Women and Divorce
by Robin L Goldstein, EdD Licensed Psychologist
Divorce and separation can be the most challenging experiences in a woman’s life. Most people are surprised to learn that a significant majority of divorce actions are initiated by women rather than men. While women often are the ones who make this decision this does not mean they come to it without enormous difficulty. Women are still considered by society to be the foundation of family life. While men are increasingly sharing in family responsibility, most women continue to feel that the burden is primarily theirs. This means that many women will carry an additional burden of guilt if they make a decision to break up the family. Women also continue to have primary responsibility for child care in most families and these responsibilities tend to increase after a divorce. Women who make the choice to separate have often struggled with the decision for a long period of time, reluctant to act because of guilt and ambivalence. I am not suggesting that the decision should ever be made lightly but too often a separation is delayed past the point when harm to the children or the woman’s self esteem has already occurred.
WOMEN AND DIVORCE: GRIEF AND MOURNING
Divorce represents a major loss. All of us enter marriage with great hope and a feeling of security about our choice of a life mate. Many women will feel a sense of personal failure when things do not work out, even when the blame may more accurately lie with her partner. Divorce represents a loss of dreams and a loss of the future. Over the years, I have talked to many women who have left men who were cruel or physically violent but even in these cases there are good times and happy memories. Few situations are absolute; people have good as well as bad qualities. Even when there is an initial sense of relief, if the woman is the one to do the leaving, there is usually a period of grief. Many separations occur despite ongoing feelings of love and attachment. Women in these situations leave in spite of their feelings because they feel it is essential to their safety or well being or that of their children.
This grief is normal. Only those incapable of real love and attachment will separate without deep feelings of loss. It is a sign of our humanity when we have strong emotions after the end of this very central relationship. Grief can occur even when the woman is happy to be free of her partner and an unfulfilled relationship. In these instances the grief is for the lost family and the hopes for that relationship.
WOMEN AND DIVORCE: NEW RESPONSIBILITIES
When a life is shared with another person, there are many changes when that partner is no longer there. For women it often means new and additional responsibilities. Current research shows that women still do the majority of child care and housework among couples. Even when the man is doing very little to help at home, he is usually helping to some degree. Separation almost always adds to the woman’s to do list even though there is one less person around.
An even bigger change occurs when the man was the primary breadwinner. The most recent census data shows that 75% of women are in the labor force vs 91% of men. Only 64% of women with children under the age of 6 are in the labor force. Men still out earn most women by a large margin. In 2005 women earned, on average, only 77% of what men earn. This means that for many women divorce will mean a diminished standard of living. Many women will have to enter the job market or expand from part time to full time work. Divorce affects men financially as well but currently a larger burden of adjustment falls on a greater proportion of women.
When thinking about the impact of divorce it is important to remember the many changes in a woman’s life that will accompany the breakup of the relationship. The more changes and adjustments, the more difficult it is to cope emotionally. Despite the enormous stress and grief that may be affecting a woman she will still have to maintain her many roles-employee, parent, home maker. Sometimes even friends who are well meaning will push their friend to “get over it”; that is deny her level of distress and behave as if she feels much better than she does.
WOMEN AND DIVORCE: A MIX OF EMOTIONS
Many people are surprised by the intensity and variability of their emotions. It is not unusual to feel anger and hostility toward the absent partner as well as love and longing. In most situations in life our feelings are fairly straightforward. We are happy or sad, angry or unperturbed. In separation and divorce it is not uncommon to have a roller coaster of changing emotions, all of which are valid! Because these intense shifts of emotions are unusual for women they might fear that they are going crazy or that there is something seriously wrong. In fact this seesaw is very normal and predictable. Even though it is normal it can still be unhealthy and interfere with recovery from these often traumatic events.
About 25% of people going through a divorce will experience extreme anger. This anger can cause serious problems for the woman herself, her children or her partner. Extreme anger can lead to violence. Women who have never had any involvement with the law are shocked to be arrested for domestic violence but this does happen! Women who hit or throw things at their partner in anger or destroy property can be charged with domestic violence. Women have also stalked or otherwise harassed their former partners. Extreme anger further humiliates the woman who feels abandoned and may cause her to lose the support of her friends and family. Intense anger can also be very destructive if the woman’s children are exposed to it.
One of the worst cycles occurs when a woman loses control of her anger and acts or speaks in ways that are destructive leading her to feel guilty, depressed, out of control and even less able to cope. Women as well as men turn to substance abuse in their attempts to deal with their feelings. Increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs is not uncommon. Some women act out sexually to try and feel that they are still attractive and wanted. Sexual acting out may cause increased guilt and sense of worthlessness rather than the escape and feeling of power the woman is seeking.
WOMEN AND DIVORCE: WHEN AND HOW TO KNOW TO SEEK HELP
Professional help can be of great value in navigating this major life transition. Anyone struggling with chronic anxiety, depression or insomnia that interferes with day to day functioning (problems concentrating at work, loss of temper with children or friends, chronic sleeplessness, inability to find pleasure or comfort, frequent crying) would benefit from counseling and perhaps medications to control anxiety and insomnia. Support groups either in real life or online can also be valuable. Friends and family may try to be supportive but often do not have the patience or time that a professional has to offer or that someone else going through the same experience might provide. Timely intervention can go a long way toward helping women to make this critical adjustment and build a new life. None of this is easy.
The good news is that research shows that a large majority of people feel that their life is better two years after a divorce-even those who did not make the initial decision. Life expectancy has increased a great deal in the last century-from around 47 in 1900 to 83 for women today. Who we are and what we need at 20 or 30 years of age may be very different from the person we become at 40 or 50. For many people divorce is an opportunity to make their life better. For this to occur, women need to grieve and understand their losses and make wise decisions about their future.
If you are going through a divorce and have gotten lost in the whirlwind, I can help, contact me.
- Stages of Divorce Recovery for Men: Surprises and Myths
- Stages of Divorce Recovery for Men: The Power of Anger
- Stages of Divorce Recovery for Men: Acceptance vs Denial
- Stages of Divorce Recovery for Men: Custody
- Stages of Divorce Recovery for Men: Anxiety
- Stages of Divorce Recovery for Men: Grief
- Stages of Divorce Recovery for Men: Recovery and Renewal