Tammy Wynette had it right all those years ago, when she sang of the deep heartbreak, loss and sense of failure that can accompany divorce. Over the last several decades, researchers have studied marital divorce and it’s impact on spouses and their children. To hear my clients and colleagues talk, most folks continue to believe that divorce is a traumatic experience for all involved, and to be avoided at almost any cost. And certainly, the costs of divorce can be excruciatingly high — from financial hardship, to chidren’s emotional struggles to maintain loyalty to two parents who dislike each other, to moving residences and setting new, painful boundaries with in-laws. Having experienced divorce myself, I know the devastating self-doubt, anxiety for my child’s physical and financial future, the losses akin to a death that accompany the ending of a marriage. But, like most of life, I see divorce as more complex than a black and white, “good” or “bad” decision. Divorce can be as gray an experience as any of life’s struggles. Rarely is one spouse “completely” at fault, nor is it possible to predict with accuracy how their parents’ divorce will impact children in their futures. In fact, many experts purport that it is witnessing CONTINUED, UNRESOLVED CONFLICT between parents, rather than DIVORCE ITSELF, that damages children. When I am working with couples considering divorce, I find that I am most helpful when I can offer a different possibility than most of popular culture contends. In her book “The Good Divorce,” Constance Ahrons suggests considering divorce as more of a developmental stage than as a certain trauma. If more than half of us will experience the end of a marriage, couldn’t it be helpful to frame that event as a more neutral, developmental experience, one in which we can grow, evolve and deepen our awareness, as surely as we can become wounded, scarred or frightened? Most milestones in life can go in different directions — for some, puberty is a time of self-discovery and competence-building. For others, adolescence is a field of land mines, filled with the risks of acting out, drug experimentation, negative body image issues. Moving from high school to college can be a time of excitement and stretching, or it can highlight an individual’s lack of readiness for independence. Similarly, divorce does not mandate that we label ourselves as failures or that we wait for our children to inevitably choose poorly in their own choice of mates. How could divorce, and the potential healing and growth that can develop post-divorce, be experienced differently if we but incrementally shifted our expectations? Is it possible to consider the end of a marriage as yet another life marker, one which can be crafted into a source of growth and enlightenment, as much as a source of grief and angst? Could we allow ourselves, and the majority who make up divorced folks, to shed the shame long associated with divorce and instead look ahead with hope and esteem? The future is not etched in stone; perhaps we can lighten our load by breaking down the “burden” of divorce into stepping stones that can lead us forward.
Next time: is it possible to use divorce as a POSITIVE step in our spiritual evolution?