Leaving Him Behind: Cutting the Cord and Breaking Free After the Marriage Ends
By Sandra S. Kahn
Slowly, like a building tidal wave, the figures on divorce keep mounting. In the course of the eighties, we were first dismayed and then alarmed to learn that fully half of all marriages in the United States would end in divorce. As we begin the nineties, the dramatic and troubling truth is that this figure is unquestionably here to stay.
The amount of pain, confusion, and emotional turmoil hidden behind that figure is absolutely staggering. But even more disturbing is the duration of the disruption. Most people, including many mental health professionals, would like to believe that after a year or so following divorce the crisis fades and the separated spouses find new paths to take, but the facts are often otherwise. As Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee have written in Second Chances, their landmark long-term study of divorced families, the punches keep coming, consequences keep unfolding, even years after the divorce is final. Many people do recover and go on to more satisfying lives. But a large proportion of divorced people - a proportion we can only guess at, since it has yet to be measured - never quite mend.
This book is written to all women everywhere who are struggling to recover from the trauma of divorce, whether they went through it last week, last year, or a decade or two ago. It is not a book about going through divorce - although much that we will explore will be helpful to those who are in the midst of divorce, or even contemplating it. It is not about helping children adjust to divorce - although, again, it offers much concrete guidance on this subject. And it is not a book about how to live the single life - though it definitely contains fundamental information about that. Rather, the subject of this book is completing divorce - laying it to rest permanently and then moving on - no matter when the divorce itself took place. My goal, quite simply, is to help "ex-wives" wipe that label from their vocabularies forever and transform themselves into autonomous women deeply engaged in the business of living their lives - who happen to have been divorced some time in the past.
Like most psychotherapists, I often hear stories from different patients that resemble each other. Early in my fourteen-year practice, which has focused primarily on women, I began to realize that many of my divorced clients had strikingly similar tales to tell of their lives after divorce. The men, it seemed, rarely looked back after the divorce was final, but all too often the women, after an initial period of relief and hopeful anticipation, unexpectedly found themselves paralyzed, sitting in a room with the shades drawn - metaphorically, at least - and dreaming about how things used to be. Feeling fragmented and uncertain, they asked themselves why they couldn't pull themselves together.
These weren't simply women having a rough time adjusting to new circumstances. These were women who, one, two, three - even ten, twelve, fifteen - years after they'd gotten divorced, were absolutely unable to begin their lives anew.
Elizabeth is an example. The relief she experienced directly after her divorce quickly gave way to obsessive brooding on the old issues that had divided her and Charles during their marriage. He had always behaved with impeccable courtesy and apparent warmth toward her in public, for example, but at home he had clearly, if nonverbally, conveyed the message that he had no interest whatsoever in conversation with her - not about the children, not about the house, and above all not about money. Furthermore, he had made many decisions that directly affected her without breathing a word to her about them. In fact, midway through the marriage he had actually bought an apartment in town and put their house up for sale - with no mention to Elizabeth until after the fact. At the time she had been just as glad to be free of the anxiety she often felt around decision making, but now she replayed this and a dozen other incidents repeatedly. Each time she grew so incensed that the next time she saw Charles she'd immediately pick a fight.
Yet Elizabeth's divorce, five years in the past, was ancient history as far as she was concerned. She came into therapy because she felt her life lacked focus. But as she spoke she gradually revealed that indeed her life did have a focus. She never got very far into recounting an anecdote without making reference to Charles, and she rarely got through a therapy session without coming up against a brick wall - some unresolved conflict with Charles - that was standing between her plans for herself and her execution of those plans. Far from leaving Charles behind with the divorce, Elizabeth had virtually guaranteed him a central role in her current life.
The more carefully I listened to Elizabeth and my other divorced clients, and the more I compared their case histories, the more certain I became that in one way or another these women were still emotionally connected to their ex-husbands and that this unbroken, unexamined link was the source of both their paralysis and their extreme emotional distress.
There wasn't much in the psychological literature to illuminate what I was finding. There were empirical studies showing that "attachment" - the impulse to bond with others - kept many divorced people tied to their ex-spouses and that postdivorce attachment often resulted in emotional discomfort. But how, exactly, did such attachment express itself? How did it continue to function in the atmosphere, often downright hostile, that followed divorce? And most important, how would one go about ending such attachment to achieve emotional as well as legal divorce? None of these questions was answered in the literature. I started to see the work I had cut out for myself.
Gradually, over the course of my work with divorced women stalled in the process of emotional divorce, I began to discern a set of symptoms that accompanied the unsevered bond. Taken together, symptoms and bond formed a recognizable constellation - where the bond was intact the symptoms I had isolated were sure to be present to one degree or another. And yet, like Elizabeth, many of the patients I saw with this cluster of symptoms were completely unconscious of the connection that still gripped them. They turned to therapy because they were suffering from unexplained depression, a sense of meaninglessness, plummeting self-esteem, a loss of direction. For them, the divorce experience was something they had gratefully left behind; now they had other problems they were trying - in vain, to their consternation - to work through. But in case after case, when these women were encouraged to describe their current relationships with their former husbands, they brought buried issues to the surface that finally moved the therapy forward. In working with these women, I came to understand just how devilishly stubborn and enduring the effects of the divorce trauma can be, even in women who believe the experience is far behind them.
As the years went by, I developed a specific approach to therapy with divorced women who exhibited the pattern I had learned to recognize. The chief characteristic of this therapeutic approach was its directiveness; I found it was beneficial to urge these patients toward specific issues, a procedure that would have been out of place with patients whose problems were internal. For example, I would ask a woman to recount and study her current interactions with her ex-husband - even if she considered them completely irrelevant to her current concerns. Or I might ask her to think back to the dynamics of the divorce proceedings themselves - how, for example, had her attorney advised her to "play her part"? Time and again, when patients looked at these experiences with fresh eyes, I saw their faces light up with insight, recognition.
"All this time," one patient told me, "I've been doing everything to get my ex-husband and the whole mess behind me. Once the hell of the divorce was over I wanted it over. Sure, I have to see him twice a week, when he picks the kids up and then brings them back. And sure, we still argue every time - we might as well have stayed married as far as the arguments are concerned. But I never really saw before that perhaps I hadn't finished with the guy emotionally. I just turned my back and ran without knowing I was dragging him and all our baggage behind me. No wonder I've felt so horrendously tired for so long. I've got to stop and get rid of all that extra weight!"
Seeing my patients consider the possibility of an unsevered connection, wrestle with it, and then begin to see its relation to their current emotional troubles confirmed my hypothesis that a woman who remained emotionally attached to her former husband - by whatever feeling, from "love" to bitter hatred - was in for trouble in many aspects of her life. And if in addition to being linked emotionally, she was also linked biologically, through children, she would probably be in for a very bumpy ride.
Where the diagnosis fit, the light of insight cast the woman's marriage and divorce in a new light and opened the way for her to work with me on devising strategies to sever the bond and, equally important, begin to shape a new independent, single life.
I marveled at the success of this therapeutic approach. For woman after woman, insight into the dynamics of the problem proved to be remarkably potent - almost inevitably, action followed on the heels of recognition, and each successful attempt to neutralize the obsolete connection brought these patients closer to emotional health and autonomy. Though the work was often very difficult, and always required courage and determination, the results came as close to a surefire cure as anything psychology has to offer. One by one, my patients ended their therapy with renewed self-confidence and enthusiasm for life, two hallmarks of good psychological health.
As I grew more familiar with the symptoms and their underlying cause, it became clear that I had isolated a distinct psychological condition. I named the constellation of symptoms "The Ex-Wife Syndrome" and began the work of describing it, precisely defining the symptoms, and refining my therapeutic approach. It has taken me more than twelve years to achieve these goals. In my practice to date, I have seen roughly two hundred women suffering from the Ex-Wife Syndrome. Most of these clients have been middle-class white women of somewhat similar life-styles. Once I began to see that I was dealing with a recognizable condition, however, I actively interviewed approximately two hundred more divorced women of varied backgrounds. My interviews confirmed my suspicion that the syndrome crosses all social boundaries. Wherever there is divorce, women are at risk for the Ex-Wife Syndrome.
In psychological terms, the formula behind my treatment for the Ex-Wife Syndrome was relatively simple and straightforward: authentic insight followed by appropriate action yields improved psychological well-being. This formula plus the somewhat directive psychotherapeutic style I had developed for use with my syndrome patients suggested to me that it would be possible, and valuable, to write a book describing the syndrome and guiding readers everywhere through the process of disconnecting with the past.
Who Should Read This Book
First and foremost, this book is for the woman whose divorce is in the past and who is experiencing emotional distress she cannot explain. This woman may feel that what were once vague and unnameable problems - a baffling indecisiveness, perhaps, or a feeling of being overwhelmed by life - are now coming to a head; she may be experiencing a new urgency in identifying and working on trouble spots in her life. But she may not necessarily believe she has loose ends to tie up concerning her divorce. In fact, the opposite may be true: she may consider the divorce to be a past event that has no bearing whatever on her problems. This is the woman just at the verge of examining and defining her current situation. She needs guidance in finding the root cause of her vague and building distress.
But the book is by no means limited to women with divorces in the past. As we as a society finally come to accept divorce as a fact of life, we are not only educating ourselves about its effects but are struggling hard to figure out how to do it right - to minimize the trauma and smooth the difficult transition from the married to newly single status. In this light, Leaving Him Behind will be valuable as well both to women going through divorce and to those considering it. Armed with a detailed understanding of how the process of disconnection can become stalled or stopped completely, these readers will be well prepared to prevent the Ex-Wife Syndrome from taking hold of them. Others will find here ways to urge troubled marriages onto a new foundation.
Finally, this book speaks to widows. Though their marriages have ended differently, and often more unexpectedly, than those of divorced women, widows face equal psychological and practical challenges in adjusting to the single life. Many widows suffer the Ex-Wife Syndrome, and in most cases the psychological dynamics of the condition are the same. Chapter nine addresses widows directly, but I strongly urge widowed women to read the book straight through. They'll find much that will help them recognize and surmount impediments to their healing.