What No One Tells You About Divorce by Martha Pitman
“We don’t always arrive where we intended to go” Tova Mirvis
Life often can throw us unexpected curve balls, and one of the most challenging that people may have to deal with is divorce. Divorce is a major life-altering event. Life as we have known it ceases, and we are thrust into unknown territory, which can be a frightening experience. For many, it is a very destabilizing period, with a roller coaster of emotions. Divorce is change, and change means loss, and loss can be very painful. It doesn’t matter whether you are the initiator or the person being left, a spouse can have very conflicting and unsettling emotions to cope with – guilt, relief, anger, anxiety, abandonment, rejection, self-doubt, sadness. For many, there is a profound grieving process to go through – a mourning of the loss of a spouse, an identity and scripted role, and their hopes and vision for the future. When we end a marriage, we are saying goodbye not only to the bad parts, but also the good.
The initial period of disbelief and numbness is a coping mechanism to deal with overwhelming feelings. For some, there may be a measure of relief, after years of trying to keep the marriage boat afloat. When reality starts to sink in, a person can feel as if they have been catapulted off a cliff. There is a sense of free-falling – the scaffolding of a life that has been built up over many years seems to give way, and one has to find the coping skills and new ways to move forward. When people divorce, they are not just leaving a marriage, they are leaving a way of life, and it takes recovery, time and effort to rebuild a new life.
Later-life divorces, especially if they come after decades of marriage, have some unique challenges. They often occur when people are also dealing with the transition associated with retirement. People lose the day-to-day social contact with co-workers, and work-based friendships. There is also the daily structure and routine that is often not missed until it is no longer there.
One big change that divorcing spouses often don’t anticipate, is the impact it has on friendships. They often find that the couple friendships they had don’t survive a divorce. They are no longer part of the “married couples’ ” club. Sadly, intentionally or not, some friends seem to abandon them; others may be judgmental. Also, it is more difficult to make friends after retirement, especially if a person is introverted, and has not developed outside social interests.
If there are adult children and grandchildren, family relationships often become more complicated to navigate. The once-upon-a-time happy family get-togethers become instead a juggling act for the adult children to accommodate their separated parents, especially during holidays. In some cases, especially with acrimonious divorces, the children can have conflicting loyalties.
Later-life divorces, of course, occur when we are also dealing with aging issues. For some, that may also mean health issues. For many, even if in good health, reduced stamina and a less robust body can be challenging. Many may find that they are less comfortable with change as they get older, and divorce creates major changes in many aspects of life. After divorce, there is no longer a spouse to provide support if one gets sick – such as buying groceries, preparing meals, or providing care.
At least one spouse is going to have to find another place to call home. This in itself can be a very stressful transition, because of the memories and attachments associated with a place they possibly loved. There is also the sheer effort required to find a new place to live, orchestrate a move, and create a living environment that feels safe, welcoming, and comfortable.
Self-esteem and self-confidence take a big hit when divorcing. One’s identity as a wife or husband, and all that it signifies, ceases. And it’s an extra whammy when we are also ending our working life roles – with the status, ego boosting, and identity associated with what we do and where we work.
Loneliness is often an issue facing many who divorce later in life. Not only has retirement resulted in a loss of the social interaction of co-workers, but also children have grown-up and (presumably) “left the nest”. For some parents, adult children and their families may live far away. Compounding this is the shift in friendships that typically occurs after divorce. Our brains are wired for connection. Home can suddenly seem like a very quiet and lonely place, especially if someone has spent most of his/her adult life being married, and has never lived alone as a single. There is no longer a partner to discuss the minutiae of daily life, and who has a shared history of memories. People can miss a marriage, even if they know it must end.
Finances are a challenge for many, who might now be on a fixed income. For some, a major adjustment in life-style is required. In any case, it is another transition to deal with, especially if a person depended on their spouse to manage the finances. Another possible concern is the issue of health insurance. If an individual’s health insurance has been included on their spouse’s work policy, it will be terminated with divorce. A separate policy will be required, which can be very expensive, and possibly also provide less coverage.
It is understandable how the accumulations of losses and necessary changes with a divorce can become overwhelming. Recovery is not a short process, nor an easy process, but a necessary process people must go through if they are to find their equilibrium and sense of normality again. With time and a good support system, life will settle.
If people are open to change and growth, this is also a time of life when they can find new vigor and passions as they reclaim hidden aspects of their authentic selves, and I will explore this process of healing and recovery in my next article.
By Martha Pitman