Divorce can drain the life out of life. But a bad relationship can too. People over the age of 50 have unique challenges after breakups.
John Gottman, Ph.D. has studied married couples for decades, but his research can apply to any relationship, not just married couples. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (2015), he describes attributes of relationships that he predicts “with 90% accuracy” will end. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling are what he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. No one enters a relationship with these attributes; they develop over time. Unfortunately, many divorcing couples carry these attributes into the negotiations and courtroom.
John*, 50, lives in a rented apartment in the same town he and his wife had lived for the past 22 years. John liked being married. He envisioned “growing old” with his wife. But two months ago, she said that she had “had enough” and wanted a divorce. Over the years, John’s wife had complained that John never listened or talked about anything meaningful in their relationship. John said he didn’t like confrontation and avoided conversations about feelings. His wife had tried over the years to “make the relationship work,” adjusting her personality to meet his needs. When she finally hired an attorney and froze the marital assets, she had reached the just-get-me-out-of-here stage. She was stuck in anything-to-stop-the-pain thinking. Their children were disappointed but not surprised. John ruminates about what went wrong and worries about how, at his age, he will ever recover. He feels a sense of relief from his wife’s “emotions” and her “demands for more intimacy” but he misses her too. Without attention to healing, a loss of this magnitude has the potential to become a permanent state of inertia, sadness, or resentment. It doesn’t have to be, though.
First let’s acknowledge what’s happened. Divorce is a loss, a big loss, on the magnitude of death. Unlike losing someone to death though, there are no grieving ceremonies, no neighbors bringing food, friends calling to ask how you’re doing. You may have a few close friends who understand, but for the most part, you’ll mourn the losses of divorce alone. What did you lose? There might be an initial finally free feeling. But what about the dreams you had, the plans, a future with someone, a connection to another human being, social status, the list is long and personal.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross observed five stages of grief that she describes in her book On Death and Dying. The stages apply to any loss, divorce too: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, hopefully, acceptance. There may also be a stage of elation or relief.
Like healing from a death, the recovery process from divorce or breakup is not linear. The stages are not guaranteed or experienced by everyone in the same way or in any order. You may have heard stories of people who “don’t miss a beat” and get out right away to meet people, have fun, and celebrate their new-found freedom. They are the exception.
John is stuck. He’s not living in the present. He can’t. The past is creeping into the present and the present has become so painful he experiences physical symptoms. He doesn’t sleep through the night, he cries every night, he has lost his appetite, and has little energy. His mind, body, spirit, and heart have been assaulted by the trauma of the separation and the loss of the most important relationship in his life.
Divorce is personal
Keep in mind that every divorce is different; every healing process unique. There are no guarantees for recovery; no time line anyone can point to and say, “You are here and in six months you’ll be there.” Initially, like John, being left can result in a state of shock. Emotional numbness. Feeling like you’ve been run over by a truck or ripped in half. You might not even be able to take care of yourself. Asking friends and family members for TLC is a good idea if you can do that. Support groups, therapy, also good ideas.
If not shock, you might feel buried by an avalanche of emotions. All at once. All at extreme levels. Sadness. Elation. Fear. Anger. Loneliness. Despair. Confusion.
Divorce and the past, present, future
Past Whether painful experiences happened twenty years ago or twenty minutes ago, the human brain is wired to hold on to them. That’s why you’ll think about a conversation you had with your partner, or ex-partner, over and over and over again. Or think “what if” or “if only.” Remembering scary, painful events supposedly protects us from getting hurt again. Usually, though, we just continue to feel the pain. When we’ve experienced too much pain, like John, some of us shut down. Or we react to real and perceived situations on autopilot, often with unpleasant results. We relive, not learn from, the unpleasant situation. Strategy #1: When you catch yourself reliving the past, distract yourself into the present. Listen to music, go for a walk, eat a lemon, hold an ice cube. Rub an essential oil in your hands and smell it. “I am here. He (she) can’t hurt me anymore.”
Future The future you thought you were headed for is gone. Your new future is unknown. Future thinking includes worry and fear, feelings about real or imagined difficulties with health, finances, relationships, children. Some people might call this anxiety or stress. Another survival mechanism, worry and fear about what could happen offers an opportunity to plan for the future. But excessive worrying or fear serves no purpose and can prevent planning, which involves thinking, not feeling. Strategy #2: When you catch yourself worrying about finances or being alone, ask yourself to put that worry aside just for a minute. Time yourself. Take a few deep breaths, then ask, “What can I do now to prevent that from happening?” If nothing, then ask, “What are the other possible futures?”
Present The present is all that we have. But when the present is too painful, we’ve got to go somewhere. Be especially careful to avoid using substances and other unhealthy activities to escape. Sometimes all we can do is focus on the moment. Take a long deep breath. Smile (even if you don’t want to). Exhale. Savor the moment.
The past is gone. We cannot predict the future. Talking with a trained professional can help you to heal from past hurt and reduce worry about the future so you can live a more satisfying life now. The present is not always pleasant, but it is a real experience rather than imagined or remembered. Some effective ways to do that are:
- Mindful awareness, meditation, or learning to live in the moment with awareness of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and behaviors. Living mindfully can reduce worries about the future (anxiety) and unpleasant feelings about the past (sadness, anger, betrayal, shame). Try this: Take a long breath in. Exhale. Do that ten times and count “Breath in one. Breath out one. Breath in two. Breath out two.” And so on.
- Emotion regulation You can learn to harness the power of your emotions and reduce reactivity (acting without thinking).
- Self-knowledge Learn about who you are, how you relate to yourself, and how you relate to others.
- Self-care You can learn to be more kind to yourself and to value your feelings, thoughts, hopes, dreams, and desires. You can learn to take yourself seriously while making time for play, relaxation, and enjoyment. You can learn to forgive yourself for being human (we all make mistakes). And learn to accept kindness from others while being more kind and respectful even when you disagree. Learn to respect boundaries (yours and others’). Of course, self-care also means knowing who to stay away from.
This is another example of the importance of being aware of habits that don’t serve you and practicing habits that do.
*John is a fictional character; image from canstockphoto.com
Kubler-Ross, E. (2014). On death and dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy and their own families. New York: Scribner.