Divorce — 16 January 2005
The many losses of divorce

The decision to divorce is a very hard. It involves breaking up a family and shattering a past. Divorce is painful, mind altering, emotionally wrenching and a life-impacting event. Everyone who has experienced divorce can attest to its devastating pain. The losses are too many to fully enumerate, but it is important to discuss a few.

The most obvious loss is that of the committed love connection. Marriage is intended to last a lifetime. The dream of devoted love is stated in familiar phrases: “happily ever after” “through thick or thin”, “ in sickness and in health”, “ til’ death do us part”. Divorce shatters the picture of wholeness, love and togetherness forever.

When children are involved, the devastating effects of divorce on the children further compound the loss of the family. Here, not only do the spouses lose their quest for stable love, they see the effect of its loss on their children. The young, helpless victims of the family’s break up are left to gather the pieces of the “emotional earthquake” they experience. As the parents watch their children suffer, their own pain deepens.

Belonging is the first psychological need after the basic physiological needs of food, shelter and clothing have been met. We crave being a part of a social unit that provides us with identity, security and membership rights. Divorce, splits apart the nuclear family, which is the smallest unit of society’s social order.

The loss of belonging is traumatic. The prior connection to a family unit, and the membership in the special small group, (“We are The Harris’s”), is no longer intact. Each member of the family may still have the same last name, but the unit lost its’ cohesiveness.

As the family constellation gets reorganized after the divorce, many rituals, routines, habits and family traditions are also lost. The customary visits with the extended family, shared holidays, special birthday celebrations, vacations and outings are all altered. Now mom takes the kids skiing during her Christmas with the children to create a new tradition, while Dad chooses new vacation sites to help the children find non-previously associated pleasures. The loss to the couple, the children and the extended family is felt by all.

During divorce an individual’s personal title within the context of the family is also lost. One is no longer someone’s wife or husband. The new title society provides is a ‘divorced man’ or a ‘divorcee`’. This designation only accentuates the lost connection. One is now apart from a former mate, i.e. partner less. Many divorced people shudder at their new, unwelcome title. They fear that this new social position portrays them as having been rejected, cast away, undesirable, or unfit to be loved. Though they may not view themselves this way, they fear the stigma that may be unfairly applied to them.

The losses of affiliation, title and connectedness to a partner often bring along the loss of social belonging. The previous circle of friends shrinks rapidly as one becomes divorced. Couples prefer to socialize with other couples and an additional person often feels as a “fifth wheel”. With time, the old circle is left with only a few active spokes.

The physical environment of both partners is altered after a divorce. There is “Dad’s place” and “Mom’s place”, neither of which feels like home. Even if one parent continues to occupy the family residence, many of the belongings and furnishings are gone and the new space signifies the absence of the other parent. “It doesn’t feel like home anymore. It is still the same house, but Dad does not come home from work anymore and Mom cries a lot,” said a tearful eleven year old. The parent who moved out usually lives more modestly in a temporary environment that may feel uninviting to the children.

If all these losses are not enough, the loss of clarity about the future is another daunting challenge. The homemaker may need to re-train for employment, the finances of the newly reconstructed family may be strained, the emotional support of the union is gone and the future often appears uncertain. Both mates have to make all their decisions individually without the wisdom of their former teammate. Some individuals welcome the autonomy and freedom, while others are bound by fear and worries.

Emotionally, each partner is alone. Even if one of them or both quickly establish a new connection, the history of the original couple is lost. The experiences, the shared joys and pains, the funny events and occurrences, their unique language and humor and the family culture are no more. Each mate will have to recreate a new culture with another person and that takes time and a lot of emotional energy.

When people decide to divorce they may want to consider the following:

• Whether you initiate the divorce, or are the recipient of the decision, you will experience emotional pain, even if you initially feel relieved and free.
• Realize that both of you will suffer many losses. Among them are: loss of dreams, a family unit, extended family connection, title and role, a sense of belonging, social circle, routines and rituals, family culture and history, familiar physical surroundings, self identity, and clarity about the future.
• Your children are likely to dislike and disapprove of the divorce choice and may feel disenfranchised, abandoned and displaced. Be attentive to their pain.
• No one is prepared for the experience of divorce and everyone may benefit from help during this period of adjustment. Avail yourself and your children to professional help to alleviate some of the pain and reduce emotionally costly errors.
• Recovering from the trauma of divorce takes time. However, most people overcome the acute pain of the losses and eventually rebuild their lives and feel happy again.

1/16/05

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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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