The end of your marriage can wreak havoc on your mental health, even if you were unhappy in your relationship or are the one who wanted the divorce. We counsel couples and individuals as they navigate the trials and tribulations of the divorce and separation process. Here’s what you need to know.
The Complex Emotions of Divorce and Separation
The end of a relationship can spark a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Your marriage forms a core part of your identity. So when you go through the end of a relationship, you are also experiencing a significant disruption in your sense of self. Marriages, even bad ones, provide people with something to do, a sense of purpose, and hope for the future. Thus even the loss of a bad marriage can send you into a tailspin of confusion, sadness, and frustration.
It is normal to feel different, and completely conflicting, emotions from one moment to the next. You might find yourself so depressed you cannot get out of bed one day, only to be excited about your new-found independence the next. Some of the many emotions you can expect to experience as you navigate your journey into a new life include:
- Anger at your spouse for mistreating you during and after your separation, or for taking from you the life you thought you would have.
- Jealousy of your spouse’s new partner, and envy of the life your spouse has, especially if he or she is making more money, has a better job, or appears to be adjusting to the separation better than you have.
- Low self-esteem, particularly if your spouse is the one who sought the divorce.
- Depression over the loss of your partner and the life the two of you made together.
- Anxiety over the future. You may also feel anxiety if you are not sure what’s going to happen in your relationship, or if you hope to reconcile.
Joy at new-found independence.
- Fear of living alone, paying your bills on your own, or even of your spouse.
Understanding the Grieving Process
Decades of research into the grieving process suggest that grief follows a specific pattern. The stages of grief often include:
- Denial: In the early days, you may be in a state of shock. You might not believe your marriage is ending, or insist that, if you only try the right strategy, you can stop the divorce.
- Anger: Divorce is painful, but sometimes it is easier to get angry than sad. When you are struggling to accept that your life will look much different than you planned, it is natural to feel angry. You might also be angry at your spouse if he or she mistreated you, cheated, or has already moved on with a new partner. Newly divorcing couples are often surprised by how intense the anger they experience feels.
- Bargaining: During the bargaining stage, you may attempt to regain control. You might beg your spouse to come back or try to find ways to dull the pain of the divorce, such as by seeking revenge or fighting over custody of your children. You might also try to understand better why you are getting divorced, or tell yourself that if only you had done one thing differently, things would have been better. It is common for people in the bargaining stage to obsess over single conversations or long-since-irrelevant marital spats.
- Depression: As you move further into your journey out of your marriage, you will eventually come to realise that the changes in your life are permanent—and that they might not be easy. At this point, you may become depressed, hopeless, and even suicidal.
- Acceptance: At some point, you will grow to accept your divorce, and begin a new life. This eventually happens to almost everyone, even people who did not want the divorce or who could not imagine life without their spouse. In time, it is possible to adjust to almost anything.
You will not necessarily go through the stages of grief in any particular order, and you may move in and out of each stage several times. It is normal to spend more time in one or two stages; for example, some people spend a lot of time angry, but very little time in a state of denial. There’s no predetermined timetable for your grief, either. Some people move into acceptance within a matter of months. For others, it takes years.
The length of your marriage, your quality of life, your emotional health, how much support you have, how happy you are with your spouse, how contentious your divorce is, and numerous other factors can affect how quickly you grow to accept your divorce.
Why Your First Impulse Might Not Be Your Best
Trust your instincts. We have all heard it a thousand times. When you are going through a divorce, though, you might be better off ignoring your instincts. The grief of a divorce can spur you to behave in cruel, retaliatory, and profoundly self-destructive ways.
Remember: your feelings are not facts; just because you feel it does not make it true. Moreover, the fact that something feels good in the moment—like yelling at your spouse, sleeping with a stranger, or burning your ex’s clothes—does not mean it is good for you in the long-term.
These four principles can help you make wise choices when your feelings overwhelm you:
- The more time you spend with your spouse, the worse you may feel. That includes time spent fighting. Seek as much distance as you can.
- Retaliating against your spouse will ultimately make you feel more emotional, more out of control, and much worse.
- Staying busy is always a good choice. The depression of a divorce can pull you into a state of withdrawal that leaves you isolated and with little fulfilment. Force yourself to go to work, spend time with friends, and cultivate new hobbies, even when your pain tempts you to do nothing at all.
- Good physical health can help you feel better fast. Exercise, eat healthy foods and take 20 minutes each day to meditate or pray. Don’t forget the value of good sleep! Go to bed at the same time each night, and avoid oversleeping—even when sleep feels like the only break you get from the pain of your separation.
Triggers, Anniversaries, and Other Recurring Stressors: What You Need to Know
Grief is a funny thing. Even when you feel better or begin to accept your divorce, powerful emotions can come out of seemingly nowhere. Triggers are life events that remind you of the trauma of your divorce. Understanding this process can help you prepare, thereby reducing your pain. It is common to feel sad or angry when:
- Your wedding anniversary rolls around.
- The holidays mean embracing new traditions without your spouse.
- Your spouse begins dating someone new.
- You break up with your first post-divorce romantic partner.
- Your children appear to enjoy time with your spouse even without you.
- You are otherwise feeling depressed, angry, or vulnerable. Sometimes we look for things to justify our feelings. So if you have a bad day at work, you might start blaming your negative emotions on your divorce instead of your boss.
How Divorce and Separation Affect Mental Health
In the popular imagination, depression is a chemical imbalance. The truth is more complicated. Life events can trigger mental illness, or make the mental illness you already have worse. It is common to feel anxious, depressed, or obsessive when going through a divorce. However, for some people, the divorce triggers feelings they cannot seem to escape. Everyone can benefit from counselling during a divorce, but therapy can be particularly beneficial if:
- You feel suicidal.
- You cannot eat or sleep.
- You cannot concentrate.
- You do not enjoy activities you once found pleasurable.
- You have lost your sense of self.
- You are still very depressed a year after your separation.
How Counselling Can Help You Survive and Thrive
People facing difficult life events can be reluctant to seek counselling. “The problem is not me; it is my life.” So goes the thinking. The truth is that the way you think about your life affects how you feel. How you feel affects how you behave, and your behaviour can make your life better or worse. Counselling can help you:
- Find healthy coping strategies.
- Identify patterns in your past relationships that might cause problems in your next relationship.
- Understand your role in your divorce; no matter what your partner did, it is never just one person’s fault.
- Identify unhealthy thoughts and feelings.
- Feel supported by someone who will never judge you.
Counselling can even be a joint endeavour, during which you and your ex-devise strategies for divorcing in a less harmful way. In this approach, your counsellor serves as a mediator who helps you arrive at a better way of relating.
At Three Seas, we counsel individuals and couples at all stages of the divorce process. There’s a better life ahead of you. Let us show you how to find it.