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How to Survive the Shock of the Decision to Divorce

The first days are a tailspin of emotions. Here's how to cope.

Key points

  • The first few days after the decision to divorce can be incredibly difficult and overwhelming.
  • Taking it one moment at a time, focusing on food, sleep, and caring for your children, and finding ways to calm yourself down can help.
  • People should avoid making big decisions, getting a lawyer, and beginning negotiations in the immediate aftermath of the decision to divorce.

Frances and Tony had worked with me for several years as they tried to hold their marriage together. Unfortunately, even though both wanted to save their marriage, and both had made sincere efforts, the quarreling, complaints, and tension continued. Finally, Frances came to a session with Tony and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I think I want a trial separation.” She then bolted from the room, into the adjacent bathroom, where we could hear her retching and sobbing. Tony sat stunned on the sofa.

Although I didn’t understand this until later, Frances had waited for a therapy session to tell Tony of her decision because she was panicked. She told me she had wanted me to be there to support and contain Tony because she was sure he would be furious. For months she struggled with the decision to separate because divorce went against her deeply held family values. Ultimately she felt she had no choice because she believed the stress of the marriage was causing serious stress-related health problems.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
The shock of the decision to divorce will affect both of you, even if you are the one who made the decision.
Source: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Tony exploded when Frances returned from the bathroom, so I quickly stepped in and asked Frances to leave the room. I told her I would check in with her later in the evening, but that she needed to go home, calm herself, and pick up the children from school. I knew she was distraught but I was more worried about Tony. Over the years I had seen Frances’ resilience and knew that she had a good support system of friends and family. Tony, however, was more isolated and had few friends. He had focused on his career and been the primary breadwinner. He was also prone to extreme mood swings, and his outburst worried me. I wanted to make sure he was safe as he had made suicidal statements in the past. Before he left my office we arranged that he would go directly to a friend’s house for the night and he agreed to come back to see me the next day. We spoke explicitly about his suicidal thoughts and he promised to not harm himself or anyone else.

The decision or announcement to separate or divorce triggers a tsunami of crisis proportions, especially in the first few days. Whether you have made the decision or your spouse has, it can feel like the ground has fallen away under your feet. For many people, it is a life-altering trauma. Clients have told me they feel like they are suddenly living in an alternate universe.

How to get through the first few days

1. Take it one moment at a time. Frances used meditation to ground herself every day, and although she felt physically nauseated, she reminded herself again and again that she’d “get through the tough times ahead and make it to the other side.” When Tony came to see me we discussed breathing exercises to help him stay in the present. "Just three deep breaths," I urged. Deep belly breaths helped him regain control of his anxiety.

2. Focus on getting through each chore and responsibility in front of you. Frances worked to keep her daily routines the same. Sometimes she was tempted to go back to bed after dropping the kids off at school. Instead, she took the dog out for a long walk. Tony found that when he concentrated on his work, he could set aside his anger and fear, at least for the time being.

3. Focus on making yourself food, getting sleep, and caring for your children. Overwhelmed with emotion, some people lose their appetite and others eat to self-soothe. Frances bought a pack of cigarettes the next day, although she hadn’t smoked in more than 20 years. She realized she was harming herself, and probably feeling guilty. She quickly realized smoking would not be the way to calm herself, so she threw the pack into the trash. Tony agreed to avoid the fast-food he usually ate on his lunch hour.

4. Do whatever you can to calm yourself so that you can think clearly. Your mind may be racing because you are probably anxious or terrified. You may also be feeling sick with guilt, fear, anger, or shame. You need to breathe and calm the racing thoughts and wild emotional swings. Tony began to have suicidal thoughts, but because he was staying with friends for the first few days, he was able to talk to his friends and get the support he needed. When he and I met we talked about how it would damage the children if he followed through on these thoughts. When I reminded him that his suicide would increase the odds that his children would consider suicide during tough times, he was able to agree to a safety contract.

5. No big decisions in a crisis! Stay in the present moment, and as you begin to calm your emotions you will be able to make rational decisions. Tony thought about ways to “get back at Frances,” he told me later. “I thought about buying a motorcycle or moving money to a secret bank account.” Fortunately, his friends advised him to avoid any big decisions for the time being.

6. Don’t “lawyer up” yet. Tony was angry and impulsive, so he went to the courthouse the very next day and filed for divorce. Frances had asked for a “trial separation,” but Tony reacted with anger. Filing for divorce was something he could control, at a time when Frances’ decision made him feel powerless. Tony found the lawyer that his friends called “a shark,” but Frances eventually persuaded him to mediate instead.

7. Don’t start to negotiate your financial settlement or custody schedule yet. Tony told me that with so much anxiety, he wanted Frances to immediately agree that “I would keep the house and have the kids 50/50.” Unfortunately, Frances, who felt guilty and scared, agreed to these things without the benefit of time to consider her options, and without consulting an attorney to learn about her legal rights. With a calmer mind, she might have said, “I’m not ready to make any agreements yet because I need a lot more information. Let’s talk about these things with our mediator.”

8. Don’t recruit alliances from friends and family. This is the time to seek support from friends and family but avoid asking them to take sides. While emotions are stirred up now, eventually it will be better for the entire family, especially for your children, if you can find a way to separate in a non-adversarial process. Tell your family and friends that two people contribute to the breakup of a relationship, even though it takes only one to decide the relationship is over.

9. Take the advice of friends and family with a grain of salt. People who care about you will have a strong reaction when they learn that you are separating. We call people who give you well-meaning advice a “Greek chorus.” Unfortunately, the advice to “fight it out” or “lawyer up” will often make things much worse. Ask them to support your family as you chart a path to “one family under two roofs.”

Tony stayed with friends for about a week. He and Frances came to therapy twice that week to discuss their next steps and to make some agreements about when and how they would talk to their children. They also agreed to nest for a period of time, while they pursued mediation to resolve financial and parenting issues.

It has now been 20 years since their divorce. Tony and Frances have both remarried, and they share the joys of being grandparents. While the divorce has scarred them both, the wounds have healed and they are both satisfied with their lives. While Tony and Frances would both say that they wished they’d been able to avoid divorce, they would also say that life is good now.

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