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When the Bomb Drops

For many men, a wife's request for divorce is the first sign of trouble in the marriage.

When the Bomb Drops

For many men, a wife's request for a divorce is the first inkling that something is wrong with the relationship. It hits them out of the blue.

Truth is, such men just don't recognize the signs. Take one common pattern: A wife snipes at everything he does, but he never stops to ask why she's always angry.

After the bomb drops, these men are usually in terrible shape, say Steven Lerner, Ph.D., of Kansas's famed Menninger Clinic, and Betty Carter, M.S.W., head of the Westchester (New York) Institute for Family Therapy. They don't just lose their wife and kids, they lose their entire social network. Ashamed of being "done to," and even more ashamed about the distress they're experiencing, they feel a failure and get deeply depressed. They tend to relentlessly stalk their partner; they refuse to let go.

And that, say Lerner and Carter, makes it a perfect opportunity for them--to redefine their masculinity. They need to shift their focus from their ex to themselves. Here's the irony: Changing themselves sometimes even has a positive impact on the marriage. But it always has a positive impact on the man.

Carter says that only her long-term feminism enabled her to see through to the heart of the problem: Women are often living their husband's emotional lives for them, protecting them, not expecting much of them--and then divorcing them for living up to those low expectations.

"It's a time for guys to pick up the developmental pieces of themselves they lost along the way," says Carter. "They need to do the developmental work that they didn't do at the time they left home."

For most males, that means recovering the sense of emotional connectedness they did not have as part of their upbringing, like learning how to take responsibility for contacting others and building their own supportive social network.

Although many men will almost instinctively try to isolate themselves, both Carter and Lerner believe it's imperative that they get a push in the opposite direction. So they start such guys off making contact with their own family of origin, from whom they often feel cut off. They also guide them to actively cultivate friends.

There's only one alternative--to stay stuck in permanent grief over the loss.