Men’s Challenges with Separation and Divorce
“Women grieve the loss of a relationship before ending it, men grieve it after it has ended,” may say it best. Statistically, 65-70% of divorces are filed by women (90% in college-educated couples). As expected, women initiating divorce ultimately identify their spouse as the “true” initiator. The irony is that men, despite their own dissatisfaction are more likely to resist divorce. The majority immediately scramble to salvage their marriages, citing family or finances, prepared to agree to anything to keep their world in tact. Often this is in reaction to the shock, and not being prepared. But much of this too is to avoid the complex array of losses and challenges divorce presents a man.
Many of these losses though, are a result men’s typical, if not default, role within marriage of being the financial provider. No matter how enlightened we are as a culture, it is still uncommon for men to be the primary caregivers, and women the financial provider. Despite the security and sense of identity traditional marriages provide, they enable men to neglect the particular areas of personal growth that separation and divorce forced them to face. While he continued to develop his career skills, he did so at the cost of neglecting skills of domestic life–especially maintaining social-connectedness. Because women typically grieve relationships before end, they feel relief, experience less stress, and adjustment better after than men. Additionally, are less likely to isolate, and seek support and companionship with friends or family. Apart from career, a man’s partner is typically his most vital relationship. As a result, the loss is often experienced as trauma. Though this may sound strong, determining whether an event is traumatic doesn’t necessarily depend on the particular event, but how the individual experiences the event. Experiencing trauma weakens an individual’s basic integrity, compromise one’s confidence, and distort their attitudes about others. It’s not uncommon for men to feel inadequate, and are socially alienated when their marriage ends.
After separation and divorce, a man may find himself up against still having to maintain a career, while grieving the loss of his marriage and, arranged contact or time with his children. Because he was working he may not previously have spent sustained time with them and have difficulty adjusting to this, the routines and the work required caring for children. This adjustment is probably being filtered through idealized expectations underlying reactive emotions, forced to cope with these new, unwanted circumstances. Relatively simple things such as cooking, cleaning, shopping, parenting and feeling the lack of supportive adult relationships can emphasize inadequacies, along with very real mounting challenges. Meanwhile, the person he once turned to for support and partnership is no longer there in the same capacity and, in all likelihood, feels like an adversary who has little compassion for his struggle with what she’d managed throughout the marriage. This can feel like payback for past conflicts around division of labor, leaving him with a sting of self recrimination. While the legal system enforces financial support, it doesn’t enforce emotional support. Even though a woman’s economic status lessons, she is at least granted a base line support and additionally, in most cases, a designated break from her children. In the emotional and domestic realm, men aren’t necessarily granted these, and often have to start from scratch.
Humorously speaking, all of this is nothing short of a perfectly engineered cluster fuck to the male psychology, especially given a man’s need to be self reliant and the typical difficulty a man has reaching out for help, appearing weak. However, the cluster fuck is that they find themselves, unprepared, ill-equipped, but forced to take on seemingly basic responsibilities they had relied on their spouses to manage, yet flailing badly. Many men typically don’t know what to do, or how to structure the time with their children—or how to parent in any way that resembles how their mother does and, much to his aggravation, his children seem to favor. But his even greater challenge what to do with himself. Simply choosing an activity may tie him in knots. Now having all the time he otherwise got flak for when married, he may not know what he wants, or even likes to do. There’s only so much T.V., gym time, Garageband, or Internet porn one can indulge in, short of risking developing an addiction to it. Again, if typical, and his social life diminished, he’ll probably isolate. As a result his feelings of loss and loneliness will be more intense, and be prone to idealize the past, comparing it with the present. Despite the male-appeal of a challenge, being divorced lacks an essential male ingredient: choice, which emphasizes the cluster. He didn’t choose the legal and financial stresses, giving money to an ex-wife or lawyers he probably doesn’t like; divvying up household items, and then having to purchase items to replace those his wife got. It’s hard to reconcile providing financial support, while feeling an ex-wife isn’t compassionate, capable of feelings, being nice, or refraining what seems like newly spawned righteousness. No wonder withholding, or being gamey, with financial support becomes the only recourse of striking back, or punishing his ex-wife for the hurt he feels she caused him. In essence he’s saying, You won’t have me, but you’ll have my money? Or If you think your life is better with out me, let me show you how bad it actually can be. This can spur someone to spend thousands on legal fees to ensure his ex-wife won’t get hundreds. The resentment caused by a divorce can corrupt an individual’s principals like a virus.
The choices for the newly separated/divorced man apart from this can appear grim. Many men throw themselves into new, sexual relationships, seeking comfort or distraction from the pain and difficulty adjusting to his new life. Some men grow bitter. Others remain fragile and insecure. A majority of men isolate—even though this deepens their sense of aloneness, and ultimately leave them stuck. Although most men feel the need to get unstuck, and get on with their lives, it’s often difficult to distinguish between action and distraction.
Know and trust that things will get better, even though right now it’s impossible to believe. But have faith. Men can heal, but not without some scars. Life will always be different, have a hitch, be slightly askew. The mind plays tricks. One may wish to be back within that intact family. But is this because it was easier. You may feel you know you could do better now. If you honestly remember back, was it? But how long before you slip back, or on some level are there revenge fantasies? Much of what seems like hindsight is fantasy. You may have to ask whether “better” is being mistaken for easier. The advice often given to people who’ve quit drinking when they feel tempted to drink again is, “Walk yourself through it.” Imagine reconciling, and living together again. No doubt you’ve changed, but how do you imagine it being with your wife in the kitchen, or discussing what were difficult topics? How will it be going to bed? Think back, were you and your ex-wife even get along? Did she treat you as a friend, or someone in your life now would? The biggest shock men experience upon dating or starting a new relationship is that the women actually like them, or take what they say at face value, believe them, isn’t keeping score.
Give yourself time to accept your circumstances. This is your life now, own it—despite any hopes of reuniting. Remember, denial is one of the mind’s most powerful tricks and defense mechanisms, and can stall opportunities for growth. Even if re uniting with your spouse is a possibility, this doesn’t negate the potential growth. 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, or normal occurrence. Become aware of what triggers you. But realize few triggers have a singular, cause and effect response. More often a single trigger will prompt a cluster of corresponding associated triggers. For example, your ex-wife hugging your children goodbye when you pick them up. This may bring up feelings of betrayal of separation, as in, left out, imposing impose a misplaced frame of mind over the present one, infusing the time with your children. The list could go on, and yet while all of these touch upon separate aspects of your circumstances, they all relate back to the divorce. By retracing your thinking, recognizing along the way what triggered negative feelings and your subsequent emotional reactions, then separate these from the present circumstances. That way you can deal with them at an appropriate time, rather than being at the mercy of raw reactivity.
Similarly, recognize when you’re right, but accept it doesn’t mean others, such as your ex-wife, will necessarily see this. Part of the process of divorce is learning to individuate, but by differentiating. In other words, developing who you are now, separate from your ex. This may include the ideals, values, and ways of doing things you formerly shared.
What men are typically bad at, but need especially going through separation and divorce, is support. This may just mean being around people in a café, or spending time with friends. The important thing is to still see yourself as a social being, being around other social beings, to recognize the value, and re-engage socially. This also offers another context than your past relationship, and helps in imagining 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 your experience, struggles, healing and growth. It helps to tell one’s story over and over again, but also the opportunity of blending new insights and awareness. Having such a relationship can bare witness, and reflect back the changes, insights, and progress your story. Rarely will two individuals be in the exact place in the process, and may be able to help each other in the places they’ve already been through. Given the statistics, it shouldn’t be hard to find another man going through it.
Finding new interests or rediscovering former interests can re-direct, or channel, the otherwise aimlessness of being single. Most of us are, by nature, restless. Men are doers. The easiest solution for emptiness is distraction, although it often only amounts to—unproductive doing. Distraction keeps us busy, our minds off painful feelings of loss, incapability, failure, and loneliness. Don’t forget, married life occupied lots of time. Yet these feelings need to be experienced before we can adjust and move past them. What separation and scheduled custody fortunately or otherwise provide is time, perhaps the first “free time” you’ve had in years. It is only to be expected you 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 activities you would enjoy doing. The key is to be active, but engaged. Don’t let your life remain on hold, because you’re going through this. Finding activities and interests you can develop and claim as your own, not only occupies this time, but enhances your new sense of identity. Interests can be hobbies, like creative projects, motorcycling, sports; activities that engage, challenge, and help to define you. Some activities may have a communal sense, bringing you 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 have something in common, than when we eventually know ourselves and our likes. Try different things.
Exercise not only helps reduce emotional and physical stress, but can help you look and feel better. Looking good and feeling good provides confidence and greater self esteem. As the grief passes, you might become aware of being attractive, or attracted to others, and may want to begin flirting, entertain the idea of dating, even an openness to new relationship. Looking and feeling good only helps this.
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. So take ownership of your living space. Organize your home in a way that suits you. Many men defer to their ex’s sense of decor, or household organization, forgetting their gripes about these throughout their marriage. Take a moment and consider being able to set something down and it being there when you look for it. Ignoring your own sense of organization, style, or decor, may not only be a reminder of her presence, though more probably her absence, but continuing to keenly experience the separation, or maintain an underlying hope it will be reversed. Even a failed attempt at your own decor is taking ownership of your life through its environment. You may have to go through several attempts until you find what works and feels right for you. It gives incentive to invite others to your place, hopefully receiving compliments that reflect your re-emerging sense of self, home and life style. Whether it’s a pinball machine in the kitchen, or an ultra modern living room set, the exercise pushes one towards acceptance and potential hopefulness, and moves one further towards embracing their life as an individual.
Parenting is always tricky, but especially trying without the buffer or assistance of an additional parent. It’s not only a tactical feat, but an emotional one. When married you may have had the “one on one plan,” one parent supervises a child while the other supervises another. Now, as a single parent, you have to split yourself between two or more. Sibling flair-ups can pose real challenges, or having to walk to one side of the playground because one your children has a conflict with another child, and then immediately return to the original side because your other child needs help getting on a swing. Or how about bringing both your son and your daughter into the public men’s room because they need to go, or you can’t leave them unattended. You can quickly feel spread very thin, and incapable of providing either child with enough. On top of this, either of these can trigger loss, and anger towards your ex. Be prepared for potentially getting triggered, resist the convicting belief circumstances should be, or would be better if reversed. Believing so, no matter the conviction will likely grant this happening. That’s just the mind’s tricks again, seeking an immediate solution to not only a long term problem, but a far more potentially permanent on. Show the mind, you have tricks of your own, and try to re-consider any of these situations can also be excellent opportunities to exercise your own unique parenting style, and strengthen your relationship with your children. Just remember to be aware of your susceptibility to triggers, and that they in turn trigger a cluster of others associated with the original. Take a moment on the side of the play ground to gather yourself, go back and trace your chain of thoughts. With practice and experience, you’ll be able to distinguish these, and separate from the experience with your children, and set them aside for when you can process them later. But don’t worry if you forget to do this later, the important thing is to develop the ability deal with them rather than react
Invest in reading a parenting book, even one that just gives some overview. for example, “Pocket Parenting,” is organized by common problems faced by parents. Although it’s written with two parents in mind, it can nevertheless help you get a sense of parenting techniques. “Parenting After a Divorce,” is a concise book that covers many of the common problems of parenting after a divorce. While “Parenting from Within,” requires a more careful reading, provides a models to gain insight and understanding about how our experiences growing up with our parents, may have shaped, and contribute to how we parent and react to our own children. The internet also provides a wealth of information on parenting, through forums and articles—as well as activities. Many men have challenges with what to do with their children, especially when previously 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 not only can be healing, but add some authentic enthusiasm to activities.
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.
While many men were resigned to their wardrobe being a bit out of style while married, they may find they can’t be after divorced. Your wardrobe may be dated, or you’ve had the same hairstyle since before getting married. You may consider some new clothes or hair stylist to feel good again about yourself—or feel attractive. The conscious attention and effort to your appearance and style shows others (and not just your ex) that you’re here, have ownership, and take pride in yourself.
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 more with “their eye on the prize,” than for the simple aim of getting to know them as individuals. Developing female friendships is a way to re-learn how to interact with women, and provides information as to the kind of woman you might find interesting once you’re ready to date. Again, since you aren’t dating yet, but forming friendships, you doesn’t have to have an “eye on the prize,” but but free to simply check out the world around you.
At some point though, friends may begin encouraging you to get back out there…and…date. And just maybe you feel…reasonably ready. But having spent a number of years being someone’s boyfriend, fiancé and then husband, it takes time to be an individual again. Otherwise you run the risk of turning the next relationship into a transitional or replacement relationship. But it’s only understandable you might. The first new relationships may possibly wind up being learning experiences. You need to have at least a somewhat renewed sense of yourself before you begins to consider what you wants from a new relationship. Otherwise you may end up dating anyone who seems unlike your ex, but in reality, is potentially a disguised version. It’s essential to have learned and grown from the mistakes of your previous relationship or you just repeat these in your next. equally important is learning to be self-sufficient again, so you don’t unconsciously seek dependence in his next relationship. One is better off wanting a relationship than needing one. Divorce allows, if not forces, one to reconsider, not just how to make a relationship work, but how to improve one’s participation and, just as importantly, the kind of participation they need from a partner. Ask yourself, How have I been in relations? How am I as an individual now? How do I want to be in my next relationship, and how do I want my partner to be?
Be ready to find that there may be a new rules, or codes, to dating and how relationships are established and operate. Starting to date, though tempting, shouldn’t be an actual consideration until the divorce is settled, and good portion of the loss grieved. No one can step fully into a new relationship, when they still have a foot in the past relationship. Be reasonably sure your thoughts aren’t still caught up with your ex. Have you developed adequate mental resources, gotten over feeling unbearably stretched by the process of divorce, creating a home, parenting. Haven’t made reasonable efforts to develop your identity as an single individual. Because it’s difficult to actually give anything a fresh start, when remaining attached to previous relationship—even if it’s based only on lingering negativity. It can be helpful to talk about your ex in explaining the dynamics of the previous relationship. This can give your new partner a sense of what you’ve been through, or gain some understanding of potential triggers, vulnerabilities and their origin. For reasons like these having them out of the table can be productive. However, dwelling on former spouse, providing overtly negative actions or biased traits, may have an underlying, or overt intention of enlisting the new partner as an ally against a hostile ex. While on one hand it may keep you in your former marriage, and continue maintain your attachment to your ex, on the other, the new partner may feel like she is in completion with your ex, wonder if you’ll talk about her the same way if the two of you don’t work out, or that she’ll finally get tired of having another woman’s presence in the relationship.
When you do date: try to think if it as 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 try to resist comparing new women with your ex wife. Leave the past in the past and enjoy your present.
Although fear of rejection is real, and normal, try to look at dating from the point of view of your being the consumer. Consider giving priority to what they have to offer, rather than visa versa. In other words, try not to personalize their not being a good fit, or their feeling you’re not. Looked at from this perspective, if either feel it isn’t a good fit, it’s unlikely going to work and move on. Often times individuals get stuck in a completion, or the challenge of proving themselves, or disproving the other. It’s not being a bit is often just a fact, not always a fault. How ever if it is due to a fault, consider it constructively, and if it’s valid (perhaps your dating skills are rusty), use it as a way to improve. After divorce, in the absence of the real or perceived soothing a woman or a relationship offers, men can mistakenly seek this, and overlook the quality of companionship or whether they get along.
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—but surrendered and 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, to help stop laying all the blame on your ex-spouse for your anger and pain. A man who had been divorced for five years recently said, “Since we first separated my ex-wife was always being hostile, suspicious, and even now treats my prior short-coming in our marriage with a familiarity as if it was unquestionably apparent they continued. Until recently I’ve firmly maintained that I have been reasonable, relatively calm, never reacting or provoking in response. But the other day she commented that the kids were looking worn out, and could use some new ones, but my tone responding, I’m planning on taking care of this, intentionally implied that the reason I would take care of it, was because she couldn’t afford to. My response was influenced by a trigger signaling a cluster of triggers, all associated with how I perceived her initiating the divorce without considering the consequences. Specifically her not having achieved what she believed the marriage to me prevented her from, despite having now had five years to do it, and now I had to pick up the slack for it. The kids needing clothes is just a fact of life, and doesn’t merit any need to sign blame, but I realized I was inadvertently, and not so subtly doing so now, while all this time not able to recognize that I continue to keep this resentment present, maybe as much, or perhaps more than she does. Divorce never stops offering opportunities for growth.”