Divorce lawyers don’t enjoy a great reputation, which I have always thought to be unfair because we do care about our clients and their well-being. We also never see clients at their best; in fact, we usually see them at rock bottom. We have to listen to them, sometimes unable to string a sentence together coherently, and help them through one of the worst experiences of their lives. In truth we can only plaster over a wound which may be very deep indeed, because we don’t intrude into our client’s private lives any more than is necessary to help them through a difficult legal process and put them on the road to recovery. As a result it is good to see a client who may have started off at rock bottom gradually improve as the process takes its course.
But what happens afterwards? How long does it really take to get over a divorce?
I recently saw a former client who spent much of our lunch discussing the pain of her relationship breakdown post-divorce, which had lasted far longer than she thought. It had taken her two years to see any improvement in her general mood. The client talked at length about the severe and unexpected emotional fallout she had suffered after divorce, and it was all deeply unpleasant. Above all it was about coming home to an empty house after work, no-one to speak to, no-one who appeared to care. She was wise enough (and brave enough) to recognise she needed medical help to cope with her depression, and she started to gradually improve with a course of anti-depressants and counselling.
Of course, she isn’t alone. Most clients (those who don’t clam up and refuse to discuss their feelings) will also tell me about the sheer pain that grips them, and that it is the worst pain they have ever known. They have no idea how long it will last post after the divorce has been finalised, but for most it will continue for some time. Think about it – it must do. Divorce is a life changing process.
While some describe feeling actual physical pain, others feel the constant turmoil in having to deal with a marriage that has ended and adapting to a new life that they didn’t want. They feel as if they are constantly walking around under a black cloud. Life as they knew it is over; they are living a nightmare that they want to wake up from but can’t. This is their life and it isn’t what they planned or wanted. It’s the loneliness that for most is the worst. There is no one else there. No other to talk to in the day and no one to return home to; to go out with to the cinema or dinner.
Most people in describing their pain will tend to focus on their other spouse. That person’s breach of trust, the consequent sense of shock and devastation they feel, and the difficulty of coming to terms with the truth. They will talk of their realisation that the person they are divorcing is not the person they thought they had married. The person on the other side of the courtroom is a virtual stranger. They are grasping, devious greedy and sly, but physically look exactly the same who may have also found another. And yet… they are someone that they used to love, and in some cases still do. If only that person hadn’t changed, hadn’t turned into a stranger, the loneliness and the loss wouldn’t be happening right now. While this may be a wholly justifiable viewpoint from their perspective, it means they can blame the transformation of their spouse, and their consequent estrangement, for all their ills. I dont think it helps the recovery process. Sometimes when bad things happen, you need to look forwards, not back.
But there are others who do accept what has happened. They accept that their spouse has finally had enough and called time on their marriage. They accept that decision with resignation, believing in their heart of hearts that it was their own fault anyhow. So for them, the pain afterwards may be even more intense because it is mixed with huge regrets and thoughts of “what might have been” and “if only”. But it is too late for their spouse, who may have taken many years to reach a decision, and too late for their marriage.
Equally there is the spouse wracked with guilt who has broken up the marriage because someone else has come onto the scene. Make no mistake, that spouse will also continue to feel the loss of his or her family and experience feelings of guilt for several years or even a lifetime. These feelings may manifest themselves in the mistreatment of a second spouse and the ruin of a second marriage.
On the other hand, some people jointly accept that the marriage has come to an end and decide to make a fresh start on their own. The couple may have been drifting apart for years and will go through a relatively amicable divorce. There are no major fights about money or the children. The acute pain only hits home after the deal has quickly been done. At that point the loneliness of an empty house and having to make new relationships or friends, do the shopping, cooking and housework when the other spouse used to do it all for them, can be devastating.
Sometimes one party pretends there is still hope and that the marriage can be saved, even when the facts are clear to see. Surely it is obvious that if someone does want to save their marriage they will work at it? They will not give out signals by moving out of the family home. Often in trying to put off the pain of divorce that spouse puts on a blindfold and refuses to accept what concerned outsiders can see. They are making the situation far worse for themselves until they finally come to realise that the marriage is over and then the pain begins even harder and in earnest.
I have found that for some people, if there is a family bereavement or illness to cope with as well, it can all become too much. How do you continue to run your life and continue to smile, continue to do your job, if your heart is broken with grief and there is the devastation of two major traumas to cope with?
In my experience some people can go through one or two major traumas and appear fine, but are not healing. They are the ones who everyone thinks are strong and absolutely fine. They are strong – too strong. They laugh, smile and make jokes. They seem just the same as always. Outwardly that may be the case; but look for the small signs and things may not be quite what they seem. Do they believe they have symptoms of serious illness? Are they always visiting the doctor for some imaginary condition? For them this is a plausible explanation for what they are going through, because they can’t pour out what is really wrong.
Getting divorced is far from the easy process that the media would have you believe. It is the toughest decision that most couples have to make and it is never made on the spur of the moment, or on a whim. I have met many different people going through truly devastating times and the above are examples of just a few. It is trite to suggest that such relationships can simply be mended. Couples who choose to inflict this on themselves do so because the marriage has indeed irretrievably broken down. So, when we are hit by trauma we all react as human beings, with feelings and responses. Some will find it worse than others. Some will inflict more pain on themselves than is fair or necessary.
But let’s be positive in the midst of so much pain. Is there a remedy? Short term my answer is that all divorcing spouses, without exception, should be fully prepared to go through a severe emotional reaction and acknowledge that it may even last for some years. To help themselves, they should always try and honestly recognise if things aren’t right, and if behaviour alters to seek medical help. There is no need to live under a black cloud and act out a life. We go to the doctor for physical complaints and mental health is just another problem. Don’t ever be afraid to get help and undertake a course of anti-depressants, counselling or therapy if prescribed. Opening up – letting out the grief and talking honestly – will help anyone to find the path to recovery.
Coping with the loneliness is of course the hardest thing. Whereas before there was someone there, someone to speak to, even if it wasnt great between you, now there is no-one. And why is this happening to you anyhow? How did you end up here in this hard place? Why you?
To all of this there isn’t an easy answer. Some people turn to drink, smoke, drive too fast, all a short term fix. Some turn to the Internet, with a glass of wine or a gin and tonic in hand. It isnt real life. My answer has always been to encourage daily exercise of some kind to try and lift your mood and gain self-knowledge and accept of what has happened; the pain is only transient, even if in truth it may take years to fully pass.
Time really is a healer. Pain will dull. There is eventually some sunshine again. People around you do care, even if with their own busy lives it doesnt always show.
How do I know all this? No I haven’t been divorced, but I have counselled many in such situations and seen friends go through it all. I have admired their resiliance. I too have certainly experienced life’s ups and downs in different ways. So I know how it all works and that we are all programmed so that it does come to an end. We have to ride those waves, all those ups and downs, and I promise that eventually there will be calm seas ahead.