Coping With Marital Separation

Coping With Marital Separation

“If the only thing people learned was not to be afraid of their experience, that alone would change the world– Sydney Banks”
Click to Tweet

The process of separation alerts our brain of change and can induce similar effects to that of withdrawing from a drug like cocaine.

Your spouse has become part of your everyday routine and since the brain likes predictably, a separation can result in your brain chemistry going temporarily haywire.

You will likely experience a huge range of emotions during this time: shock, anger, sadness, relief, and possibly even experience anxiety, depression, or panic attacks for the first time. It is crucial to be kind to yourself during this process. There is nothing wrong with you. Your body and brain are just in an adjustment period, what you are feeling is not permanent.

When experiencing a life change like separation, people generally take two courses of action. Both can be entirely appropriate in different moments.

1) Distraction

Distracting yourself seems a logical step to take yes, but at times is counterintuitive to your own healing process.

For example, a client of mine, Jack, was devastated when his second marriage began falling apart. He felt extreme guilt and was under the impression, “Well, that was my chance at a happy life and I screwed it up again”. What began at first as an innocent escape turned into a full-fledged alcohol addiction…which needless to say complicated his situation.

Now, don’t get me wrong, distraction can be immensely helpful at times. Perhaps going for a run, taking a yoga class, trying meditation, or going out with your friends on a Friday night is a perfect solution to chase your blues away in that moment. I see people get into trouble when they are constantly seeking to numb their pain or avoid uncomfortable feelings.

2) Feel the emotions fully

This can seem scary and counterintuitive at first, however, when we allow emotions to be there without trying to change them, run from them, or judge them, they actually are quite temporary.

This was advice several of my male clients said they would give to someone going through a separation period or a divorce. “The biggest thing I can say, is to let yourself feel your emotions fully. I remember when I came home and my wife’s belongings were gone. I didn’t react the way I thought I would. To be honest, after the initial shock, I often didn’t feel the way I thought I would throughout this process.”

Feel the emotions fully

3) Ask a loved one or trusted friend if they could just listen to you

On the contrary, my clients cite that the well-meaning advice of friends can actually be unhelpful. One client said that his friends kept telling him to delete his wife from his life, delete her from facebook, don’t answer her calls…for him that solution just did not work.

Another client said that even though her friends were trying to make her feel better, all of the gossiping about how her husband is such a bad guy only made her feel worse about her situation. Instead, being honest that you would like to talk about something else can be helpful or you can ask a loved one or trusted friend if they could just listen to you.

There is a fantastic exercise based on the work of the Thinking Environment with Nancy Klein

The framework is simple, but the results can be remarkable. Here are the basic rules of this listening exercise:

  • Designate a listener and a speaker. The listener’s job is to just listen. Seriously, no giving advice. No relating what the person is saying to a similar situation in your own life. Your job is just to listen.
  • Set a time for each person to talk. Usually between 5-15 minutes per person is a great starting place, however you can go as long as you want.
  • Ask a question like “What do you want to think about?”.
  • Listener, just listen. Speaker feel free to talk about whatever comes to mind. If there are periods of silence (which there most likely will be) that is ok. Allow the silence. Listener do not talk or feel you need to “help” the conversation along.
  • Reflect. Take a few minutes each to share what the experience was like to just be listened to without being interrupted or given advice. Listener, comment on what the experience was like for you to just listen. What did you notice? The role of the listener is not to summarize what the person said, but rather reflect on what your own internal process was. What did you become aware of?
  • Switch roles and repeat.

Have fun with this and again, please remember to be kind to yourself. Life happens. Separations happen. The good news is you have an innate capacity for resilience.

Amy Leo
Amy Leo worked with children and teens discharged from psychiatric hospitals and their families for 5 years in New York City as an Intensive In-Home Counselor. Fueled by the notion, “there has got to be a better way”, she quit her social work job to pursue an apprenticeship in the field of mental health education. Since completing the one year apprenticeship program, Amy has worked in the private practice sector and as a consultant for others in the helping professions.

More by Amy Leo