There is one universal truth when it comes to divorce—it’s hard, really hard. How we deal with the struggle depends as much on the circumstances surrounding the split as on our individual emotional makeup. But one of the things that can help in understanding is that we’re not alone in our experience. Although there are countless reasons why a couple may decide to end their marriage, there are a few divorce scenarios that most people fall into, each triggering a unique cascade of emotions. Below, I share three of the most common I see in my practice:
Meghan was in her late 30s and had two young children. She and her husband both had demanding jobs, but they still traveled and spent time together as a family. She believed her marriage was doing fine. But a year after their second child was born, she discovered her husband was having an affair. Despite the betrayal, she wanted to save the relationship. Meghan was a religious person and felt that divorce wasn’t an option. Her husband didn’t agree, and soon after told her he wanted to end their marriage. Her life turned upside down immediately, and she was overwhelmed with the number of changes she was experiencing. On top of losing her husband, she had to move and become the primary caretaker of her children. She experienced extreme anger and disappointment, intense sadness, betrayal, and of course, shock. She was forced to get a divorce that she did not want.
How we worked through it: Meghan had some family that she depended on, but she wasn’t comfortable sharing a lot. She was embarrassed to be getting divorced with two young kids. The few friends she had were mostly married, which compounded her feelings of loneliness. Therapy gave her the space to grieve and figure out how she could have missed some of the signs—the late nights working and excessive drinking, the lack of interest in family time once their second child was born, the emotional distance between them (though she couldn’t put her finger on),
and the decrease in their ability to communicate and discuss problems – that became apparent only after the divorce. It took many months, but Meghan eventually became more accepting of her situation and felt less guilty.
The Slow Burn
Melanie, age 52, had been married for more than 20 years and had three teenage children. After drifting apart for many years and not doing much to reconcile or resolve their issues, they ultimately divorced—at Melanie’s request. Though still sad on some levels, she actually became happier as a result of her divorce and felt as if a weight had been lifted. She mourned the dreams she once shared with her ex, but eventually her “what ifs” were replaced with “what can I embrace now?’”
How we worked through it: We first focused on addressing her feelings of guilt for leaving the marriage. By learning to accept her own role in its demise—including her lack of action to address underlying problems—she realized the decision to stay in an unhealthy marriage for so long was rooted in her childhood. Her parents didn’t have a great marriage and often fought, but they reinforced the idea that you stay married no matter what. Melanie also started to spend individual time with each of her children to ensure they were doing ok and that their relationship continued—she encouraged them to do the same with their father. She and her husband decided to participate in a few co-parenting sessions so they had a safe place to discuss their differences and continue to put their children first. Over time, Melanie began to embrace her freedom, which gave her the opportunity to explore her individuality and the type of relationship she would like in the future.
Mark and Julie were married for 8 years. They had one child, age 6. What had started out as a close and intimate marriage morphed into more of a friendship and then simply roommates. Their disagreements about parenting, time with friends, work became contentious subjects and they just couldn’t seem to find their way back. They just avoided any sign of conflict. As a result, they both started to “uncouple” and lead parallel lives while still raising their child. Mark spent more time with his friends and at work and Julie did the same. Julie finally decided to pull the trigger after a friend and family member made a few comments like: ‘You guys don’t do anything together anymore.’ ‘Why are you still married? You seem so unhappy. I cannot remember the last time I saw you guys together and having fun. This got her thinking. Those questions forced her to take a big step back to see just how far they had grown apart. At first, Mark was shocked by her request, but he too, quickly realized neither had been invested for the last couple of years.
How we worked through it: Before they decided to divorce, Mark and Julie attended couples’ therapy to decide whether they could salvage what was left of their marriage. Together we explored their marital history and examined some of the issues that remained unresolved during their marriage. We also looked at how they started to separate and what they each believed drove them in this direction. With this information, I posed a few questions:
- If you had to do it again, would you choose the same partner? Why or why not?
- What does the answer say about moving forward to save the marriage?
- What are some of the challenges in the marriage and are you willing to make the investment to overcome them and rebuild?
- Are you willing to be really honest with your spouse about your feelings – not just about the problems but how you see the marriage long term?
After a couple of months, it became clear to both of them that the marriage was over and neither wanted to put in the time or effort required to save it. Although this was a very difficult and sad decision for both of them, they each felt secure in their decision.
In some ways, Mark and Julie were lucky in that they could reach that point of security fairly quickly. For others, especially when the divorce is unwanted or accompanied by guilt for ending it, finding peace with your new life can take months and sometimes even years. What’s important to remember is that there is no right way to go through this and there is no set timeline. As long as you keep taking little steps forward, you’ll get there.
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