Divorce — 05 October 2004
How to recover from the fallout of divorce

Divorce is a difficult and painful experience, even for those who initiate it. It is the outcome of lost hope, broken dreams, shattered love, and a deep personal failure. The process of separating two previously entwined lives, often with children, into two separate families comes at a heavy emotional price. The scars of this devastating experience are often long-lasting and impact future relationships. So how does a divorced person recover enough to become open and trusting of another partner?

The need to bond again is strong and the psychological benefits of doing it correctly the second time are compelling. It is estimated that 79% of divorced individuals remarry. The yearning for committed love and companionship drives people to attempt marriage again.

Though many people eventually gravitate toward rebuilding a new union, they arrive at it with the scars of the previous hurts and the fears about their new mates, themselves, and their safety.

Since the three minimum basic requirements for a lasting love are trust, respect and attraction, only the latter is instantly obvious. Commonly, the most damaging outcome of divorce is the impaired capacity to trust again.

In the first marriage trust may have been given freely and innocently. The lovers were drawn to each other, shared physical and emotional closeness, respected each other’s being and trusted their connection, devotion, and loyalty. As the marriage progressed, small and large disappointments may have eroded the respect and trust and reduced the attraction. When people’s needs are unmet, they feel unloved and may become soured towards their partners. Some unions gradually disintegrate, and short of help and efforts to the contrary, the marriage may fail.

Those who wisely seek assistance may reverse the damage to their relationship. Others who choose to divorce may begin an arduous, painful, and destructive process of dismantling that which they have so diligently built. For some divorcing pairs the war begins.

Once the word “divorce” is uttered as a wish of one side, the emotional earthquake of both parties begins. Divorce terminates the team approach and replaces the “we” with the “I”. Each party is then looking out for personal gains, often without regard for the impact they may have on the spouse’s situation.

There are some divorce agreements that are reasonably satisfactory to both mates. More commonly, however, people report feeling “taken advantage of”, “sent to the cleaners”, “ripped off”, “holding the short end of the stick”, or plain “cheated”. Regardless of the reality of the situation, the mere conviction of having been victimized, (sometimes felt by both parties of the same divorce), leaves them feeling charred.

Moreover, the sense of unfair division of financial assets, time with the children, reduction in lifestyle, loss of extended family connection, friends, social standing and self-esteem may leave people embittered.

I have heard some disgruntled divorced men say: “She got the house, the assets, the spousal and child support and I am left with the job of supporting her, though she never worked a day in her life.” This depiction is not factual, but is felt wholeheartedly and with deep resentments. The frustration and disempowerment of “having been taken to the cleaners”, may leave a scar of distrust toward the next woman.

Women, who are left with scars of divorce often describe the unfairness and inequity in which their former husbands still maintain their lifestyle, with little change, while the women now endure very compromised living conditions. They too have lost trust in the opposite gender’s capacity for fairness, loyalty, and decency.

The most infuriating aspect of divorce for both genders is access to the children. In reality both parents have less access to the children, since the day to day connection is disrupted. Though the biggest loss is to the children, parents bemoan reduced contact with the children as their greatest loss. Often one spouse blames to the other for dismantling the intact family.

Since trust and safety are often the two major hindrances to a new relationship, divorced people may want to consider the following:

  • Allow yourself enough time after the divorce to heal emotionally. You know that you are ready for a new partner, not when you desire companionship or sex, but when the painful emotions about the divorce are no longer acute.
  • Be receptive to the new relationship, without assuming that this partner will treat you in a similar manner to your divorced mate.
  • If you catch yourself generalizing about “men are” or “women are”, you are not ready to enter a new relationship yet.
  •  If old fears come up for you in the new relationship, speak about them to your new partner, while identifying their origin. Listen to your partner’s responses, they will guide you well.
  • Give the new relationship time to blossom, so that you can clearly see the new person as a unique and distinctive individual.
  • Trust your experience with the new partner and your intuitive sense (not wishful thinking) about his or her character. Experience is the best indicator for his or her reactions to stress.
  • Remember that though during divorce most people will resort to their less attractive traits to assure their greatest advantage, their usual personality may be quite different from their reaction under stress.
  • Holding on to resentments and a sense of victimization only damages you. It blocks you from being open, receptive and loving toward a new mate and hinders you from finding marital happiness.
  • The past is gone. Allow your present and future to be happy by elevating yourself to your highest functioning side.

September 26, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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