by ROBERT PASICK, Ph.D.
ANN ARBOR CENTER FOR THE FAMILY
Most men think of the word ”loss” in terms of losing a contest. It is not surprising they regard divorce in a similar way – as a win-lose proposition based on a competitive struggle between two warring parties. With this perspective they handle the divorce as if it were a very rough game, in which the toughest and most tenacious will “win.” To these men it is unfortunate that people get hurt in the scuffle, but they see this is an inevitable consequence of the divorce process.
Yet the loss of divorce does not have to be perceived as a competition with “winners” and “losers”. In many ways it is more like a death in the family, a difficult and sometimes inevitable part of life. From this perspective both parties can be accurately seen as suffering a painful loss, but one which can eventually lead to personal growth and increased happiness if they are able to handle it maturely and cooperatively.
Unfortunately, the masculine code most men learn growing up (see Meth and Pasick, In Press) is an inadequate guide for handling a divorce. The rules of masculine behavior can impede a man’s progress in recovering from a divorce in several ways:
1. Males are taught the importance of being in control of every situation, yet divorce almost always denies both parties complete mastery over their lives. These feelings may be heightened if the wife initiates the divorce. Regardless, a man usually experiences such strong reactions from his wife, children, family and friends that he has lost the upper ‘hand’.
2. Males work hard to conceal their feelings, yet emotions are very intense during divorce, often including grief, shame, helplessness, disbelief, anger, betrayal, and loneliness. Inundated by such strong emotions during a divorce, many men are ill-prepared to cope with the out-pouring. Some have difficulty recognizing the emotions; those who can may feel ashamed because of them. Few are able to express their feelings to others.
3. The “masculine code” admonishes men to handle problems by themselves, yet during divorce they invariably need help. They require the services of a lawyer, and also may be advised to seek counseling during the divorce process. For most men, therapy clashes with the credo of masculine autonomy. A “real man” is supposed to be self-reliant and invulnerable, while therapy is perceived as an admission that he cannot handle all his problems independently Even without profession therapy, most men find it difficult to talk to their friends or family about their pain during a divorce.
The implications of Divorce for Men
Divorce usually results in more and deeper problems than most men initially expect. The fact that he has lost his wife is immediately obvious, but the unexpected ramifications of the loss occur more gradually and painfully These frequently include:
- Loss of friends. The wife is often the social director of the family. Because she arranges their social life, it is often her friends with whom they spend the most time. Furthermore many men consider their wives their best friend, because they do not have close friends they can confide in. Their next-best friend may be a long-lost high school buddy or a coworker, with whom it is difficult to discuss extremely personal matters. For these reasons men often feel isolated during a divorce.
- Loss of extended family contact. Unlike the stereotypes, many men are close to their in-laws, but they too may be lost to him during a divorce. Even his own extended family may not be immediately helpful if the man grew distant from them after getting married.
-Loss of job advancement. If an ex-husband wants to remain close with his children, he may have to reduce his work load to spend more time with his kids. Even if his supervisors are sympathetic to his predicament it may result in losing promotions and raises. This is especially difficult for men who equate career success with their self-esteem, and many do.
-Loss of home and lifestyle. It is most frequently the husband who must leave the family home for an apartment. This can be disorienting and depressing, especially when stability is essential to overcome the grief of the divorce.
-Loss of children. This loss, which is covered extensively elsewhere in this publication, can be the most devastating change divorce brings. Even when he wants to see his children and his ex-wife agrees, he may have difficulty with the kids because he has not learned the skills necessary for successful parenting.
-Loss of self-esteem. During the divorce men often have little self-regard, which may be more acute if his wife initiated the proceedings. He may feel worthless, unloved, and even unlovable. Physical ailments often accompany such moods, including loss of appetite, sleeplessness, difficulty breathing, and random pains. This viscous cycle can further reduce his feelings of selfworth.
Myths About Newly SingIe Men
Though a man going through divorce often experiences deeper pain than ever before, American society harbors many stereotypes about the recently divorced man, such as: He relishes his freedom to date as many women as he wants, and may have had a mistress before the divorce; He is stronger financially while his wife suffers; He now is free of all responsibility; He probably will grow distant from his children. However widespread these misconceptions may be, the divorced man’s experience is often severely at odds with these notions. Contrary to the image of the free-wheeling bachelor, it is far more common for him to simply feel confused, scared and lonely.
Some Guidelines for Divorcing Men
The literature about divorce and men contains many important strategies for helping men handle divorce effectively. Some of the best suggestions follow.
1. Don’t ignore or deny your feelings. Assuring yourself and others that you’re doing just fine may preserve your male image, but you are doing yourself a grave disservice Emotions this intense will find a release whether you allow one or not. Better to confront them honestly as they arise. Allow yourself to cry.
2. Talk, talk, talk. Despite what the masculine code mandates, it is vital that divorced men do not stifle their feelings. Find people who are willing to listen and tell them how you are feeling. Men who have recently been through a divorce may be particularly helpful.
3. Though you may be angry with your ex-wife, it is important to focus on your feelings, not your ex-wife’s shortcomings, in your discussions and thoughts. It is especially important to refrain from bad-mouthing your ex-wife in front of your children, which is not only counter-productive for you, it places them in an extremely difficult position. Further, it may engender lifelong resentment.
4. Rely on your friends and family for support, both emotionally and with the new demands on your time.
5. Join a support group, either through a therapist or through the local community. Some newspapers list these.
6. Write down your feelings, in a journal or in letters. (You don’t necessarily have to mail them.)
7. Keep busy. Learn something new, return to an old hobby exercise. However, be careful not to become a workaholic. Such an obsession can be almost as destructive as chemical addiction.
8. Take good care of yourself. You now have to depend on you. Don’t let your health deteriorate by eating poorly, drinking excessively or drug use Your health has a direct impact on your emotional strength.
9. Learn to live one day at a time. Re-establish structure and routine in your life. Remember that it is not possible to solve alt your problems immediately.
10. Try to develop a positive perspective. View divorce as a chance to start over. For most people the recovery process takes about two years, after which they feel better.
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