Divorce and mental health

Divorce and mental health is, in my opinion an important topic. Last week was #mentalhealthawarenessweek here in the U.K and I posted a series of comments on LinkedIn on the issue. At times of acute stress and grief our mental health can take a nose dive. It can happen so insidiously that we don’t even notice. I notice that certain personality types are also more prone to issue because of the coping mechanisms that they employ. Those of us who like to get involved in ‘busyness’ to distract ourselves from emotion pain and discomfort often find themselves in more difficulties than those of us who like to ‘talk’.

Mental health is about all of us. It’s not just a term for those who are ‘on medication’ or ‘hospitalised’ or ‘sectioned’. Mental health includes anxiety, depression, stress and conversely feelings of calm, confidence, happiness and joy. In divorce we may focus on the former, but the latter is also possible when we allow ourselves to acknowledge the truth of who we are and how we are feeling.

Shame and guilt

It’s important to talk about divorce and mental health because there is still so much shame and guilt associated with both. Partners who want to leave feel guilty for ‘leaving’. Women often feel shame for ‘breaking’ the family – particularly when not supported emotionally by their own mothers because they themselves ‘stuck it out’. There’s shame felt by those who have been ‘left’. Feelings of not being ‘good enough’ of being ‘worth-less’ and discarded can lead to anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and addictions. Of course, not every person experiencing divorce will have these feelings but those that do often struggle to admit that they are having a hard time.

Speaking your truth is one thing. Being willing to listen and hear if a friend or family member is talking to you is another. Feelings of shame often keep us small. Withdrawn. Feelings of shame mean we want to hide away and not answer questions. Plastering a smile on your face is hard when you feel like crap. Pretending that everything’s ‘fine’ when it isn’t becomes an Oscar winning performance – you almost convince yourself. Almost. But. You don’t want to be a burden, you don’t want to be ‘weak’ and you don’t want your friends to think you’ve become a divorce bore. So you hold it all in. Eventually the anger, stress, sadness , shame and guilt permeates every part of you. The world feels like a god-awful place and frankly if it wasn’t for your children or other loved ones, you’d happily take a duvet day every day.

Perhaps your reading this because someone you know, someone you love is suffering silently. Talk to them. Keep talking to them. If your gut is telling you the repeated “I’m fine” you are met with is frankly well, lets be polite and say ‘rubbish’ then keep asking – #itsoknottobeok it really is. Sometimes all that is needed is permission to not be ok.

Emotional rollercoaster

Divorce is an emotional rollercoaster for everyone involved. It’s so easy to be blind-sided by things that you didn’t even know you cared about. The unconscious mind is a powerful thing. All your memories are alive and well in there, even if they are not in your conscious everyday awareness. Anniversaries, Birthdays, special events and occasions – our unconscious mind can be a calendar of dates you’d rather not think about, and that’s before we even think about the blessings/blessed curse of ‘Facebook Memories’! In the space of seconds, you can go from having a great day to a terrible day because something, someone or a social media memory triggers you. When your amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for flight or flight) gets highjacked in this way, you feel totally out of control.

Mindfulness, a technique for grounding ourselves in the here and now can be a helpful practice. Meditation, yoga and outdoor exercise can help calm and restore balance in our autonomic nervous system. Recognising that at some point during your divorce it’ll hit the fan in some way (it’s different for everyone)  helps you to make peace with the fact that however ‘together’ you think you have it, divorce will come and bite you at least once when you weren’t expecting it.

High conflict

Divorce and mental health is a particularly pertinent topic when considering high conflict situations. Some divorces are high conflict because there are mental health issues. Dementia, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, anxiety disorders all pose extra challenges on the end of a relationship. Sometimes these conditions are the catalyst for such an ending. When one party struggles because of mental challenges to accept the end of the relationship (particularly when their behaviour is the cause), the divorce can become high conflict. This high conflict can cause mental health deterioration in the other spouse because of trauma, guilt, shame fear etc.

When a spouse can no longer cope with a partner who has a mental health issue guilt and grief are common. Worrying about what will happen to their spouse both emotionally and financially is a huge concern. Finding support for yourself is crucial. Taking care of yourself and your own mental health will help you deal with the practical and emotional aspects of the divorce process. You’ll be calmer and more resourceful. Your resilience will help you find (where appropriate) support for your soon-to-be-ex-spouse.

Support for yourself

When your own mental health is challenged due to domestic abuse (emotional, physical, financial, psychological) divorce can feel like it will break you. You too need to find support for yourself. To let go of the ideals that you had, recognising the abusive situation for what it was – abuse. If you are in immediate danger, you need to make you and your children safe immediately – the rest can wait. If the kind of abuse you experiencing is more subtle, it may take you time to realise that your relationship is high conflict. Creating a plan to leave will give you courage and confidence.

Vulnerability and courage

Find the courage to be vulnerable. Vulnerability isn’t weakness, it’s strength. To say “I need help” “I’m struggling” “please help” is courageous. It’s real. It’s human. Asking for support also gives other people the opportunity to be of service and that’s a gift. Think about it – don’t you love it when you can help a friend in need? The best thing about getting support is that you actually find the strength to keep going and to get through. What felt insurmountable and unachievable becomes doable. Support gives you time and space to build your resilience. To tap into your inner-resources and return to the calm and confident women you know that you are deep inside.

The Divorce Alchemist

Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is author of the Amazon best selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a practising family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self study and group programmes. Emma is featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com

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