A parting of the ways
When Lucy Mitchell discovered her 41-year-old husband was having an affair with a teenager, she feared it sounded the death knell for a marriage that had been struggling for some time.
'We were already having marriage counselling, as our relationship had become quite distant. I was busy with children and he was wrapped up with work, and relationships do have ups and downs. When I found out about the affair, I thought it was a typical mid-life crisis. But four months later it was still going on.' Mitchell (not her real name) finally asked him to move out.
It's the classic scenario for divorce. One of the partners meets someone else and the marriage breaks down. New York-based divorce expert, psychotherapist and author of Getting Up, Getting Over, Getting On: A Twelve-Step Guide to Divorce Recovery, Micki McWade, has seen it all.
'The best outcome of a divorce is when the couple mutually decides the marriage isn't satisfying, and is no longer viable. This is rarely the case. The most painful reason for separation is another person is preferred over the spouse. This is excruciating for the partner and wounds him or her deeply. It actually brings up a primitive rage and a lot of damage can be done when the wounded spouse realises what's been going on. This person is unable to negotiate until the information is absorbed.'
The four months leading up to Mitchell's separation were, she says, the worst time of her life. Petrified of her marriage ending, she began to suffer from panic attacks, insomnia and general bad health. 'My life was falling apart. But eventually I thought to myself, I'm better than this, I don't have to take it, and I asked him to move out. I think he wanted to go, but didn't have the guts to leave himself. I just wanted to fast forward the clock to a time when I would be over the pain. But I know now that dealing with the pain is actually part of the healing process.'
According to McWade, no one is left unscathed when it comes to divorce. But surprisingly, the instigator - the adulterer/abuser/addict - is often left more damaged than the injured partner. 'If there has been an affair while married, initially the partner having the affair has it easier emotionally. Later on, when the pink cloud of the new relationship lifts, he or she may see the person isn't who he thought she was.
He or she may realise what has been sacrificed emotionally, financially and as a parent. They may deeply regret having ended the marriage. On the other hand, the person left behind has to pick themselves up and start from scratch. This creates a stronger person, and one who may wind up in better shape than the partner who initiated the divorce. People always come out of a marriage with less money, less time with their children, and disengagement from the spouse's family and friends. There's a lot of loss in divorce.'
Loss is synonymous with any breakdown in a relationship, whether infidelity is involved or not. John Tan (not his real name) separated from his wife two years ago and found the whole experience shattering. He lost 10kg in a couple of months, due to stress.
'For such a long time, I was in a relationship, but felt so alone. The problem was we built our marriage on friendship and it didn't evolve. Our intimate communication was non-existent. So towards the end of our marriage, when my wife was grief-stricken after losing her mother, she needed emotional support. But I just didn't know how to give it. Our relationship had never worked that way and she didn't know how to communicate her need, either. We both ended up feeling angry and disappointed and simply grew further apart.'
So is there a blueprint for successfully negotiating the pain and agony of separation and divorce? Or do you simply have to grit your teeth and get through it? According to McWade, there are some simple pointers that really can make a difference. The second step of her 12-step programme, for example, advises finding solace and encouragement from third parties: 'Studies have shown those who have peer support recover faster and more fully than those who are isolated,' she says.
Friends and family doubtless have a huge role to play. Mitchell says she couldn't have got through without them. 'Having the support of some fantastic friends was my life saver. They were always there to listen and dry my tears. It wasn't easy but, although it's a cliche, time really is a healer.
'I think talking about your feelings always helps. I did it a lot, but only with a close inner circle of friends. I was very scared about being a single parent and having to do everything on my own. But as soon as my ex-husband left I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I was actually less lonely being single than I had been at the end of my marriage.'
Dr Hana S.H. Li, clinical director of the Hong Kong Counselling & Mediation Service, says in many cases it's important to learn how best to handle your situation from a therapist or a divorce coach. 'Some divorce triggers [such as alcoholism or addiction, or even abuse] are so traumatic or severe, they require professional help to process.
'Counselling helps you keep your cool, and maintain a balance between emotion and reasoning, so you are open to new possibilities. In short, a survivor is someone who comes out of a divorce alive, hopeful, with a new perspective on marriage and marital relationships.' McWade agrees, adding: 'It helps to get advice at a time when one's thinking isn't as clear as it is at other times. We might think we are acting appropriately and feel righteous, but are actually doing harm.'
Tan had this presence of mind to carefully think through how he dealt with his former wife, and what he wanted his future to be. 'I think you need to decide what it is you want, and be smart about reaching that outcome. It may be a case of losing a few battles to win the war. Be mindful of how you want your divorce lawyer to behave.
'My lawyer described her reputation as 'a Rottweiler', but said she wouldn't behave like that unless I asked her to. It doesn't have to be a battle because then, in the end, the only winners are the lawyers. I wanted to be able to sleep happily knowing I had done the right thing.''
Looking forward was the key for Tan, and is something McWade also advocates in her 12-step plan. 'Grief is natural and normal with loss. There is often anger present and it needs to be processed, and time taken to understand what happened and why. After that, those who choose to be forward-focused, looking at how they can make the best of it, will do better than those who remain angry and bitter. Those who become centred around what a rat he or she was, and how they were wronged, do far less well.'
The collateral damage in many break-ups is children, over whom the most vicious battles and bitterness arise. Mitchell says she often used to lash out at her former husband, but advice from friends who had been in similar situations stuck in her mind. The first was to keep her children's relationship with both parents intact.
'One of my friend's mothers told her of her father's infidelity and imperfections. As a child who still idolised her father, she didn't want to hear this, and it inevitably changed her relationship with him. Another friend advised, 'There's no upside in the children thinking their dad is a jerk'. I realised battling with my ex-husband would have a negative effect on my children, and at the end of the day they will work it out for themselves when they are older. You should never use your children as pawns.
'The last thing I wanted to do was inflict pain on them or leave them emotionally scarred. I always tried to make positive comments about their dad. When that was too difficult I would just be neutral, never scathing. I saved that for my friends. It was also important to me that I retained my dignity. My ex-husband admits now how badly he's behaved. He regrets not being as involved with the children as he should. Recently he thanked me for my attitude: 'Thanks for making sure I'm not forgotten.' Getting that acknowledgment was very important for me.'
But it's a harsh truth that getting divorced inevitably effects future relationships. Two years later, Tan has a new partner, but says he's unlikely to remarry: 'My new partner is fantastic, she's restored the self-belief which was crushed by my separation. I look at relationships very differently now. Unfortunately, divorce has changed my opinion of marriage and I don't think I'll ever marry again. It doesn't mean what I thought it meant. But, as they say, never say never.'
Surviving divorce means getting through it without creating more damage than necessary to our spouse and children, says McWade. It also means creating a successful life post-divorce. This includes adjusting to being single, successful co-parenting, and creating a life that's consistent with the situation.
'There is no doubt the ending of a significant relationship is absolutely hell on wheels. But recovery is not only possible, it can lead you to see potential you never knew you had,' explains McWade. 'No matter where you are today, or what your circumstances may be, every one of us has enormous potential for creating a better life. Taking the time to recover and discover the you-of-today will pay big dividends as you move forward.'