The death of a marriage
Well, Peaceful Readers, I bounced back and forth between calling this issue a trauma vs. a loss. Yes, it’s definitely a traumatic loss. But here’s the question. Do divorces usually meet the definition of Traumatic Grief given to us by counselor and grief expert Liz Taylor? Do we wind up experiencing PTSD-like symptoms: flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, etc.? Maybe—depending on what happened during the marriage.
Here’s what I know. Divorce hurts.
In your face
Divorce isn’t a loss that you can stuff deep inside and pretend it isn’t happening. It’s in your face for a while. Totally in your face. You’re changing bank accounts, maybe your name, maybe your address and much more. Friends and relatives are taking sides. It’s a nightmare. Big time. Depending on the legal and custody issues involved, it can be a long-term nightmare.
At the time, we’re not feeling thankful for the in-your-face nature of this loss, but since we’re forced to face it head-on immediately, we have a greater likelihood of successfully dealing with divorce and moving through The Season of Grieving without unfinished business. In the end, that’s a very good thing.
If you’re going through a divorce right now, your plate is full in The Grieving Department. In the future, as you continue peeling your onion—as the expression goes—you’ll address other related issues, like childhood issues and traumas that occurred during your marriage. (See the last post for the connection between childhood abuse and spousal abuse.)
Let’s focus on the emotional challenges and needs during The Season of Grieving a divorce.
When a couple separates with the intention of divorcing, the change from being a part of a couple to being a single individual again is stark. Your mate is gone. The house is different. You have to do everything yourself.
There are no more plans or dreams for your future together. The things you used to do together will never happen again—the places you went together, the people you two spent time with as a couple, etc.
There’s no yours, mine and ours. There’s only mine. There’s no more we. There’s no more us.
A divorce is the death of us. It’s the death of a marriage. It’s devastating and it’s incredibly painful. It’s the death of the marriage you had and the death of the marriage you hoped for but didn’t have. So we have to grieve The Real Marriage and the one we wanted but didn’t get—The Invisible Marriage.
Grieving the real marriage and the invisible marriage
You may remember the expression Grieving the Invisible from the first post in this series.
I mentioned this concept again in part 5 of The Trauma of Disengagement:
I’ve found Grieving the Invisible to be somewhat challenging because it feels intangible and yet very real and significant all at the same time. It’s strange and disturbing and sad….
Take out your journal and make two lists. One list will be The Real Marriage. The other list will be The Invisible Marriage—the marriage you wanted but didn’t have. List five to 10 things you need to grieve in each category. These lists will be a good place to start, as you reflect on your feelings—over time—about each item.
Anger and sadness
You’ll experience both anger and sadness as you grieve the many losses associated with your divorce. Let’s review anger, sadness and The Long Good-bye from Time for Grieving, part 2:
From bargaining to anger and sadness
I describe the bargaining characteristic as the “I’ll do anything, trade anything, give anything for this train wreck to go away” time. You may find, as I have, that once you leave The Time of Bargaining, your emotions volley back and forth between anger and sadness for quite some time. In my experience, once you get past denial, bargaining is usually fairly short-lived. And then come the challenging, here’s-where-we-get-down-and-do-the-work realities of grieving: Anger and Sadness.
No one enjoys these parts of grieving. Anger isn’t fun. Sadness isn’t fun. But we have to move gradually, thoughtfully, thoroughly through these aspects of grieving in order to come out on the other side feeling whole, feeling healed, feeling peaceful. Feeling fully alive—standing tall with our eyes looking forward.
The long good-bye
One way of thinking about grieving is to call it The Long Good-bye. That’s really what grieving is. We don’t want to say good-bye. We want things to be the way they once were—or the way we’d always hoped they’d be. As we walk this journey during The Season of Grieving—The Long Good-bye—we’ll express our pain, we’ll cry, we’ll yearn for what we had or wanted, and we’ll say good-bye in many different ways for many, many days and weeks and months.
Rejection, betrayal, blame
I will catch some grief, as they say, for this next sentence, but I believe it to be true. In some ways, a divorce is worse than a death. In the case of a natural death, (1) you weren’t rejected and/or betrayed by your loved one, (2) other people feel sorry for you and (3) they aren’t blaming you.
In the case of divorce, some people look at you like you did something wrong, like you weren’t a good enough spouse, like you didn’t try hard enough—like you weren’t committed. Sometimes they say critical things. My sister—Pam, The Narcissist—said: “You picked him.” In other words, You got what you deserved. I wonder if she remembered those words when her husband walked out on her.
Even if the people around you aren’t making rude and insensitive remarks, you feel like a failure. You feel like other people view you as a failure. Even though you know that there are many divorced people out there, you feel very alone. You feel rejected by not only your former spouse, but also by other people.
Speaking of rejection, you may remember this section from my anger letter to my dad.
The word that wasn’t spoken
Right after my first husband moved out, we had a family dinner at my sister’s house. You told me to smile. Unbelievable. I was experiencing intense pain and you told me to smile. You disgusted me. You never asked me why we were divorcing. You didn’t want to know. I wouldn’t have told you the truth anyway. I couldn’t talk to you about anything. I had to be perfect. Getting divorced was obviously the WORST thing I could do to embarrass you, so there wasn’t anything to talk about. You wouldn’t even speak the word divorce after that. You pretended it didn’t happen. You didn’t care about what he did to me. You didn’t care.
After the divorce, I had a dream about you. It was in my house. You grabbed me and smashed the back of my head on the bathroom floor. When I looked down at myself, I looked like a china doll whose head had big cracks in it…. I saw the cracks on my face. I was dead. I was a china doll. Broken and worthless.
I didn’t understand that dream when I had it. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t get it. Now I do.
Pitiful. I’m shaking my head.
Lack of compassion and tenderness
from relatives and others
during this season of divorce
makes the grieving process
more difficult than it already is.
Don’t I know it.
The swirl of feelings
You’ll experience so many different emotions as you journey through this particular season of grieving. I felt all of these different things and more: stunned/shocked, sad, anguished, angry, lonely, rejected, misunderstood, regret, relief, lost, afraid, overwhelmed, uncertain. Sometimes you’ll feel many emotions seemingly at the same time. It’s emotionally exhausting at times.
The death of a marriage happens in a variety of ways, along a continuum. There’s the sudden death and the slow death—and varying degrees in between.
Here’s a sudden death story. A sweet lady that I worked with was sent by her husband on a nice vacation with their two school-aged daughters. Her husband had to “work.” When she got home from her delightful vacation, divorce papers were on the table and her husband had moved in with his girlfriend. Traumatic? To say the least. Betrayal of epic proportions.
In my case, my first husband—I’ll call him Greg—kept engaging in worse and worse behavior. Ours was a case of a long, slow death. He spiraled downward. But he wouldn’t make the decision to move out or file for divorce. Mr. Irresponsible wanted to be able to blame that on me. There was the emotional abuse, the alcoholism, the affair, the pornography, the refusal to do anything our counselor asked him to do (other than showing up), and the new girlfriend—to name the main bullet points on Mr. Irresponsible’s Marriage Résumé.
What can we do in the face of all this loss, upheaval, stress and pain?
Focus on healing
Let’s review some important concepts from my interview with counselor and Traumatic Grief expert Liz Taylor:
The waterfall ~ an image of dealing safely with new traumas
I’m a big guided imagery person. (Please read the addendum/warning in this post.) [I have my clients] close their eyes, and imagine walking along the river bank and they can hear the rushing water—the powerful sounds of a waterfall. If I get close to the sound of the waterfall, that’s the way it feels when I’m in the middle of a flashback. Liz talked about the natural fear of falling in and drowning. I have to stop those feelings somehow. If I can walk down that little mountain and see the waterfall [right in front of me], I can walk behind [it] and stand under it and feel the water washing gently over me. If I’m dealing with a trauma as it’s happening—the tears, the ability to breathe—that’s the waterfall washing gently over me. I’m crying. It’s washing over me. I’m looking at it right in front of me.
If I stuff it and wait 20 years,
it’s going to be harder
to uncover, discover and discard.
Our job is to deal with the traumatic loss of divorce—the death of a marriage—right now.
Cry. Breathe. Look at the truth that’s right in front of you.
Dealing with a loss as it’s happening keeps it from (1) hiding deep within you as cancerous denial and (2) morphing into unaddressed Traumatic Grief, which stays with you until you successfully do the work of grieving.
During this healing process, you can learn how to separate the hurtful words and lies that your spouse said to you or about you from the truth of who you are—and who you’ll be moving forward.
You can also learn or re-learn how to dream dreams and have hopes for the future—for your future. Because you’re still alive. God still has plans for your life….
Coming next: Next time on Choosing Peace, we’ll go through the grieving to-do list, focusing on the traumatic losses involved with divorce.
Healing through truth and music
Peaceful Readers, I’ve found great healing in my life through the beauty and truth of God’s word and through music. I hope the truths and songs that I share at the end of each post will bless you too.
Truth from The Word: Psalm 39:7
Song for Healing: “I Have This Hope” by Tenth Avenue North