The Reality of Divorce for Men

Faith Miller Managing Partner at Miller Zeiderman LLP, authors the latest article for her blog. Read the full article below.

Studies actually show men struggle more than women do during and after divorce.

You might think the typical divorcing guy thinks “No more ball and chain!” or “There’s plenty of other fish in the sea.”

The popular myth is that men are walking out on their wives, when in fact for the vast majority of divorces, more than 70%, are initiated by women, according to a large-scale study by Stanford sociologist Dr. Michael Rosenfeld.

Psychologists say that men typically report more marital satisfaction even when they’re suffering in a conflict-ridden marriage. In reality, men struggle more than women do during and after divorce. Men are more prone to depression, anxiety, and heart disease. They often self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. Suicide rates go up and men are nearly ten times as likely to commit suicide post-divorce as women.

Why all the guy gloom? And is it inevitable or do gender traps play a role?

One way to think about coping with divorce is through the famous model of loss/grief developed by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. It’s gender-neutral and speaks to the five stages of emotions that people go through when they’ve suffered a traumatic loss. These emotions include: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. People move back and forth between the stages as they progress; it’s not always a linear movement. The whole process can last from several months to several years.

Recovering from divorce through the 5 stages of grief

Experts say that grieving and feeling the full gamut of emotions is healthy and necessary to move on. But gender traps can complicate and slow the process, so it’s important to beware of them and avoid stumbling blocks whenever possible.

Here are further details of the five stages you’ll likely go through in order to heal and adapt successfully.

1. Denial. The shock of divorce causes you to deny the reality of your situation. If you’ve been served divorce papers, you experience denial if you think, “this is not happening.” Even if you initiated the divorce, you can slip into denial when you cling to thoughts of a last-minute reconciliation instead of reckoning with your broken marriage.

Denial is a defense mechanism that activates to avoid feeling emotional pain. For most men, this is a temporary response to get them through the first wave of pain. But others can get lost in denial as it numbs their feelings. The escapism of drug and alcohol abuse is a greater risk for men who, compared to women, have much higher rates of binge drinking and other forms of avoiding addressing their situation.

Because denial allows functioning rather than collapsing, it’s important to reach out quickly for help. Connecting with divorced friends who’ve “been there” is especially helpful. Ideally, seek out a therapist, too. The immediate support and guidance can set you on the right path where you can learn to process your feelings bit by bit and gain insight. This will help you in the short- and long-term. Remember: the old-school “suck it up” mentality can be detrimental for your long term mental health. Research shows that Millenial men, as well as men older than 50, are now more inclined to seek therapy. The stigma of therapy is disappearing, even among men who’ve reserved emotions only for spouses. Research also shows that men are varied in how they reach out for needed social support—there’s no longer a “typical” guy response. Online therapy sites are more popular than ever and can help men who have trust issues and virtual sessions can offer a helpful illusion of emotional distance.

2. Anger. Anger is a way of pushing down and hiding painful feelings. Some guys who feel a void fill it with anger. You might lash out at innocent friends and relatives; misdirecting anger is easier than managing it. Men with anger issues can damage relationships if they’re not careful. Society does give men greater leeway to express anger, but anger usually makes any situation worse and doesn’t lead to the emotional catharsis you might want. “Research shows that expressing anger can lead to more anger and doesn’t improve our mental health,” says Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore.

In other words, venting can prime the pump, experts have found. Strenuous exercise, on the other hand, is shown to provide an emotional release for anger and other negative emotions. Remember that feeling anger is normal, so don’t be hard on yourself for feeling this way in response to new stresses, like alimony, child support, battles over custody, or missing out on time with your kids. But you can control how you respond to anger, even in the flashpoint moment. Vent through CrossFit, time spent with sympathetic friends, and through an absorbing new hobby, like a biking club, that can distract from your new stresses. Find the root of your anger, which may not be the stresses of your divorce. Experts say connecting to the true source of your anger and verbalizing it to yourself or others can help to relieve anger.

3. Bargaining. This stage involves hope that reality can be avoided, usually through a reformed lifestyle. You may fantasize about “if-only” scenarios and negotiate in your head how you might produce a different outcome. If you’re religious, you may make a promise to a higher power that you’ll be different if given another chance.

4. Depression. During this stage you’ll ponder and process your loss. This can bring feelings of despair, loneliness, and isolation. You may have thoughts like “I’ll never meet someone again.” Or, “I’ll fail in my next relationship. My spouse is right—I have major flaws.” 

Sadness, fatigue, and diminished interest in socializing or enjoyable activities are normal feelings at this time. But beware that a deeper clinical depression can also develop. Divorce can trigger clinical depression in men with a genetic predisposition toward it, according to a study in Clinical Psychological Science. Men with no history of depression aren’t at greater risk; yet some men have suffered from depression earlier in life without recognizing it or being diagnosed. Staying engaged in your favorite activities can help protect yourself. If you’re just not interested or excited anymore, and have trouble sleeping or eating, that could be a red flag and you should seek professional help.

According to the Mayo Clinic, signs and symptoms of depression in men can differ from those in women. Examples include: escapist behavior, like spending too much time at the office or at sporting events; risky behavior like reckless driving; alcohol and drug abuse; inappropriate anger; and physical symptoms like headaches and digestive problems.

A therapist can help distinguish between normal sad feelings and depression that might benefit from a combination of talk therapy and medication. A therapist can also provide coping strategies tailored to your daily stresses and interactions with your ex. The emotional support you feel can have ripple effects across your life and help to prevent an unhealthy long-term “rebound” relationship, which men can be prone to when they lack a support system. A therapist trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy can also help you change negative thought patterns, like “I’ll never meet someone,” “I’m a failure,” or “my kids will hate me,” that contribute to low mood.

5. Acceptance. As pain and anger subside, you’ll start to feel calmer. You will begin to feel hopeful; envisioning a new way of life, even a new relationship. Acceptance is gradual, so don’t be surprised if you move forward with baby steps. Rebuild your life at your own pace, and don’t expect perfection. Act with purpose. Own it. The key to moving on is “radical acceptance,” says Mark Banschick, M.D., author of The Intelligent Divorce. That means “accepting and embracing the present and the future, not the pains of the past,” he says.