The Two Things That Make a Breakup Devastating

Why some divorces really are harder than others (and what to do about it).

Posted Mar 13, 2016

People often assume that the way people react to divorce is based on gender: Men, they think, clearly move on faster and have an easier time separating past from present.  Women, on the other hand, are the ones who take much longer to recover.

In my 16 years of working with couples in troubled marriages and those breaking up, I can tell you this is not true. I’ve seen plenty of men who have suffered terribly when their marriage dissolved and I’ve witnessed dozens of women move right in to the next relationship.

There is a clear line that determines how well people react to the situation, but the division is not based on gender, rather on two completely different factors.

The first factor is determined by whose choice it was to end the marriage.

Invariably, the leaver seems to be able to move on faster than the leavee. If you look at the chart below, it’s easy to understand why this is:

            LEAVER                                                          LEAVEE

                        ______________________________________

                                 *** DIVORCE CONTEMPLATION ***

            Initial Loss, Pain, Guilt, Angst

            Protest

            Despair

            Detachment

                 ***ANNOUNCEMENT THAT SPOUSE WANTS A DIVORCE***

            Relief                                                               Shock, Pain, Anger

            Reorganization                                                Initial Loss

                                                                                    Protest

                                                                                    Despair

                                                                                    Detachment

                                             ******   D I V O R C E  *****

                                                                                Reorganization (this can take years)

                                (Graphic adapted from Contemplating Divorce)

The person who has been thinking about leaving longer, will be further along in the grief process than the person who has just been told their marriage is over. The one initiating the breakup may have, in fact, gone through many moments of sadness, guilt and anguish but if these weren’t expressed, it can seem to the person being left that their mate felt nothing.

This brings me to the second factor that creates a strong (negative) reaction: Whether the leavee saw it coming.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a husband or wife say, “I thought everything was fine…” before they got run over by the Mack truck. One woman told me that her biggest worry in the morning was what they would eat for dinner. When he arrived home that evening and announced that he was leaving, she was wasn't at all prepared.

I know what many of you are thinking: “How could they think everything was fine? How could they not know their mate was unhappy?” I used to think this too. But, after many years of hearing from people who really didn’t know anything was wrong, I began to see a pattern.

In relationships where one person in the couple is what’s known as a “conflict avoidant,*” there may be absolutely no indication that there was discord (*men are more conflict avoidant than women which may contribute to the perception that men move on faster than women). He may act as if everything is fine—she may be stuffing her emotions to the point where she actually believes that everything is fine. But, invariably, the day comes when the bottom falls out. And this is the day when he or she comes home and says—out of the blue, “I want out of this marriage.”

When the leaver unloads the burden of the secret that he or she wants to move on, a sense of relief usually follows. Now, he or she can begin to move on with their life. The leavee, however, is just beginning the painful process of trying to understand what happened and why.

When we have choice in life, we feel empowered. When we don’t, we feel disabled and this disempowerment doesn’t bring out our best.

It’s bad enough when the divorce wasn’t your choice. Add to that humiliation, and the feeling that you were never given the chance to make things right, and you might feel utterly cut off at the knees. It can take a long time to get over this.

Several years ago, I wrote an article, “How Long Does a Typical Divorce Recovery Take?” where I outline top ten “Dos” and “Don’ts” for divorce recovery. I emphasized the importance of getting adequate support, allowing yourself to grieve and accepting what’s happened (no matter how unfair it seems), in order to maximize your potential for resilience.

The truth is, the sense of rejection and abandonment you may experience from your spouse living a lie and then ending things with little warning, will make your divorce harder to get over. But, you can get on the other side of this and begin to trust and see yourself as loveable again.

If this doesn’t eventually happen (within 3 - 5 years), you may want to look into getting more support. I encourage you to seek professional guidance and/or join a divorce support group. Groups are powerful because, not only can you share with others who understand your pain, knowing you are not alone can bring you out of the isolation that keeps you in the sadness.

Time will eventually take care of a good deal of the pain but time alone is the longer, more drawn out way to get through the ordeal. I can't emphasize enough the importance of some kind of intervention be it a book, consulting a professional or talking to others who understand your pain.

I’ve helped many people recover from difficult betrayals and devastating circumstances. I know it can happen.  Don’t quit before the miracle.