The decision to end a marriage is huge. Sometimes there are compelling reasons to do so, and it’s a healthy conclusion to protracted pain and suffering.
Sometimes marriages end because couples get frustrated by the inevitable emotional gridlock that intimate relationships create. All couples eventually encounter emotional fusion and power struggles; some can get beyond this and create thriving relationships. Others lack the tools, stamina or wherewithal, and are ready to part.
And because our culture encourages wildly unrealistic expectations of marriage and intimacy, we are programmed for disappointment and heartache.
If you’re feeling ambivalent, it can be helpful to seek couples counseling before a final decision. Often this can produce changes that are sufficient to sustain and improve the marriage.
If one or both partners decide to separate, the result is distressing, disruptive and disorienting, even if you’re the one who wants to leave.
This Feels Crazy
Ending a marriage initiates a whirlwind of powerful emotions and impulses. You’ve probably never felt this level of intensity, and the feelings can be frightening because of the depth of emotion. Have you ever felt this abandoned or guilty or enraged—or free?
Building on Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief as a guide, here’s what you might expect:
Denial: A tendency to dissociate from one’s feelings; an inability to let it all in because it’s overwhelming and unbelievable.
Pain and Fear: Divorce represents a loss of attachment to your primary connection. This is true even if you’ve been in conflict or are disengaged. That includes:
- loss of a shared vision of the future
- fear about being alone
- loss of self-confidence
- fears about one’s sexual attractiveness or about having sex again at all
Anger: Anger and probably rage at times also; looking for blame, especially if there’s been an affair.
Bargaining: This is a common reaction to loss and grief, a way to mitigate the full impact of the loss.
Guilt: A pervasive sense of your life feeling shattered, consumed with thoughts of what you could have done differently to prevent this.
Depression and Anxiety: This is to be expected, but if accompanied by feelings of profound helplessness, worthlessness, hopelessness, difficulty eating or sleeping, panic, or despair—please seek professional help.
PTSD: If this loss triggers old, unresolved losses that cause you to experience flashbacks, dissociation, or unrelenting numbness—seek professional help.
Acceptance: Eventually this will happen, as you recognize your own resiliency, that you can and will make it, that you will survive this.
Communication and Self-Care
Separation produces a ripple effect in your personal, familial, social, and professional communities at a time when you are raw and vulnerable.
As challenging as this is, it’s important to come from your best self, especially if children are involved. (At least to have that as your goal!) It’s normal to feel like you want your children to know the truth—your truth—but you really don’t. It is best for children to preserve positive feelings about both parents. They will eventually grow into adults and will probably figure out who their parents are—often with the help of my profession. And they will appreciate how you handled this crucial time in their lives.
If communicating with your spouse is difficult, keep it short and to the point. Use email if conversations escalate. Using a trained therapist to facilitate important conversations can be helpful. In extreme cases, you can have your attorneys communicate.
In other relationships, exercise good boundaries and choose ones that empower you and help you cope.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of good self-care as you go through this challenging time: sleep, exercise, healthy eating and moderation. You’re not going to feel any better than the level of care you’re giving to yourself. As you’ll come to realize, this is an opportunity to redefine yourself, to become more clearly who you are. So start off by being really good to yourself and paying attention to what really matters.
Elizabeth Perwin, LCSW-C is a panelist on our Second Saturday Divorce Workshops for Women in Bethesda and has a private practice in Silver Spring, MD. She specializes in couples by helping individuals going through difficult life transitions to lead with the best in themselves, whether they stay in the relationship or decide to part.