If divorce rivals bereavement and moving house as one of the most stressful events that life can throw at us, are there any differences in the way men and women respond to this upheaval?
The traditional, stereotypical view of divorce went something like this: a devoted, stay-at-home mother is devastated to find that her caddish, breadwinning husband has been carrying on with his secretary. He’s the villain and she’s the victim. In the subsequent divorce proceedings, family court judges would be focused on the needs of the wronged wife and children: maintenance, child support, and often the former matrimonial home too. Friends and family would rally around the wife while the straying husband would be left to fend for himself.
But of course, real life is rarely so black and white. Something like 70 per cent of divorces are initiated by women and not all of those are down to bad behaviour by the husbands. Many wives simply want to be liberated from partners they are now bored or frustrated by and no longer love.
Breadwinner husbands – especially those on more modest salaries – may suddenly find themselves financially strained: having to pay their own way and find maintenance and mortgage payments for their estranged or ex-wife and every-other-weekend children. Two households to support instead of just one.
But even if their paycheques can be stretched comfortably there is the emotional toll to consider as well. Women typically have closer relationships with their friends and feel free to seek emotional support from them. This is not, in so far as you can generalise, normally the case with men, who are not encouraged to get in touch with their own emotions and generally have more distant relationships with their friends – if they even have any. It’s not uncommon for men to have no close friends at all.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that men seem to struggle more than women after divorce, especially if they did not want their marriages to end. They are more likely to become depressed, more likely to drink too much and more likely to consider suicide according to statistics. Alienation from their children – something experienced much more frequently by fathers – only adds to the load.
Last year, the actor Laurence Fox described in vivid terms the crippling panic attacks he experienced after the end of his marriage to actress and former pop singer Billie Piper:
“It’s like being plugged into an electric socket where you go mental. I’ve learnt to put on my running shoes and sprint as fast as I can until I can’t move any more, then there’s something else distracting me and the endorphins kick in and you start to feel better. Thankfully [the panic attacks are] getting less all the time.”
Old social attitudes linger, according to psychologist Elle Boag, who told the Mail earlier this year:
“[Divorced women] are still typically seen as the “victim”, while men, often forced away from their children and familiar environment, typically find it harder to express emotions and admit they need help.”
So if you are a divorcing husband, what can you do? I recently came across an article on this very topic on a site called The Good Men Project, which offers a menu of lifestyle articles aimed at male readers. This one advises men contending with a divorce to “make yourself a priority”, by which the author means looking out for emotional symptoms that could mean the normal stress and sense of loss that accompanies divorce has begun to fester into depression.
Another suggestion is attention to physical health: exercise, walking, eating nutritious food. Our minds are not detached computers riding through the world in our heads: they are intimately linked to our bodies and the health of one affects the health of the other. Mens sana in corpore sano. Laurence Fox clearly found running to be something that benefitted his own mental health.
The author of the Good Men Project articles also advises men trying to chase away the blues by making a conscious effort to focus on the more positive aspects of their daily lives.
All very sensible and just as applicable to divorcing wives perhaps. But other suggestions made in the article are perhaps less practical for male readers. The author writes of creating a “nurturing support system during separation and divorce”, consisting of “friends, family, co-workers or even a counsellor”. How exactly your average divorcing husband is supposed to do that is less clear, when most will never have discussed their emotional lives with the first three in that list. Perhaps a paid counsellor is the best place to start.
There’s no doubt that divorce brings with it a very specific crate of challenges for men, ones for which there may be no simple answers. All we can do at the end of the day is make the best of our own specific circumstances.
You can read the article here.
Image by Richard Parmiter via Flickr