John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Psychological Distress and Divorce

This is a quick followup to my last post. I thought maybe I should list the more common stressors that most people face when they go through a divorce process.

1. Intense negative emotions -- anger, hurt, sadness, guilt, shame, fear
2. Legal issues -- sorting out custody arrangements; hashing out settlement details
3. Co-parenting issues (if children)
4. New worries -- financial, juggling tasks, shift in roles, new tasks
5. Reworking identity -- married to divorced; making new dreams
6. Loneliness -- loss of partner, loss of some friends
7. Stigma -- coping with judgments, disapproval of others

As I said in my prior post, every week of my career I help people cope with the stress of divorce. This has become a routine part of my work. What I can tell you is that not everybody experiences these stressors in the same way, of course, or with the same intensity. This means that the strategies people use to cope will vary, depending on the person and the situation.

The divorce process may be painful, but people can and do get through it. And although it may be hard to believe -- especially when your swimming in a sea of negative emotions -- some people do more than just cope with the experience, they also grow. Yes, they sort out what happened and why, and hopefully develop a deeper understanding of who they are and what they need. But if emotional pain has any value it’s that it teaches us about compassion. By facing fallibility in ourselves, we are more able to accept it in others.

Compassion -- for ourselves, our former partners, our neighbors -- is perhaps the one true antidote to bitterness.

On not making your kids your confidant during a divorce

Divorce is stressful. No one doubts this. For many people it’s one of the more stressful events they’ll face in their adults lives. And naturally, people need to talk about it--or rather, process it. But who do they talk to?

Recently I came across a study in the psychological literature that examined the effects of parental disclosure on children when the parents are either in process of divorcing, or have divorced. In other words, mom or dad venting to a child about their frustrations, financials worries, distress, or complaints about their separated or former partner. Parents are most apt to do this when their children are teenagers and seemingly more able to engage in adult discussions. What the study found, however, was that this practice was potentially damaging to children. Turning children into confidants increased the chances that the children would develop adjustments problems later in life.

Why? Because when children are given this type of negative information there is nothing they can do with it. Typically they have little or no control over the situation. Parental disclosures become a form of stress.

So this is where I throw in a plug for therapy. If you happen to find yourself going through a divorce, and, like most everybody who experiences this process, you find yourself flooded with anger, hurt, sadness, or guilt, try not to pour your negative emotions into your kids. They are not the right containers. Talk to a therapist instead.