By Jerald W. Young, Ph.D.
This article answers the question: “Why don’t the common methods for helping people recover from a divorce (support groups, therapy, and passage of time) work very well?” The divorce rate for second marriages is higher than the divorce rate for first marriages. And the divorce rate for third marriages is even higher still. This defies common sense. If the traditional methods for facilitating a full recovery from divorce were effective, wouldn’t the subsequent divorce rates decrease, not increase? Here is why they don’t and what you can do about it.
(This is the 2nd article in a series of articles describing how contentment and satisfaction with life after divorce depends on being able to dissolve the very human resistance to the changes that divorce imposes on our lives.)
My first marriage lasted ten years. My second marriage ended in divorce also. During both marriage ceremonies I expected the marriage to last “until death do us part.” They didn’t. I was sad, disappointed, and confused. Safe to say, I didn’t learn much from my first divorce. More importantly, I didn’t realize that the kind of help I got to recover from my 1st divorce set me up to forge headlong into my 2nd divorce.
The Statistics Are Ugly
Turns out 42% to 50% of first marriages end in divorce. Around 66% of second marriages and 75% of third marriages also end in divorce. And if that is not shocking enough, one estimate of divorce in fourth marriages is 93% within the first five years.
These rates paint a bleak picture for the likelihood that a marriage will last. This surprising pattern of numbers begs the question, “What the heck is going on?”
Logically, we would expect the divorce rates to decrease, not increase, across subsequent marriages since presumably we should learn from our experience and make our next marriage less likely, not more likely, to end in divorce.
The fact that the divorce rate increases with each subsequent marriage tells us something is drastically wrong with how we recover from divorce.
What could that be?
The Ruthless, Heavy-Handed Nature of Emotions
Strong negative emotions suck up all the air in the room. When relentless, painful emotions are present, you can’t make good decisions about your life after divorce.
Divorce is like the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park which spews boiling hot water regularly 24/7. Except, the divorce geyser spews strong negative emotions 24/7. Like the geyser, the emotions of divorce come in waves. A client once described it as like having uncontrollable diarrhea. Just when you think you have your feelings under control, here comes the next wave of misery.
We’ve all been there: sadness, anger, disappointment, resentment, guilt, hopelessness, helplessness, retribution, failure, embarrassment, shame, loss, fear, inadequacy, etc. The emotions are so strong, overwhelming, and intrusive in our everyday life, it is understandable that we would see our primary problem as, “how can I stop these horrible feelings from happening?”
The Traditional Approach: Divorce Causes Traumatic Feelings that Should be Fixed
The traditional approach to divorce recovery assumes that the feelings you are having are the primary problem. Changing how you feel from bad to happy is the goal. Three solutions designed to “fix” your sad and depressing feelings are: (1) join a support group , (2) undergo psychotherapy, and (3) let time heal the wounds.
Divorce support groups. Divorce support groups let you vent your feelings to a sympathetic audience. You realize you’re not going crazy. However, after your emotions stabilize, support groups are not set up to help with the on-going problem of putting your new life after divorce in order. Being open-ended, support groups tempt members to continue rehashing their feelings week after week without helping them to move on. Using a baseball metaphor, support groups get you to first base, but do not bring you around to score.
Psychotherapy. Like support groups, psychotherapy provides a way to express feelings and the time frame is also open-ended. In therapy you are asked to look to the past and ask the question, “Why am I having these particular reactions to my divorce?” What to do about your reactions and your life going forward is normally not the primary focus, if it is addressed at all.
Time heals everything. This method of recovering from divorce contends that bad emotions will wither away and die if given enough time. However, time by itself heals nothing. My sister-in-law went through a bitter divorce and waited for time to heal her anger at her ex. Twenty-five years later she died alone and lonely, still holding on to her resentment. Time did not heal her.
Only problem is, as the divorce statistics attest, these three traditional solutions do not work very well.
Question: Why Don’t These Solutions Work?
Answer: We are using them to solve the wrong problem!
Why do time, support groups and therapy all fail? They all assume the primary problem is how you feel. And, traditional approaches will make you feel better.
However, they will not enable you to recover fully from divorce. Everyone who gets divorced “wants to feel better.” However, the critical issue is the life transition triggered by divorce, not the actual feelings caused by divorce. That is, the primary problem is how to navigate the post-divorce life transition, not simply how to “defang,” or render harmless, the feelings that are attached to that transition.
So, What’s a Person to Do?
The secret of a successful divorce recovery is to effectively navigate your transition to life after divorce. Instead of focusing on the feelings you are experiencing, shift your focus to the transition process you are navigating. Specifically, focus on how you can reduce your resistance to accepting the changes in your life your divorce has caused. Only then can you see the positive potential in your future and learn from the past so that your next relationship has a better chance of lasting.