Guest post by Muna Saleem
Going through a divorce is a tricky and complicated process that is compounded by the strong emotions and stresses that each party invariably brings to the table. But the mental health effects of a divorce go on long after the legal process has ended so it’s important to know how to take care of your mental health during divorce.
Whilst I am not a trained therapist or councillor, having represented and counselled many people going through this difficult and upsetting period of their lives, there are several pieces of advice I would give to anyone going through, or having recently gone through, a divorce.
The Initial Shock
Perhaps the most emotionally challenging hurdle to negotiate when getting a divorce is accepting that the expectations you had about your future, and who you will share that future with, have gone forever. Breaking up with someone who you have spent a large amount of your life with is a hugely traumatic process and will inevitably change who you are and how you see yourself.
Coping with the initial shock and subsequent reassessment of your life, is often the hardest thing you’ll have to go through, but it’s also the first step in the healing process as it allows you to make room for the fact that life goes on. Some professionals even recommend writing a goodbye letter to the life you once had, which is invariably a traumatic and emotionally wrenching experience, but also an extremely cathartic one.
Communicating With Your Ex
This is a tricky thing to deal with as raw emotions may well come to the surface in the form of anger, sadness or even jealousy. During divorce proceedings, communication is crucial as it helps the process proceed as smoothly as possible with as little confrontation as possible.
Many divorcing couples opt for mediation or collaboration; approaches that remove the need for going through the court system, which can be extremely stressful and confrontational by nature.
Learning to communicate with your ex effectively early on is also crucial if you have a family, as being able to amicably agree to custody and visiting times will greatly reduce the stresses suffered by your children, as well as you. Some couples even find that they can eventually maintain healthy friendships with their ex partners. The important thing to remember though is that this all takes time and to begin with just sitting in the same room as your ex may be one of the hardest things you’re ever likely to do.
Understanding Your Emotional Response
The NHS Choices website lists seven methods for a stress-free divorce (which is actually a misleading title, as all divorces involve stress to some degree). The second of these is managing your emotions. Divorce can trigger a number of mental health problems in people, from panic attacks to severe depression. Recognising your response to your divorce is not easy to do, but it’s important as it allows you to contextualise your feelings as part of a healing process that will eventually lead you to a happier more positive place.
Conversely, understanding and recognising the symptoms of genuine depression and other mental health problems will allow you to seek professional help when you need it.
Coping Day By Day
Life goes on and although your world may have fallen apart, the world around you carries on as normal. Paradoxically this can be both a consoling and an upsetting reality. Many people find strength by throwing themselves into their jobs or hobbies and maintaining the relationships they have with their friends and family, whilst others however, can suddenly feel an acute sense of isolation from the people and lives that carry on as normal around them. It’s important to avoid a defeatist attitude and get out and engage with the world around you. Many people coming out of a divorce find strength by starting new hobbies, which can also be a great way of making new friends.
Friends and families are the safety net for anyone going through a divorce. Whilst it’s important to get back on the saddle and carry on living your life, a distinction should be made between adopting a positive attitude and burying your emotions and pretending that everything is alright when it’s not. There will undoubtedly be moments where it becomes very hard to cope and having friends and family to turn to is part of the grieving process. Many also find that talking to a cognitive behavioural therapist can help with the healing process. Often by talking to a complete stranger many people open up far quicker as they aren’t fearful of being judged in the same way.
Men in particular struggle with talking about the mental health effects of their divorce. Outdated social expectations put on men to act strong and be emotionally resilient often have the effect of shutting them off from their friends and family, or even accepting they are suffering in the first place. This can have devastating consequences in the long term, as I explored in an article written for the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) charity’s website.
Look To The Future
When all is said and done, the overriding piece of advice I, or anyone else, can give to anyone going through a divorce is to remember that the future is unknown and more often than not what you make it. At your lowest ebb, that future can seem bleak and lonely but the more you can stay positive the more appealing it can become.
Although it’s a terrible cliché to end on, time is a healer and most importantly allows for perspective. Many people invariably find that over time they actually become happier, more emotionally stable individuals as a result of their breakup, eager for whatever life’s next big adventure is.
About the Author: Muna Saleem is an associate solicitor with English Law Firm Crisp & Co. She is an accredited member of the Law Society’s Family Law Panel, practicing in all areas of private family law from divorce and financial remedy applications to cohabitee disputes and children matters such as child arrangement orders and international relocation applications.