Stages of Divorce Recovery for Men Complete Article Series
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by Robin L Goldstein, EdD Licensed Psychologist

DIVORCE AND MEN: SURPRISES AND MYTHS

Many people are surprised to learn that a majority of divorces are initiated by women. Up to two thirds of divorces are filed by women. The fact that men are deeply affected by divorce, especially if they did not choose that solution, is not hard to understand. Myths persist that men are less in need of the comfort and support that a stable relationship provides but this is not the case. While our society continues to teach men to hide or avoid expression of their feelings, those feelings do not go away. They often appear intensely when a man is abandoned by a spouse or partner.

As a psychologist, I frequently work with men whose partners have left them. They are often surprised by the level of anguish they experience. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear men say that they have thought of suicide, usually for the first time in their lives. That men can have extreme reactions should not come as a surprise. Almost every week there is a story somewhere in the media of a man who has taken the life of a partner who has rejected him. All too often children are also the victims of these tragic events. It is an additional tragedy that men are often the most reluctant to seek professional help, viewing it as a sign of unacceptable weakness.

Of course violence is not the most common response to the loss of a relationship but we are all familiar with the many other coping strategies that are less than helpful. These include isolation, substance abuse, frantic seeking of a replacement partner, denial and an unwillingness to share grief with friends and family. Women also turn to these solutions, but less frequently than men as healthier responses are more acceptable for women. While the culture is changing, it is still less acceptable for men to admit to feelings of fear, helplessness, sadness, grief and anxiety. But ALL of these emotions are very common and normal when a relationship breaks apart. One emotion our society does easily accept from men is anger, so it is often anger that we see in men, especially when they are in the presence of others. Usually the intensity of the anger is related to the intensity of the (unexpressed) grief.

DIVORCE AND MEN: THE POWER OF ANGER

Sadness feels weak and men often experience humiliation when they feel weak. This makes it easy to become angry. Anger feels powerful. It can cause men to say or do things that hurt the person who rejected them. This tough guy stance may come out with friends and family who try to support the bereaved man, pushing them away. The message can be “I don’t have a problem, I can handle this fine on my own”. A high price is paid for that momentary sense of power; further isolation and often further despair. A greater toll is taken when the anger leads to a more complicated divorce or when children are exposed to the toxicity of a parent’s hostility.

A man who is losing his partner will feel out of control of his life. Anger can be a tool to regain power, punishing with words and deeds the person who seems to be causing the pain. It is easy to justify such anger. “She cheated on me, she was always drinking, she was a lousy wife/mother/sister.” We have all heard these howls from our friends who are separated. Another way that men use their anger to feel powerful is to punish the departing partner by damaging her reputation, reporting long kept secrets or complaints, attempting to diminish her to her friends, family and community.

DIVORCE AND MEN: ACCEPTANCE VS DENIAL

Men who deal with separation with intense anger often pay a high price for using such a destructive and ultimately ineffective coping mechanism. At the extreme, anger that leads to any type of physical aggression can cause legal trouble. Domestic violence rates increase during periods of separation. Many men who have never been violent become so for the first time during a divorce. Violence includes damaging objects and possessions as well as hurting other people. Fortunately, hurting other people is not a common reaction but violence including breaking objects, slamming doors, throwing things or verbal rage occurs quite frequently. The longer a man stays angry, the longer it takes to accept the new reality and start making life better again. Anger and denial interfere with the ability to heal from the loss and, eventually, to form new relationships. We all know people who have been separated for long periods (sometimes years) who are difficult to be with because they remain focused on their anger at a former spouse.

Anger also interferes with the ability to adapt and grow. To form good relationships men need to learn from the relationship that is ending. Where did he fail his partner? In what way can he be a better husband or boyfriend in the future. If there were major failings in the woman, why did he choose her and what about himself allowed him to stay? Acceptance of his own role in this life calamity will help him to avoid problems with the next relationship. Denial of the more frightening emotions-grief, fear, anxiety, etc., will only prolong the process of healing and recovery.

DIVORCE AND MEN: MEN AND CUSTODY

There are many aspects to this dilemma of divorce. Cultural expectations still tend to favor mothers in custody matters leaving many men without the time they want with their children. That can make it difficult for a man to remain as involved with his children as he wishes to be. While it is difficult to be a single mother there may be even less support for single fathers. Men may also have more limited networks to help with child care. A common pitfall for men is to begin dating too soon to try to find a caretaker for the children. This can lead to hasty liaisons which are in no one’s best interest. Men who sincerely try to take care of their children may be unappreciated or even denigrated for making their children their priority because once again this may confound society’s expectations. Being a modern father is a challenge and divorce can make it more difficult. Children fare best in divorces where successful healing occurs and animosity is contained. Separating partners can help themselves by focusing on and remembering the vulnerability of their children.

DIVORCE AND MEN: MEN AND ANXIETY

The stress of divorce leaves most people feeling anxious. There are so many changes and stressors. Men who are normally even keeled can be surprised by their level of anxiety. For those who already have nervous tendencies, divorce can make life feel overwhelming. Anxiety can be exhibited by irritability, chronic worry, increased fearfulness and/or physical agitation or restlessness. It is not unusual to remain preoccupied with details of the separation, the problems of the relationship, and wondering what the other person is doing. This obsessiveness can interfere with concentration, sleep and everyday function. Many men will lose weight because of this anxiety. Even when weight loss was desirable a sudden, drastic weight loss is never healthy.

DIVORCE AND MEN: MEN AND GRIEF

The stages of grief are predictable but never easy. It is grief that men are trying to escape when they turn to drinking, drugs or excessive activity in any area of their life;work or play. Psychologically, there are no short cuts for grief. If we try to escape it, we end up prolonging our misery. The only way is to go through it. Numbness is the first stage with feelings of disbelief or denial. Men are often surprised and think they feel nothing in the beginning but this early stage of protective anesthesia turns in to shock and alarm before too long. The second stage of grief is when the acute emotions rise to the surface. Men may feel panic, depression, intense anxiety or anger or any combination of these emotions. During this difficult period men can offer suffer more than women because they are less likely to reveal their distress to others. They may turn from support when they need it the most out of an attempt to appear in control. Crying, nightmares and great anxiety are the hallmarks of the second stage of grief.

The third stage often leads to withdrawal. It can be very hard to be around friends and loved ones and at this stage it is best not to force sociability. Keeping to oneself, perhaps sleeping more than usual, gives the grieving person the chance to recover. Obsessive review is normal for this period as we all try to make sense of the drastic changes that have occurred. To move to the fourth stage of grief the man must make a conscious decision whether or not to try to re-build his life. I am not talking about suicide, although as I have discussed before, that is a choice for some. To move forward means to accept the losses and try to learn from them. The man who has lost his partner will have to push himself to try new things and meet new people; to discover what will make his life happy and hopeful going forward.

DIVORCE AND MEN: RECOVERY AND RENEWAL

After grief there is an opportunity to make life happy and fulfilling, perhaps for the first time. A surprising statistic of divorce is that a significant majority of people feel their life has improved two years after divorce. Even for the person who did not make the choice to separate! Men who make the best adjustment will be those who work at making life richer, happier, more fulfilling. What do I miss from the last relationship? What are the elements I would rather avoid in a new partner. What are the dreams I deferred that I can now pursue? What did I learn that will make the next phase of my life as good as possible. All relationships have lessons to teach us. The challenge is to transform those lessons into growth that improves our future.

If you are going through a divorce and are concerned for how it is affecting you and your children, I can help, contact me.

25 Responses

  1. Daniel Malark says:

    My wife left me for another man over (what I thought was going to be a normal weekend). She said that Friday night that she was going to a party, mind you ahe is 27 years old. We don’t party anymore. I said that I didn’t want her to but that she could if she wanted. Anyways to make a long story short, she left me on that Sunday evening. She had police officers come to the house and escort me out. We lived with her mother. She told me that it was over and that she was with her new man. She filed for divorce and made me look like a very abusive husband, going as far as saying that I’ve threatene her and my daughter with a gun. Now I’m going through the grief of losing her and my daughter and I know that she’s been depressed for a few years but she’s blaming me for it and I only get to see my daughter for 5 hours during the week. I’m very lost, I’m trying to fight her for custody because of her lifestyle. She doesn’t even take care of our daughter, the grandmother does. I’m at a huge loss of what can be done to save my daughter’s future. Thank you for this article, it is very helpful on understanding this better.

  2. Kelly Gookin says:

    I am really struggling here, divorce recovery class and seeing a therapist also. I still feels so helpless and don’t think I’m go a make it some days. Thank you for your article. The fact that my wife has had someone else for the last year of my marriage is ripping me apart.

  3. PC says:

    Do you have any articles or resources about the emotional state of men when they are the ones terminating the marriage? Most of your excellent article seems to be geared towards men who are on the receiving end of a divorce.

    • Actually it is common for the person who initiates the divorce to have very similar feelings to the one who did not. Even when it is your idea, it is normal to feel anger for the partner who disappointed you and led to your making a difficult decision. I don’t know of any books or articles offhand, but I’ll do a little research. Thanks for the idea for an article though-“I’ve Separated, Now What?”

      • Jeffrey Franks says:

        Absolutely! I initiated my recent divorce after 33 years of marriage. I did so because I had not been happy in the marriage for a very long time. I am still grieving the loss of my marriage and the fact that she never seemed to understand or accept that I was unhappy, even after several attempts at marital counseling. She thinks it’s absurd that I am grieving, but I know that I am processing it all and it will take some time. No regrets, thank you for the article.

  4. Robin says:

    I initiated the whole break-up process due to a sexless (seven-year) marriage… we’ve been separated about 18 months. We were going to reconcile up to about April this year, when after a holiday to think about things I realised the divorce was necessary due to the lack of intimacy/love. From about the end of May onwards I felt I was doing really well – I had previously suffered anxiety and was constantly questioning my decision. A few weeks ago I served papers and it has brought everything back again… the questioning, the anxiety, the sense of loss. I constantly feel panicky, feel dejected when I think about the future, that there is no hope.

    • Divorce is a huge step and, as my article says, can have profound impact on those who experience it. You sound as though you really need some professional help to assist you. Look for an experienced psychologist, a support group and be sure to let your physician know how panicky you feel. Don’t suffer unnecessarily.

  5. Insane??? says:

    After 24 years of marriage, I found out my wife is cheating with a married family friend and has numerous online explicit relationships with multiple men. When confronted, she moves out and sues me for divorce. My crime is being a stupid trusting faithful husband who worked hard for his family. Our youngest is almost 18. In the great state of NJ, the courts will favor her to get a lot of alimony. I used to beg her to work full time to pay for our kids college education. She put in a court document we had irreconcilable differences for 5 years.
    The thought of paying alimony is infuriating and unconscionable. I dwell on the inevitable judgement, how I hate her and troll sites on how to move out of the country.
    I can’t be anymore lost. Any guidance would be helpful.

    • Your anger and distress is certainly understandable. Get all the help and support you can. Be open with your closest friends and family. You have children, so leaving the country would cause them to resent you and is not usually a practical solution. Let your attorney advise you. I also recommend online support groups for the partners of those with sex addictions. As always, I recommend working with a psychologist to help you through the tangle of emotions you are experiencing.

  6. I really like that you talked about recovery and renewal in your article. Getting a divorce is a very scary thing. My wife and I are going through one right now, and I don’t know how exactly I am going to come back from it. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve dated anyone else. Do you have any other post-divorce tips?

    • Support groups are enormously helpful. Don’t underestimate the benefit. Of course I also recommend counseling to help you through this very turbulent experience. It really does help.
      Best wishes,
      Dr. Goldstein

  7. Sly smith says:

    I feel like a failure

    • Because of divorce? You have lots of company. You may have failed with this person, do what you can to make sure you succeed with the next! Analyze what went wrong-with friends, with professional help if needed and be aware that most people feel their life improves after their divorce.

  8. Danielle says:

    Thank you for this site. One of my close friend’s is in the middle of a divorce and my heart bleeds for him. I’ve never seen him so shut away from the world and I feel completely helpless. There aren’t many websites that cater to men in divorce. So I thank you. It offers so clarity and I see that what he is going through is natural.

  9. Jennifer says:

    Hi there. I wondered if you have ever dealt with any men whose wife’s ended the marriage and thereafter became a lesbian? I have just broken up with my boyfriend who cannot come to terms with why his marriage ended. After months of it affecting us I finally persuaded him to go to a counsellor. His marriage ended 3 years ago and his divorce was finalised in March of this year. Unfortunately after 8 weeks of counselling he is still unaware of why his marriage ended. Despite both loving each other we agreed that he needs to deal with this on his own. I still hold out hope that he will recover and come back to me but I don’t know if this is unrealistic?

    • Yes, I have certainly dealt with this issue. It is one of many things that can complicate recovery from a divorce. I can’t answer in your specific case as to whether your boyfriend will make it through. It certainly sounds like he hasn’t yet.

      Best of luck,
      Dr. Goldstein

  10. New Ex says:

    Very good article identifying the phases. Less than 24 hours after I filed for divorce from my wife, the pain still comes in waves (even though I sought the divorce) but it helps to expect the pain and to identify it. Never let anybody say men who file for divorce aren’t hurting.

    • Anon says:

      So even the initiator hurts? It just seems on the outside that men are not phased at all by the separation. Do they obsess over small details of the relationship like women? Time is a great artist – painting old memories in new colours and hiding the imperfections of the reality…

  11. RDLR says:

    Thank you, Dr. Goldstein:

    I am going through a marriage dissolution right now. I have never felt more alone or powerless in my life.

    It’s good to know I’m not the only one who feels this way. It’s good to know that my grief and anger are normal markers of the grieving process.

  12. John H says:

    Thank you for the informative article. Apart from the parts on anger and custody (we didn’t have children) you broke down my personal experiences on the most challenging part of my life. I felt frustration instead of anger. I NEVER would lay a hand on my wife or act out violently towards her. Even when my wife choose to lock the doors on me. Legally, I had the right to return, but why force living with someone who doesn’t care or love you? Well, It’s been about a year and a half since our seperation and I’m finally feeling better. I will always love and care about my (ex)wife and that’s where the frustration comes from. I lost my best friend and there’s nothing I can do about it.. Thankfully, I’ve had the love and support from my family to recover. The sad part is I miss the company of a woman and I have a hard time trusting the loyalty of a future relationship.I hope more time will soften and heal my heart to trust again. Thanks again for taking the time to post this article.

    • New Ex says:

      John: there is a HUGE misperception in society that 1) women are always victims in divorce and 2) men who file for divorce aren’t in pain. It speaks well of you (after her behavior) that you miss her companionship. And missing that is excruciating, debilitating at times! I feel the same way about my soon to be ex wife, and even though I’m the one that filed, it hurts like hell and I’d give ANYTHING & EVERYTHING to stop this process, but I will not return to her ways. You stay strong, my friend.

  13. Gregory says:

    Thanks for posting this very helpful information. It is good to know that the stages are normal.

    Gregory

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