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Coping with Divorce and Thriving Again

Some clients presenting for consultation at my practice are coping with such a major and life-altering transition as divorce. Divorce rates are on the rise once again.

A new statistical growth trend has been found among the 50 and older demographic group, although clearly divorce does occur at any life stage and posits complex psychological dilemmas.

I first became interested in the issue of coping with divorce during my graduate studies and spent several semesters doing formal research which culminated in the publication of a thesis. A particular research angle I pursued at the time had to do with understanding the so-called “attributional styles” and their impact on post-divorce outcomes in terms of well-being of my research subjects. Attributional styles (internal versus external) appear to be closely connected with how individuals perceive the impact of divorce on their lives and how they cope with it.

While it is outside the scope of the present article to address the mechanism of internal and external attribution in depth, I will mention that the internal style (consistent with an abiding belief in one’s own internal resources and resilience) is closely linked to adaptive navigation of divorce and thriving in the subsequent chapters of one’s life.

Divorce entails different meanings and “rites of passage”. There are many individual (and situational) variables that therapists review with clients and take into account when developing a treatment plan and formulating our recommendations for clients.

Both men and women experience multiple challenges associated with being divorced. One such challenge is the loss of a support network when allegiance to mutual friends becomes impossible and friends are “divided”. Divorced individuals may experience a type of stigmatization and shame not known to their married/never married counterparts.

Divorce contributes to social isolation and development of depression and other mental health issues. In this context, seeking therapy means that you finally get someone “in your corner”, someone on your side, someone who will accept you unconditionally and treat you as an individual of infinite value and dignity. This is a welcome reprieve from the less-than-dignified ordeal of divorce.

Many individuals who have experienced divorce have also experienced untreated and unaddressed depression and anxiety, among other conditions (yes, for some it’s even PTSD). This often happens because there is further (and arguably deeper) stigma attached to being “mentally ill” in our society than simply divorced. This “double whammy” of an experience, however, is without a doubt amenable to therapeutic intervention. The earlier one seeks therapy, the brighter the prognosis. This is because recurrent and severe depression often needs a higher level of care than a single depressive episode. In general, depression (so-called “Major Depressive Disorder”) is diagnosed based on the totality of presented symptoms over but a two-week period of time. A “typical” divorce, however, lasts at least several months, to create a context for this particular diagnosis.

In search of becoming whole again, so to speak, individuals have to re-learn about autonomy: learning to thrive and develop without a spouse to lean on (and also without anyone to blame!). In the post-divorce expanse, individuals learn to rebuild their self-esteem, properly grieve their losses, adaptively disentangle from ongoing conflict, manage their deep anger, heal the hurt feelings, treat any depression, and rebuild social relationships, including the pursuit of new romantic interests.

The experience of being in therapy will undoubtedly be different for everyone. There are multiple variables at play. Firstly, “the chemistry” between you and your therapist is very important (Do you believe you are a good team together? Is there a “goodness of fit”?). Secondly, your understanding of your role and responsibilities while in therapy will weigh heavily (Are you willing to work hard or do you expect to just sit comfortably and have the therapist “talk at you” for an hour instead?). Thirdly, the strength of your commitment to the therapeutic process (understanding that a “quick fix” is not a realistic expectation and is simply not forthcoming, in spite of any wishes for one). This is only a short list of some of the “ingredients” that make for a successful therapeutic alliance (or, conversely, make you want to change your mind about therapy: “Do I have to?....”).

You are likely to experience uncomfortable (and sometimes very painful) thoughts and feelings that accompany this ultimately healing process. Another area of discomfort may arise when your therapist “confronts” you and your embedded thought patterns that you take for granted because you consider them your very foundation, your “bedrock” structure.

Overall, psychotherapy is not a “fun” experience, unlike, let’s say, karaoke or camping. I am being facetious, but this is an important disclosure about this process, which for many, in spite of the discomfort, ends up being extremely rewarding.

Divorce is a difficult and exhausting process. You may be alone in your suffering, silently yet needlessly. Do reach out for help! It will take some courage to admit that some things are just too difficult to manage by yourself. There is no shame in having depression or going through divorce and taking advantage of all the resources at your disposal to help you survive and thrive again!

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