Divorce & Widowhood

Divorce: Coping with Extreme Stress


Dear Dr. Ford,

After struggling for many years with the decision, I have asked my husband of 20 years for a divorce. Although he was a good father and provider for some of the time, his compulsive gambling has caused our family endless woe. It was very hard to get him to admit that he had a problem, and when he finally went to rehab he did not stay long enough for it to be effective.

I am now faced with the possibility of losing everything if I don’t act.

The problem is, even though I know I am doing the right thing and I am the injured party here, my husband does not recognize this. He is acting like a victim and is enraged with me, vowing to take away all our remaining assets. Also, my teenage children are very angry that we are divorcing. I have tried to avoid burdening them with too many of the details, and do not want to say bad things about their father (as he does about me), but they are directing all their anger at me.

I am overwhelmed with stress and anxiety. Like I said, I am firm in my decision that I am doing the right thing. My lawyer says he has rarely seen a case so stark. But why am I so stressed, depressed, and anxious? The process of divorcing is so hard, I wonder sometimes if it is worth it.



Dear Angela,

Your reactions are not unusual at all. Divorce, even when you know it is the right thing to do, is one of the most stressful life events people face. Even though it is extremely common, with the divorce rate hovering around 50 percent, that does not mean it is easy.

It is especially difficult if the parties are fighting, which is often the case. Add to that the role of lawyers, who often encourage you to take an aggressive stance, and it is an explosive mix.

There are two kinds of stressors acting against you at the same time. The first category is the known stressors, like making the decision to keep the house or possibly move; the loss of many of the routines of your past life; paying attorney bills; financial losses; the children’s reaction to the divorce; and coping with the idea of them being away from you when they spend time with your former spouse.

The stressors caused by the “unknowns” can be even more difficult to handle. They include worries about how the settlement will work out; fears about what to do next, e.g. will you be able to find a job after being a stay-at-home parent for years; anticipating making ends meet with less money; worry that your “romantic life” is over; fear of re-entering the dating world; and fear that the children will suffer a negative impact.

Often what we don’t know causes us greater stress than what we do know will happen, no matter how awful. The unknown is especially difficult for us (this is the weapon terrorists use), and it is made much harder in this situation because there are so many question marks.

One of the most difficult “unknowns” is the fact that your husband is acting like a different person, at least toward you. This is someone you pledged your future to, someone who was your closest relative, legally, and presumably emotionally, at least for a while. Brain imagining studies show that when we fall in love, your loved one’s  photo can cause the part of the brain usually associated with yourself to respond. Some think that this is physical evidence that your partner actually gets integrated into your sense of self.

When divorcing this other person who you have previously experienced as part of yourself, you are losing an integral part of your identity. Some people have described it as if you are losing an arm or a leg, or being ripped asunder. While not everyone experiences these intense feelings, many do. One woman described the mixture of pain, fear and anger she felt as anguish.

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