The Unilateral Divorce
Shonnie Brown, MFT

The Leaver:
  • Often has had a secret plan to leave for some period of time (possibly years)

  • Long preparations may include future life plan, new lover, intricate financial planning, geographical relocation

  • Is not receptive to hearing or processing the partner's feelings or emotional response

  • May become completely unavailable by cutting off direct communication, refusing to talk or meet; sometimes "hides" with no address and no response to calls or letters

  • Wants to rush through divorce process and pushes for quick financial, property, and custody resolutions

  • Often is willing to surrender assets and property out of guilt or has well developed financial plan to take care of self

  • Is perceived by leavee as "changing into a stranger overnight": often seems harsh, emotionally detached, uncaring, businesslike, with sudden rigid boundaries
My observations of a person who leaves a long term relationship in this manner are these: Ambivalence and vulnerability do not support a decision to leave. The leaver feels he or she must "hang tough" in order to accomplish the separation. This includes a cut off from warm feelings and an avoidance of painful emotional processing. So often there is an over compensation which looks and feels like harsh indifference developing overnight! In my opinion, this is actually a denial of any painful feelings or loss that might make one vulnerable.

Unfortunately, this rigid indifference is extremely disconcerting and painful to the leavee who needs to talk and come to some understanding. For the leaver, the cut-off of feelings denies a big part of their life. Left unprocessed, this cut-off is not healthy. Feelings of guilt and lack of closure go into the unconscious and may manifest in future relationships. Even when a leaver feels truly "finished" in the relationship and has nothing more to say, the lack of mutual closure adversely affects both.

The Leavee:
  • Initial period of shock or numbing may also manifest as depression, despair, hysteria

  • Length of time of numbing varies

  • Feels pushed to make financial agreements, refuses to deal with legal matters and takes a passive approach; unconcerned with fair division of assets or too quick to agree with "whatever he wants"; feels powerless, doesn't take care of self financially

  • Numb—can't cry or express anger, needs to come out of numbing and feel grief and rage

  • Is still invested in taking care of former partner (especially with women), still sees oneself as partnered

  • Depression, thoughts of suicide, extreme dependency, no vision of survival alone are all common

  • Often a deep resistance develops to taking charge of one's life and being pro-active
A partner who is left suddenly and without mutual discussion or agreement feels totally disempowered. This hugely affects self-esteem and ability to trust. Lack of closure, aging, lack of occupational skills and/or work experience greatly add to risk of depression and extreme hopelessness. There is much more likelihood of delayed dissatisfaction with legal and custody agreements when decisions are pushed and made hastily. It takes a long period of time for the reality of the separation to set in and to make agreements that will still feel fair down the road.

Recommendations for Leaver and Leavee:

Have closure in whatever way possible. Closure is a process and takes time. The value of closure is that it helps discharge unexpressed emotions and gives one the sense of having said what needs to be said. Below is a hierarchy of suggested closures with the most beneficial being first:
  • Direct mutual closure with therapist or other neutral professional

  • Face-to-face closure without third person, leaver allowing leavee to express his/her feelings

  • Indirect closure through mutual exchange of letters

  • Closure with compassionate others in support group (if partner refuses to participate in closing process)

  • Closure in individual therapy through discharging feelings, writing letters, journaling, dream work and ritual
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