The Stigma of D-i-v-o-r-c-e:
Shonnie Brown, MFT

Each time I begin a new Separation and Divorce group I anticipate the echoing of certain familiar themes. Most of the people who contact me have been abandoned very abruptly, without any substantial discussion, with no real understanding of "what went wrong" and certainly no closure. These people come to therapy anguished by the fact that they've had no opportunity to express in the presence of the abandoning partner their broad range of deeply wounded and explosive feelings. They suffer with huge self-esteem/self-blame and betrayal issues. It often takes years for them to regain trust because of the deep sense that an inviolate bond was ruptured. Unanswered questions disrupt and suspend the grief process and previously unresolved losses are now magnified in therapy. People left in this manner have a great need for understanding what happened, but usually they will never understand and the lack of closure becomes a part of the loss. When the partner is also in another relationship, the grief of abandonment is even more complicated by a deeper level of betrayal.

In the first meeting of the group, I encourage each participant to share a little of their story:
  • Kristina: "My husband of 22 years left me last month. I had no suspicions, saw no clues and I had no say in it. I came home from work one day and Joe blurted out that he was in love with somebody that he had 'met online' and was leaving me and our two teenagers immediately. He's been my best friend for 22 years. I don't know what to do. I don't want to live without him. I'm going crazy!"

  • Jeanine: "My husband of 15 years recently declared that he wants a divorce. He can't really tell me why. He just says that he's unhappy in our marriage and wants to find himself before it's too late. This is all news to me because I thought we were happy. He wants to stay in the house and is sleeping in our guest room until the divorce is final. He's gone a lot more now and doesn't talk about where he goes at night. I don't know what to do."

  • Gene: "It's my fault for not being a better husband and not seeing that my wife was unhappy. I thought that earning a good living for the two of us was enough. I'm not a good listener and I do like to relax with a couple of beers and the TV when I get home from work. She's never had a job and doesn't understand how I need to just chill after a 10 hour workday. Now she's 'fallen in love' with a guy in her exercise class that I didn't even know existed. She is not willing to give us another try. She's done with me and my life is ruined."
These typical stories are never easy to hear. During the past decade that I've been specializing in separation and divorce, I have found that most people's divorce tales express the same few themes voicing incredible loss, suffering, shame, and the far reaching effects of that feared and hated word: divorce. What continues to amaze me as a therapist, more than why people marry or even why they separate, is why they separate in the manner that they do.

Karen's story is another familiar scenario: a partnership in which both individuals are really ambivalent about ending the marriage. These divorces are painfully frustrating for everyone (including the therapist!) because of the push/pull dynamic that is played out sometimes for years. These couples are often enmeshed, wanting differentiation, yet afraid to end the relationship. In the case of Karen and her husband, they shared a business and many mutual interests, good sex and intimacy, but he wanted to date others. During the months that I worked with Karen, she was continuously on and off with the legal divorce process, and they continued "dating" each other and having sex sporadically. Karen was unable to be angry or do the grief work needed to move on and they were both hindered by their inability to commit or separate.
    Karen: "He wants to 'experiment with other relationships' but he's never mentioned divorce. I told him he'd have to move out, but he comes home almost every day to visit and to get his mail and he keeps his computer and many of his clothes at the house. I know I'm his best friend and I think if I'm just patient he may have a change of heart and come home to me. Right now I don't know what he's thinking because we don't talk about it. Sometimes I think I should just give up on him."
I have seen over and over again that the loss of the day to day relationship formed by years of living together and being "best friends" is such a devastating one that one or both partners will work hard to keep anything familiar intact. For many, the unfamiliar is the most feared obstacle to moving on. But the unfamiliar loses its terror when a new life is already lined up. Then risk taking often looks easy, as in Brenda's story:
    Brenda: "Robert was always dependent on me in so many ways that I can't believe what he's done. Although he was a very private person, he never talked about being unhappy until one day, after 27 years, he declared his desire to divorce. The day the divorce was settled he moved out of state with his office clerk. Now he will not even speak to me or give me his address. I have no idea what I did wrong."
When there is a relationship between a substance abuser (or one who is emotionally or physically abusive) and a clearly co-dependent partner, the marriage often ends in one of two ways: (1) The "co" meets an idealized person who offers hope of a much better life and this becomes the catalyst for self-realization and extraction from years of silent suffering; or (2) the addictive/abusive partner just suddenly disappears and starts a new life with or without a new partner. Sheryl, for instance, stayed for years with an alcoholic and emotionally abusive husband in order to "keep our business together." One day she came home from work to find many valuable belongings missing and no husband and no message. She said that she knew he had left her because of what was missing. She eventually tracked him down but he refused to participate in closure with her at any level. She never knew why he left or why he left when he did. What was his impetus? Under examination in group therapy, we came to realize that there had never been communication or intimacy between them, yet there had not been separateness either.

Of course the most complicated type of separation is one which involves children because they become the field upon which the battle is fought as well as the justification for keeping the separation process a forever ongoing one. As might be expected, the partner who has been left with the children often loses appropriate generational boundaries in their over identification with the abandonment and has a difficult time maintaining a parental role. Other "leavees" become super-parents in their over-identification and must know where the child is every minute. The "leaver" is, however, also often overwhelmed by how much he/she feels has been lost by the separation. A painful story is that of Paul:
    Paul: "She got everything and I got nothing. She kept our family home where our boys live most of the time because I couldn't stand for them to lose their friends along with everything else. She has a new relationship and the support of her parents as well, and I just feel replaced. I've had to move back in with my parents and take a job I don't even like just to afford to have my kids part time. I'm very angry about the new situation and jealous of what they all have. I feel like an outsider with my own family. I can't compete with what she can offer them and I feel very insecure. I really paid a price for finally getting out of a painful marriage."
Lost in their pain, parents forget to allow children their own grief process. Divorcing adults tend to greatly underestimate the impact of divorce on kids and the huge emotional investment in reconciliation that children have (they've lost their family!). A primary goal for divorcing parents in a support group is to do their own emotional work in an atmosphere that is separate from the children and to gain strength from their peers that in turn helps them model strength to their children.


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