The only trauma worse than divorce, on some life events scales, is the death of a child. And if you talk with anyone who has been divorced, they will tell you that it feels like a death. It is the death of the hopes and dreams that you had as you stood at the altar. It is the death of your identity as a spouse, as a wife or husband. And the divorce process itself can be very traumatic, especially if you go to court. It is a big life crisis.
Because it is a life crisis it is helpful to take things one day at a time. This means slowing down even if what you really want is to rush through and “get it over with.” You need to take care of yourself before making huge decisions that you will live with for the rest of your life. If you recognize that you are experiencing overwhelming feelings, then it should make sense that you need to prioritize your own recovery, or at least set a direction toward recovery.
Some information about trauma
In a divorce, there is the first, immediate trauma, and then the longer-term trauma which may not fully resolve until long after the legal divorce is over.
There are many triggers of divorce trauma.
- You made the decision to divorce. Nevertheless, it is traumatic, contrary to what many believe.
- You are suddenly blindsided by your spouse who wants to divorce, and you are in shock.
- You have discovered infidelity or other secrets or betrayals.
- You have been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused.
- Family, friends or your children choose sides, distance themselves, or abandon you.
- There are all the losses you never expected.
Trauma takes over our body, mind, and spirit
Our brains are wired to react to trauma the way they did long ago when a saber-toothed tiger entered your cave. The thing is, your brain doesn’t know the difference between a saber-toothed tiger and a divorce. It reacts the same way.
Trauma changes the chemistry in your body. You are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones. Your heart rate and blood pressure go up. You get ready to run for your life or to fight for survival. Or you are stopped in your tracks, the “deer in the headlights.” It is the flight-fight-freeze reaction built into your brain to help you survive threats to your very existence.
Your “emotional brain” hijacks your “thinking brain.” The end of a marriage can feel like a threat to whom you are as a person, your very existence.
Your body speaks to you, and often your symptoms have meaning. Other physical signs include an anxious stomach or digestive problems such as IBS, or muscle aches and pains. In my divorce, I had TMJ, terrible pain in my jaw, which told me that I was literally and metaphorically “biting my tongue.” Notice your physical symptoms and think about what your body is telling you.
How trauma affects you
- You will experience some or all of these emotional symptoms too: grief, guilt, shame, rage, depression, and anxiety.
- You feel helpless, powerless.
- You sleep too much or can’t sleep at all. You may have nightmares. You are exhausted.
- You can’t stop thinking about it, so you can’t focus on work or your daily tasks.
- You feel irritable or moody.
- You discover that you have a short fuse because your resilience has been eroded by stress. It is harder to cope with everyday minor stresses that were easier to manage in the past.
- Your eating changes. You may lose your appetite, often called “the divorce diet.”
As you navigate the legal divorce process, your feelings intensify.
- You have extremely negative thoughts about yourself, “I am a failure.” “I will never be happy again.” “No one will ever want me.”
- You worry about your children, if you have them, “They will be permanently scarred by the divorce.”
- You might try to cope in negative ways, such as drinking or risky behaviors.
- Trauma leads to a loss of faith, your future looks dim.
- You feel unsafe in the world, and can’t let go of your anxiety and fears.
- You may isolate yourself. In extreme cases, you may contemplate suicide. If so, seek help immediately.
Over time, chronic trauma leads to a weakened immune system. You get sick more easily because your body is exhausted from the long-term flood of cortisol and other stress hormones.
Does any of this describe your experience?
What you can do
The problem is that you need to be able to think clearly at what may be the worst time in your life. The divorce involves a lot of work and life-long decisions, and your kids need you. You need to get and stay physically strong and healthy.
- Do everything you can to choose a non-adversarial divorce process such as Collaborative Divorce or mediation. This puts you in control of the many decisions you will make. Litigation will increase your stress exponentially, so don’t do that unless you really need someone else to make decisions for you.
- Focus on your children. Discuss the idea of nesting (or birdnesting) with your spouse. Keeping your kids stable while you sort out your next steps is your top priority. This is hard because you may have your kids part-time, which increases the pain of the loss. You’ll be grieving the loss of daily contact with your kids. Make time every day to read to them, or talk, or even just to watch them sleep. This will lower your blood pressure. When you hold someone you love, like your child, or your pet, my favorite hormone, oxytocin, is released. This wonderful hormone is calming to you and your child. There is a term for that, limbic resonance.
- Reach out to family and friends. Don’t wait for them, they may not know how or what to say. You don’t have to talk about the divorce if you don’t want to. But make the connection and get some emotional support. You might coach your friend to remind you that “This is all going to work out, you’ll be OK.” Because when you’re in the fog of divorce trauma, it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Isolation is not healthy, especially during a traumatic time.
- Join a divorce support group. There are online groups as well as local groups so you can remember that you are not alone.
- Consider hiring a divorce coach to support you through the process. Hire a trained divorce coach who can help you speak for yourself in your divorce negotiations.
- If you are struggling, get therapy—to process the grief, anger, anxiety, etc. Talk to your doctor about medication. Look for therapists who specialize in trauma treatment, such as EMDR, brainspotting, tapping, etc.
- Practice calming techniques such as deep breaths or use a highly-rated app such as Calm.
- Focus on the future, not the past. Visualize how you’d like your life to be in two years or five. “If I could look into the future and see myself happy, what would I be doing, thinking, or saying?” Keep moving toward that goal.
- Recognize that if the marriage failed, you are not a failure.
- Avoid confrontations or power struggles with your ex. Conflict with your ex just increases the trauma and probably won't solve the issue you are arguing about. Conflict also increases the financial costs of divorce, and most importantly, it is the most damaging part of divorce for kids. If you can detach and let go, you can move toward recovery. If this seems too hard, a therapist or divorce coach can help.
- Rebuild your sense of identity as a WHOLE person, not a broken person. In the U.S. there is a divorce every 36 seconds, according to the American Psychological Association. So you are not alone.
- Self-care—plant a garden, learn to meditate, do yoga, explore new interests. Read more about self-care here.
- Be kind and gentle with yourself.
Trust that it will get better, especially after the divorce is done and your life is stable again.
© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D., 2020.