Many people are surprised to learn that a majority of divorces are initiated by women. Up to two thirds of divorces are filed by women. The fact that men are deeply affected by divorce, especially if they did not choose that solution, is not hard to understand. Myths persist that men are less in need of the comfort and support that a stable relationship provides but this is not the case. While our society continues to teach men to hide or avoid expression of their feelings, those feelings do not go away. They often appear intensely when a man is abandoned by a spouse or partner.
As a psychologist, I frequently work with men whose partners have left them. They are often surprised by the level of anguish they experience. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear men say that they have thought of suicide, usually for the first time in their lives. That men can have extreme reactions should not come as a surprise. Almost every week there is a story somewhere in the media of a man who has taken the life of a partner who has rejected him. All too often children are also the victims of these tragic events. It is an additional tragedy that men are often the most reluctant to seek professional help, viewing it as a sign of unacceptable weakness.
Of course violence is not the most common response to the loss of a relationship but we are all familiar with the many other coping strategies that are less than helpful. These include isolation, substance abuse, frantic seeking of a replacement partner, denial and an unwillingness to share grief with friends and family. Women also turn to these solutions, but less frequently than men as healthier responses are more acceptable for women. While the culture is changing, it is still less acceptable for men to admit to feelings of fear, helplessness, sadness, grief and anxiety. But ALL of these emotions are very common and normal when a relationship breaks apart. One emotion our society does easily accept from men is anger, so it is often anger that we see in men, especially when they are in the presence of others. Usually the intensity of the anger is related to the intensity of the (unexpressed) grief.
The Power of Anger
Sadness feels weak and men often experience humiliation when they feel weak. This makes it easy to become angry. Anger feels powerful. It can cause men to say or do things that hurt the person who rejected them. This tough guy stance may come out with friends and family who try to support the bereaved man, pushing them away. The message can be “I don’t have a problem, I can handle this fine on my own”. A high price is paid for that momentary sense of power; further isolation and often further despair. A greater toll is taken when the anger leads to a more complicated divorce or when children are exposed to the toxicity of a parent’s hostility.
A man who is losing his partner will feel out of control of his life. Anger can be a tool to regain power, punishing with words and deeds the person who seems to be causing the pain. It is easy to justify such anger. “She cheated on me, she was always drinking, she was a lousy wife/mother/sister.” We have all heard these howls from our friends who are separated. Another way that men use their anger to feel powerful is to punish the departing partner by damaging her reputation, reporting long kept secrets or complaints, attempting to diminish her to her friends, family and community.
Acceptance vs Denial
Men who deal with separation with intense anger often pay a high price for using such a destructive and ultimately ineffective coping mechanism. At the extreme, anger that leads to any type of physical aggression can cause legal trouble. Domestic violence rates increase during periods of separation. Many men who have never been violent become so for the first time during a divorce. Violence includes damaging objects and possessions as well as hurting other people. Fortunately, hurting other people is not a common reaction but violence including breaking objects, slamming doors, throwing things or verbal rage occurs quite frequently. The longer a man stays angry, the longer it takes to accept the new reality and start making life better again. Anger and denial interfere with the ability to heal from the loss and, eventually, to form new relationships. We all know people who have been separated for long periods (sometimes years) who are difficult to be with because they remain focused on their anger at a former spouse.
Anger also interferes with the ability to adapt and grow. To form good relationships men need to learn from the relationship that is ending. Where did he fail his partner? In what way can he be a better husband or boyfriend in the future. If there were major failings in the woman, why did he choose her and what about himself allowed him to stay? Acceptance of his own role in this life calamity will help him to avoid problems with the next relationship. Denial of the more frightening emotions-grief, fear, anxiety, etc., will only prolong the process of healing and recovery.
Men and Custody
There are many aspects to this dilemma of divorce. Cultural expectations still tend to favor mothers in custody matters leaving many men without the time they want with their children. That can make it difficult for a man to remain as involved with his children as he wishes to be. While it is difficult to be a single mother there may be even less support for single fathers. Men may also have more limited networks to help with child care. A common pitfall for men is to begin dating too soon to try to find a caretaker for the children. This can lead to hasty liaisons which are in no one’s best interest. Men who sincerely try to take care of their children may be unappreciated or even denigrated for making their children their priority because once again this may confound society’s expectations. Being a modern father is a challenge and divorce can make it more difficult. Children fare best in divorces where successful healing occurs and animosity is contained. Separating partners can help themselves by focusing on and remembering the vulnerability of their children.
The stress of divorce leaves most people feeling anxious. There are so many changes and stressors. Men who are normally even keeled can be surprised by their level of anxiety. For those who already have nervous tendencies, divorce can make life feel overwhelming. Anxiety can be exhibited by irritability, chronic worry, increased fearfulness and/or physical agitation or restlessness. It is not unusual to remain preoccupied with details of the separation, the problems of the relationship, and wondering what the other person is doing. This obsessiveness can interfere with concentration, sleep and everyday function. Many men will lose weight because of this anxiety. Even when weight loss was desirable a sudden, drastic weight loss is never healthy.
The stages of grief are predictable but never easy. It is grief that men are trying to escape when they turn to drinking, drugs or excessive activity in any area of their life, work or play. Psychologically, there are no short cuts for grief. If we try to escape it, we end up prolonging our misery. The only way is to go through it. Numbness is the first stage with feelings of disbelief or denial. Men are often surprised and think they feel nothing in the beginning but this early stage of protective anesthesia turns in to shock and alarm before too long. The second stage of grief is when the acute emotions rise to the surface. Men may feel panic, depression, intense anxiety or anger or any combination of these emotions. During this difficult period men can offer suffer more than women because they are less likely to reveal their distress to others. They may turn from support when they need it the most out of an attempt to appear in control. Crying, nightmares and great anxiety are the hallmarks of the second stage of grief.
The third stage often leads to withdrawal. It can be very hard to be around friends and loved ones and at this stage it is best not to force sociability. Keeping to oneself, perhaps sleeping more than usual, gives the grieving person the chance to recover. Obsessive review is normal for this period as we all try to make sense of the drastic changes that have occurred. To move to the fourth stage of grief the man must make a conscious decision whether or not to try to re-build his life. I am not talking about suicide, although as I have discussed before, that is a choice for some. To move forward means to accept the losses and try to learn from them. The man who has lost his partner will have to push himself to try new things and meet new people; to discover what will make his life happy and hopeful going forward.
Recovery and Renewal
After grief there is an opportunity to make life happy and fulfilling, perhaps for the first time. A surprising statistic of divorce is that a significant
majority of people feel their life has improved two years after divorce. Even for the person who did not make the choice to separate! Men who make the best adjustment will be those who work at making life richer, happier, more fulfilling. What do I miss from the last relationship? What are the elements I would rather avoid in a new partner. What are the dreams I deferred that I can now pursue? What did I learn that will make the next phase of my life as good as possible. All relationships have lessons to teach us. The challenge is to transform those lessons into growth that improves our future.
Article posted 1 August 2009
Robin Goldstein, EdD, is a licensed psychologist practicing in Boca Raton, Florida, USA. She has over 30 years experience and has worked extensively with divorce related issues.