelings if he or she is to be done with them. Time alone does not heal all wounds.

Sadness. This is the most common and universal response to loss of any kind. It may manifest itself in crying, not having energy, lack of interest in work or hobbies, social withdrawal, and feelings of loneliness and emptiness.

Anger. With the loss of any important person, there is a tendency to regress, to feel helpless, to feel unable to exist without the person, and to experience anxiety. A common reaction is to be angry at the person for making you feel this way. In addition, one will be angry at the spouse as a reaction to his or her hostile, hurtful, or inappropriate behavior

Fear. The divorced are afraid of being alone, and of not being able to find another mate. As they think about the truly negative and unsatisfying aspects of their previous relationship, they fear that they will never be able to find a gratifying one. They also fear growing old and being alone.

Guilt. A person feels guilty for causing the end of the relationship, and becomes self-reproachful and self-critical. “It’s all my fault.” ”If I hadn’t been such a nag, he or she never would have left”. Often these tendencies are played upon by the ex-spouse as a way of avoiding their own feelings of guilt.

Adjusting to a Change in Environment

The divorced person is no longer part of a couple, and must change his or her mindset from “we” to “me”. He or she must develop new skills and take on roles that formerly were performed by the partner Often fear and resentment are associated with this. Adjusting to an environment in which the ex-spouse is not an integral part can be taxing and difficult. However it also is an opportunity for growth.

Shifting Emotional Energy

The grieving person has to withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship. The essence of this is to detach, and not to hang onto the connection, either through hope of reconciliation, or bitterness and anger. This shift is important because, as long as one is emotionally attached to the former partner one cannot establish a new love relationship.

Monitoring “Self Talk”

The critical difference between people who adjust well to a divorce and those who don’t, lies in how they process what happens. They understand that they may not be able to control the events which caused the divorce, but they can control how the events affect them. What they tell themselves about the event determines the feelings that they have. People can look at an event negatively or more positively.

Loss of partner. “I’ve lost the only person I’ll ever love.” That’s just not true. Human beings have the capacity to love many people in the course of a lifetime, although it may be true that one can never love two people in an identical way. It may be more accurate to tell oneself “I know I have the capacity to love another person.”

Loss of self esteem. “I failed in my marriage”. No one person can ruin a marriage without the cooperation of the other party. One should recognize the mistakes he or she made, learn from them, and forgive oneself and the spouse. (One doesn’t have to agree with what the spouse did. But there is a need to let go of the anger so that it stops hurting oneself and using up energy needed for other things.) Instead of talking about one’s presumed failure, one should say: “I understand myself better now, and know what I want out of a relationship:’

Loss of friends. “Nobody invites me over anymore. It must mean that they really liked only my partner and I was just along for the ride” The grieving person needs to recognize that there are many reasons why people don’t invite him or her over. They don’t know if the grieving person feels up to it. They feel that they have to choose between one person and the spouse. They feel awkward about what to say or do. There is a need to talk to each of the old friends about these things, pointing out that you are the same person that you always have been, and that you are interested in maintaining the relationship. True friendships will survive. The positive viewpoint: “This is a unique opportunity to find out who my real friends are.”

Loss of money and prestige. “Now that I’m divorced, I have less money more bills, and not as nice a house.” Unfortunately that’s probably true. However, are money and social status more important than happiness and personal integrity? If one stays in a marriage for purely financial reasons, isn’t he or she selling oneself? How much is your happiness worth to you? Can a fine house compensate for being miserable in it? The message to oneself needs to be “What I’ve lost in material goods, I can more than make up for in personal satisfaction and well-being.”

“Loss” of children. It is impossible to lose one’s children unless a person gives upon having a real relationship with them, Quality of time together is more significant than the quantity of time spent together. Many divorced parents actually spend more alone time with their children than do parents in intact homes, The correct message to oneself should be: “My relationship with my children has changed, and we must adjust to that in a way that will foster closeness rather than distance”

Concluding Observations

One should recognize that divorce is a grievous loss, and respond appropriately. A person would not begin dating right after the funeral service of a spouse. Therefore a divorcing individual should take the time to go through the grief process. One probably should not get into another serious relationship for at least a year.

The divorced person needs to have realistic expectations. This includes recognizing that one’s life will change, and that superficial relationships will often be lost. It is useful if one does not take these matters personally, and if one sees them, not just as crises, but as opportunities.

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