Dealing with Deception, Dissolution, and Divorce
This is the first post of a five-part relationship series that covers a range of topics about dealing with relationship conflict—we will be covering infidelity, breakups, divorce, managing a partner’s mental health issues, managing negative thoughts and obsessions about your relationships, and getting unstuck in your relationships. Many of these topics were inspired by our readers, so keep sending us your thoughts- we love hearing from you!
What are the most recent rates of divorce in the U.S.? According to the National Survey of Family Growth (conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)(1), 20% of marriages reported by women between 15-44 years of age from 2006-2010 ended in divorce by 5 years, and 48% of them ended by 20 years. The statistics are not more optimistic for those who remarry, as there was a 31% probability that the second marriage ended in divorce by 5 years, and 46% probability by 10 years. Despite what these statistics may imply, there is consistent scientific evidence that many people cope successfully with divorce-related stress, and that the effects on children are short-lived. Today’s post will highlight general tips for managing breakups and divorce.
Take time to process the loss.
Breakups can result from multiple reasons. Regardless of how it happens, breakups represent a loss. Loss events can be great sources of stress, so it is important to process the thoughts and emotions that come from them to move through them successfully. Even if the decision to separate is mutual, taking the time to think about what was not working well in the relationship gives you a chance to learn from the experience and not repeat the same mistakes next time. It also helps you learn about your needs in a relationship, which of those needs you feel your partner should prioritize, and which needs you are capable of giving to someone else.
Recent work by Naomi Eisenberger at the University of California, Los Angeles showed that the experience of social pain shares the same neural representations (in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) as the emotional experience of physical pain, thus giving meaning to the term, “feeling hurt” by social rejection (2). It makes sense that our brains are wired to experience social pain just like physical pain because social pain is just as detrimental to us as a species. This kind of adaptation makes us better able to connect with others socially and avoid the pain of social exclusion. All of this research validates our experience that breakups are actually painful, and whenever you experience pain, your body is trying to tell you to stop, take a pause, and try to heal.
If the major impetus for breaking up is infidelity, there are good reasons to take time to process the divorce. If you are the one who cheated, there may be valuable lessons to be learned about the factors motivating your reasons to break your relationship commitments. If you are the one who was cheated on, there may also be important things to process about communicating your needs and ensuring they are met. Seeing a counselor or therapist may be a good way to process these thoughts with an objective party.
Confront negative emotions and avoid avoidance.
This relates to the above point, and posts I’ve written on before about cultivating good emotional health. Breakups stir up so many emotions at once—guilt, sadness, loss, confusion, anger—and although it may feel like a natural response to push these emotions away, this may lead to negative consequences in the long term. Think Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt's character) in The Girl on the Train, who drank away her sadness and jealousy over her ex husband’s new wife and child. Emotional and cognitive avoidance just puts a bandaid on the underlying problem, and also teaches your brain that you can’t handle distress. Doing the work to self-reflect and confront your negative emotions and thoughts will ultimately gain you a sense of mastery and strength from an otherwise adverse experience.
Keep all else constant.
This is a generally good principle to follow during any life stress event, in order to retain a sense of stability in other areas. If you and your partner are considering divorce, it would be especially helpful from an emotional but also time management perspective to devote resources to managing the separation process rather than also trying to move homes, change jobs, have a child, or make any other major life decisions.
It is normal during breakups to experience guilt and anger toward yourself, and even blame yourself for things going wrong in the relationship. However, a recent study published in Psychological Science (titled: “When Leaving Your Ex, Love Yourself”)(3) suggests that the ability to be kind to oneself during distressing events, also known as self-compassion, is associated with long-term positive outcomes following marital separation. Studies have also shown that fostering self- and other-directed forgiveness can improve mood symptoms after divorce.
This is consistent with a growing body of literature showing the health benefits of positive emotions in promoting resilience especially during distressing times. This seems to be a particularly helpful skill to practice if the major impetus for breaking up was infidelity, although all of the above tips may be helpful. Infidelity destabilizes the foundation of trust in relationships, and there is compassion to be practiced on both the side of the perpetrator as well as the victim.
Experiment with different coping strategies.
Studies in major medical and science journals are done on large groups of people, and no data are better than the kind you collect on your own. During this time of separation, use yourself as the subject of your own experiment to determine which coping strategies work the best for soothing yourself.
You might try changing one thing at a time—walking to work for a week, doing a new exercise class for a month, making an effort to visit friends who live further away to reconnect, journaling—whatever you think will help you gain a sense of control over your emotions.
You can also experiment with practicing “incompatible” behaviors. You might learn that making yourself get up and clean the dishes when you’re stuck in a crying spell feels better than letting yourself cry it out for the rest of the night. In essence, don’t rely on the statistics, but make the changes you want to see for yourself, and test them out. You know yourself the best and you are capable of figuring out what you need to feel better.
1. Copen, C. E., Daniels, K., Vespa, J., & Mosher, W. D. (2012). First marriages in the United States: Data from the 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth. National Health Statistics Reports, 49, 1-21.
2. Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt: An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.
3. Sbarra, D. A., Smith, H. L., & Mehl, M. R. (2012). When leaving your ex, love yourself: Observational ratings of self-compassion predict the course of emotional recovery following marital separation. Psychological Science, 23, 261-269.
By Angela Fang, Ph.D. - Expert Psychologist