• When two people divorce, feelings of grief, anger, and failure can be overwhelming

  • Therapist Wendy Bristow explores how you can exercise self-care at this time

The pressure to be a ‘happy family’ at the supposedly merriest time of the year can expose cracks in a marriage. All those days off in one another’s company full of rich food and alcohol can send familiar marital arguments into scary new territory. Not surprising then that January is peak split-up month. Solicitors call the first Monday back to work ‘Divorce Day’ because of the spike in approaches from unhappy spouses ready to call time on whatever’s not working.

As Tolstoy famously wrote: ‘all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. Given divorce comes out of unhappiness, any couple’s split will be both similar to and unlike any other.

One way all divorces are alike is that this is a destructive process. Literally. Something is being destroyed. Not just a marriage but a family, a home, a way of life. A social circle. A dream. Even if the divorce is amicable and everyone agrees it needs to happen, a small world has to be ripped apart so the people involved can re-build their lives in a different way.

It’s like a bomb going off in your life and hardly anyone survives unscathed. What you’re breaking up – or having broken by someone else – is something you put years of energy, love, time, money and creativity into. You’re not only prey to shock, anger, regret and failure - the usual feelings when something breaks. You’re also in a process of loss, grieving the life you had. Even if it’s you initiating it.

With any big event in our emotional life, good or bad, you can’t anticipate exactly what it will be like. Even if you’ve planned this break-up for years, it’ll surprise you. Some things may be easier than you thought but the pain of others will side-swipe you and take your breath away.

The effect of divorce on other relationships

The toxic effects of divorce ripple further than many people think at the outset. Say your own old friends ‘side’ with your cheating spouse – not only are you processing your partner’s betrayal it feels compounded by that of people you thought friends. Even when friends don’t take ‘sides’ but carry on seeing someone you feel wronged by it feels surprisingly painful.

Friendships can change in other ways. A woman whose ‘perfect marriage’ collapsed found female friends were so thrown by the idea ’if it can happen to you it can happen to anyone’ they didn’t want to hear what it was like. She was on the receiving end of what Freud would have called other peoples’ projections. They looked at her and saw their worst nightmare. Needless to say it’s not comfortable being a walking worst nightmare. It feels very isolating.

So friendships, as well as children and family, experience collateral damage. Extended families disintegrate. Maybe your partner won’t let you meet with his or her own family any more. Perhaps that family– people you may love - turn against you in devastating ways. Maybe your own mother thinks you’re going about things all wrong. All typical nasty surprises divorcees deal with on top of the obvious difficulties.

And nothing prepares you for the obvious difficulties. When the reality hits as to how a child is suffering, the guilt you feel for upending their life (yes, even when they’re an adult) can be incredibly hard.

The impact on you

Sometimes the person whose reaction surprises you is yourself. So you’re not just dealing with feelings you didn’t anticipate but with a sense you don’t know who you are anymore - pretty much guaranteed to make you feel all over the place.

No wonder people get overwhelmed. And when that happens we regress and often lapse into unhelpful habits. If you’ve always been hard on yourself, you’ll blame yourself even more. If you get indecisive when stressed, you’ll be entirely stymied. If you’ve turned to drink, it may skyrocket.

According to the Holmes and Rahe scale drawn up in the Sixties, divorce is the second biggest life stress after death of a spouse. And, of course, others go with it. Financial upheavals, moving – both big deals stress-wise. Change itself is stressful and you seldom see more of it than when you’re divorcing.

When people are overwhelmed they generally can’t think. One of the aspects a soon-to-be-ex finds hardest to cope with is the need to make huge decisions that will affect the rest of their life, just when they want to curl up under the duvet for about a year.

So how can you minimise the destructive effects of all this?

An important element is what an American coach described to me once as ‘the practice of extreme self-care’. Making sure you’re getting enough sleep, tackling niggling health problems, exercising. Another huge help is to have other minds on the subject supporting you. Your solicitor or mediator obviously. But they can only help with knowing what you’re entitled to and getting you what you want. The stress you’re under when trying to get your head around a divorce isn’t conducive to knowing what’s best for you long-term.

Seeing a counsellor or therapist for the duration can be fantastically helpful. A) Because you need all the support you can get. B) Because they’re neutral. They don’t know your ex, they’re just there for you. They don’t have a friend’s opinions and reactions. And C) Perhaps, most importantly, they are a neutral brain on the subject when your own may be flooded by feeling and unable to think.

Contrary to popular belief, they won’t tell you what to do. They will help you get straight about where you’re at and what you want and help you deal with the emotional side of things so your head can clear. Plus support you in making decisions that are in your best interests, nipping in the bud any self-sabotaging tendencies like giving in too soon or becoming hell-bent on punishing your spouse at all costs.

A final devastating side-effect can be that divorce triggers old wounds or issues. Do you feel a total failure because your own parents stuck together through thick and thin? Are you depressed because the one thing you believed in has turned, like everything else, to ashes? Are you blaming yourself and wallowing in guilt? Or are you quick to anger generally and now can’t get past burning, adrenalised fury?

Getting to grips with all of this can truly limit divorce destruction and get you back on your feet faster, so you can get on with the important business of building a life that works for the person you are, now that break-up has changed you. And at best, therapy helps you learn about what went wrong and step up your own relationship skills so you’re either content on your own or headed for one of Tolstoy’s oh-so-samey happy families next time around.

Wendy Bristow is a psychotherapist in London

Further reading

Rebuilding trust after the end of a relationship

How does a parent become alienated from their child?

Your parents' divorce is always painful

Conflict in relationships – how to manage when someone is angry at you