Men’s Challenges with Separation and Divorce
A brief overview
An old adage exemplifies the difference between men and women and ending relationships, “Women grieve the loss of a relationship before ending it, men grieve it after it has ended.” A recent survey of Bay Area family law practitioners estimate that between 6 and 7 times out of ten it is the woman who leaves and divorces the man. For the man being left, he experiences the initial shock of the relationship ending, possibly unaware that this could and is happening, followed by a complex array of losses and challenges divorce presents. Ironically many of these losses are a result of a man’s typical, if not default, role within marriage—being the financial provider. No matter how enlightened we are as a culture, it is still rare to see a male as the primary caregiver, and the woman the sole financial provider. While traditional marriages like these provide security, and a sense of identity, they also allow men to neglect particular areas of personal growth that he may now be forced to face, and while he continued to develop his skills at career building, he did so at the sacrifice of developing the skills of domestic life–managing home and family, as well as maintaining social-connectedness. As a result men can feel inadequate, and alienated when a marriage ends.
After separation and divorce, a man may find himself up against still maintaining a career, grieving the loss of his marriage and/or an in-tact family, on top of coping with having to make sense his new life. Relatively simple things such as cooking, cleaning, shopping, parenting and seeking out fulfilling adult relationships (apart from, yet eventually including, dating or new romantic relationships), can pose new and very real challenges. All the while, the person he once turned to for support and partnership is no longer there in the same capacity—in all likelihood, she is an adversary. While the legal system enforces financial support, it doesn’t enforce emotional support, and though it’s noted that women’s economic status lessons, she is at least granted a base line support for herself and her children to get by; in the emotional and domestic realm, men often have to start from scratch.
What can compound this is the difficulty men have in reaching out and asking for help. Men feel they need to be self sufficient, self reliant. To ask for help or assistance can feel weak, less reliant. And here they find themselves in a world they once thought, against career pursuits, apart from, yet now flailing badly within it. This probably harkens back to domestic battles around division of labor, with a difficult sting of self recrimination. Their time with their children can be fraught with testing behaviors and needs the man may not be prepared for or even familiar with. Even the task of what to do with himself, planning an activity, may be enough to tie him in knots. With separation or divorce, social configurations change, making feelings of loss and loneliness more intense, and can lead men to dwell on perceived memories of his past and compare them with current situations. After all, if his former marriage was anything typical, his ex-wife managed their social life and activities. All of which presents a steep learning curve. Left now to his own devices, he may not know what he wants or even likes to do.
Add to this, legal and financial stresses, money going out to an ex-wife he probably doesn’t like, lawyers, the divvying up of community property, and then the purchases that need to be made to replace the household items that were divided up.
The choices for the newly separated/divorced man can appear grim. Many men throw themselves into new, sexual relationships, seeking comfort or distraction from the pain and difficulty of loss and adjusting to his new life; while other men grow bitter or remain fragile and insecure. Often times men isolate. Given the hurt and the feelings of failure which separation and divorce usher in, many men just want to circle the wagons—even though this isolates them and deepens their ruminating and sense of aloneness, and ultimately leaves them stuck. And men in this position cannot help but feel they need to get unstuck, and get on with their lives. It’s a thin line between distraction and desperation.
What to do?
The first step, hard as it is, is to accept your circumstances. This is your life now—despite any hopes of reuniting. Remember, denial is a powerful and constant defense, and one that stalls an opportunity for growth. Even if one does re unite with their spouse, this opportunity for growth isn’t in vain and will, if nothing else, help one to be a better partner. Think of it as a chance to exercise a part of yourself that you haven’t had to.
Learn to navigate the on-going emotional turmoil. Be aware of your thinking. You may re experience the most painful aspects of your divorce in an otherwise neutral experience: your children mentioning something their mother did or, for example, a former mutual friend visiting their mother. This visit may remind you of some of the feelings of betrayal experienced as a result of the separation, imposing a misplaced frame of mind over the present one, so that the experience of spending time with your children is infused with a sudden, not-so-consciously, negative feeling, which then effects or colors the present. You can become aware of these trigger thoughts by deconstructing the chain of your thinking, and recognizing what triggered your negative feelings. Recognizing these triggers, and their subsequent emotional reactivity, you can learn to separate these from the present circumstances, and deal with them at an appropriate time, rather than being at the mercy of raw reactivity.
Garner, gather, gain a support group.
What men especially need going through separation and divorce is support, whether this is just being around people in a café, or spending time with friends. The important thing is for the individual to still see himself as a social being, and for him to observe other social beings, and to recognize and re-engage with these dynamics. This provides experiences with which to compare himself, his ex and their past relationship, as well as helping his to imagine a social future.
There are also more specific forms of support, such as a therapist, a divorce support group, or a friendship with someone going through the same thing. Having a one on one relationship with another man going through a divorce can be life saving, and provides a shared sense of one’s experience, struggles, healing and growth. It helps to tell one’s story over and over again, blending into it, new insights and awareness, especially with another who can reflect back the changes these insights bring to one’s story. Rarely will two individuals be in the same place within a specific process, and thus each can help the other in the areas of growth they’ve already gone through. In a time when the rate of divorce is said to be over 50%, it shouldn’t be hard to find another man going through it.
Finding new interests or rediscovering former interests can re-direct, or sublimate, the otherwise aimlessness of being single. Most men are restless. We are doers. Emptiness is often combated with distraction. And distraction is just that—unproductive doing. Distraction serves to avoid painful feelings, such as loss, incapability, failure, and loneliness. After all, married life occupied lots of time. Yet these feelings need to be experienced in order to overcome them. What separation and scheduled custody does provide is time, perhaps the first “free time” a man has had in years. It is only to be expected he may not know how to use it initially. It may be useful to consider this time as an opportunity to do the things you couldn’t do while you were Married. For example, creating a list of 20 activities one would enjoy doing. The key is to be active; don’t let one’s whole life remain on hold, going through this. Finding activities and interests one can develop and claim as one’s own, not only occupies this time, but enhances a new sense of identity. Interests can be hobbies, like creative projects, motorcycling, sports; activities that engage, challenge, and help to define him. Some activities may have a communal sense, bringing him into a larger community, or social network. Interests that help to define us also help to connect us, and connection with others is more easily established when we know ourselves and our likes. Try different things.
Exercise not only helps reduce emotional and physical stress, but helps us look and feel better. Looking good and feeling good provides confidence and greater self esteem. As the grief passes, and one becomes aware of being attractive or attracted to others, one can begin to flirt, or begin to entertain an openness to dating.
While many men find themselves in a bit of a slump while they are married, they may find themselves in more of one right after they are divorced. Perhaps their wardrobe is full of styles from years past or they’ve maintained the same hairstyle since pre-marriage. Giving oneself a bit of attention is important towards feeling good again about himself—or to feel attractive. He may consider buying some new clothes or also taking a trip to a hair stylist. The conscious attention and effort to your appearance and style gives off the aura that you take pride in yourself.
Take control of your space—organize your home in a way that suits you. Men often defer to a woman’s sense of household organization and order—despite the gripes they may’ve carried throughout the marriage about décor or the placement of their articles. In the absence of their own sense of organization, or developing one, many men continue in the manner their wife created or imposed. This, though symbolic, is a reminder of her presense, thus a reminder of her absence, and ultimately the on-going, present, experience of the separation. Organizing one’s own home is a process of taking ownership, and one may have to go through several organizations until they find what works for them, and compliments their re-emerging sense of self, home and life style. One of the mistakes some men make is just getting by, maintaining the bare essentials. This often bespeaks of not accepting their circumstances, as if they were waiting around to be rescued, or reunited with their spouse. Again, whether the break up is permanent or not, one’s quality of life, including a sense of competency, is a day to day endeavor; and if one should get back together with their ex, they want to do so as better functioning individuals. Another challenge is decorating. This is an opportunity to create your own space according to your aesthetic sense, self expression, and a continued individuality. Whether it’s a pinball machine in the kitchen, or an ultra modern livingroom set, the exercise pushes one towards acceptance and potential hopefulness, and moves one further towards embracing their life as an individual. It may also inspire one to have others over, and to share their new space.
Parenting is trying and tricky without the buffer or assistance of an additional parent. It’s not only a tactical feat, but an emotional one. One hears many parents talk about the “one on one plan,” where one parent supervises one child while the other parent supervises a second. Being a single parent, one has to split themselves between two—either having to walk to one side of the playground and then the other, encounter some real parenting challenges during sibling flair-ups, or bring both son and daughter into the a public men’s room. One can feel spread very thin, and incapable of providing either child with enough. This can, as a constant reminder, trigger particular feelings of loss, and anger at the former spouse, but it can also be an excellent opportunity to exercise your own unique parenting style and relationship with your children. Just remember to be aware of your thinking and triggers and separating these from your experience with your children.
Start out simply. Read a parenting book that just gives an overview. “Pocket Parenting,” is organized by common problems faced by parents—plural, but can begin to help you get a sense of parenting techniques. “Parenting After a Divorce,” is a concise book that speaks to many of the problems and tasks of parenting after a divorce. “Parenting from Within,” offers insight and understanding around emotional development and experiencing as it pertains to parenting. This also helps to especially understand emotional patterning and working and helps one become more aware of triggers, their origins and processes. The internet also provides a wealth of information and articles on parenting—as well as activities. Many men come up against the challenge of simply what to do with their children, when formerly activities were left up to the mother. The best advice I’ve heard is to do those things you always wanted to do as a child but didn’t. This can be not only healing, but possibly add some enthusiasm to the activities.
All of his friends are encouraging him to get back out there. Yet there are whole new codes to dating and relationships. Starting to date, though tempting, shouldn’t be more than a consideration until the divorce is settled and the loss grieved. No one can step fully into a new relationship, when they still have one foot in the past relationship, when their thoughts are still on their ex, or when their mental resources are stretched with the process of divorce, creating a home, parenting, and re-developing their identity as an single individual. And it’s difficult to actually give anything a fresh start while still resenting a previous ending. Having spent a number of years being someone’s boyfriend, fiancé and then husband, it takes time to simply be an individual without risking turning the next relationship into a transitional or replacement relationship. It’s selfish to the man and his growth, as well as his potential new partner. He needs to have a strong, renewed sense of himself before he begins to consider what he wants from a new relationship. He needs to have learned and grown from the mistakes of his previous relationship so he doesn’t repeat these in the next. He also needs to learn to be self-sufficient, so that he doesn’t seek dependence in his next relationship. One is better off wanting than needing a relationship. Divorce allows, if not forces one to reconsider, not so much relationship, as one’s relational nature. How have I been, how am I, and how do I want to be in relationship going forward?
Re-learning to relate with women can be tricky. After a divorce men are vulnerable in many different ways. They may be lonely, gun shy, insecure, bitter, or over compensate. In early single life, prior to marriage, many men looked to women with “their eye on the prize,” and maybe not for the simple aim of getting to know them as individuals. Developing female friendships is a way to re-learn interacting with women. It also provides information as to the kind of woman a man might find interesting once he is ready to date. Again, as he isn’t dating but forming friendships, he doesn’t have to act in any particular manner, but is free to observe against his own sensibilities.
And when you do date: This is your chance to have fun. Date all different types of women; different ages and from all different backgrounds. Really take advantage of this opportunity and diversify. Although dating after you’ve gone through a divorce can be a challenge, it’s an experience that is full of promise too. Keep your options open and don’t allow yourself to compare the new women you meet with your ex wife. Leave the past in the past and enjoy your present.
Dealing with the ex-spouse around co parenting is an on-going process. How can one go from wanting to reach out and strangle to coming together collaboratively to discuss and decide the best for the children? First off, time heals all wounds. There are many stages and opportunities within the grieving process. Initiatively keep it to the business at hand, focus on the children, scheduling, logistics, concerns, appointments–trying to keep personalities out of it. Be aware of the functions of the left and right brain: the left does the speaking, while the right fills in the context, the feelings, associations and desire to strike. Offer the left, and, for the time being, keep the right to yourself—you can always call a friend to vent afterwards. If and when this goes well, you might try to touch upon the unresolved stuff, gently (if possible) and in bits. Remember you can dislike what a person says, or is even about, but not have to express this. It’s a part of respecting yourself as an individual and a way of letting others know you expect them to do the same. In marriage you were somewhat enmeshed, adversarially contingent, but no longer have to be in the same relational dynamic. She may be pushing buttons, pulling strings, try and simply observe this, accept this while standing your ground, self sufficiently and as an individual. Own what you feel or think and speak from your emerging sense of self. That isn’t to say out do, or act from an agenda, but state yourself clearly and openly. Again, much of this can be developed and practiced with a trusted friend or therapist. And, trust that time heals all wounds, and hokey as it sounds: This too shall pass. Like anything, it’s a practice.
It’s hard, if not impossible work trying to forgive ex-spouse. Forgiveness is a process of practicing acceptance. One needs to accept the fact that they cannot control the things his ex-spouse is doing, saying, or thinking; nor can he stop her new lifestyle, and the reasons she gave others for the divorce. Accept the fact that you cannot control the other. Instead look for what you can control: your own actions, thoughts, and words. Eventually you need to work towards accepting that even though you were a good husband and fought—or at least grieved the loss—of your marriage, you were not perfect, and contributed to the break-up in your own ways and need accept your faults and contributions to the divorce. This is not easy to do, but gradually, it may help to stop laying all the blame on your ex-spouse for your anger and pain.