The risk of suicide increases significantly with divorce. Knowing how to respond if you, your STBX or your child becomes suicidal is critical.
How do you know when to take a suicide threat seriously?
Should you put the divorce on hold or promise not to divorce?
Is it your fault if your STBX ends their life?
As a divorce coach, I worked with a few clients whose STBX has chosen to end their life during the divorce process. It’s extremely upsetting for friends and family and it’s rarely the outcome people want. This is an important Conversation and joining me to talk about how we respond to this threat is fellow divorce coach, Martha Bodyfelt. Martha is also a frequent guest contributor to Since My Divorce. Listen in below (email subscribers click here) or keep reading for a synopsis.
NOTE: Neither Martha Bodyfelt or myself are mental health professionals so what follows is not about a medical or clinical response or understanding the underlying cause for someone feeling suicidal but rather how to respond, support and help yourself, your STBX or your child.
Get Professional Help
I wish I could tell you that there’s a way to make getting divorced easy and quick but I haven’t discovered it yet. In my experience divorce is always hard, difficult, emotionally upsetting and time-consuming. Bodyfelt says she often has clients who feel that life after divorce will be worthless, that they may never see their kid again, or that without their identity as a spouse, as a provider they don’t know who they are. These all point to needing help from a mental health professional or life/divorce recovery coach.
“The number one thing is please, please, please get help,” said Bodyfelt. “It is not a stigma. You did not do anything wrong. It is not shameful to ask for help.”
If it’s your spouse who is feeling suicidal, encourage them to get help. It’s important to recognize however that getting help and making progress will take time. There isn’t a quick fix but the transitions that come with divorce are temporary whereas suicide is a permanent solution. Help doesn’t just come in one form. Getting counselling will help with the psychological concerns but gathering information on the divorce process, evaluating the finances, understanding parenting and divorce will all help in assessing the true impact of divorce rather than the perceived impact.
Don’t Downplay Suicidal Thoughts
Whether you’re talking to yourself or to your STBX or your child, avoid responding with remarks like, “Cheer up. It’s all going to be OK.”
Remarks like this come from a good place and are well-intentioned but are not helpful. They can make the person feel that they are not being taken seriously, that their concerns are being discounted and that you don’t understand their situation.
Bodyfelt says suicidal thoughts come from a perfect storm of existing psychological concerns compounded by the lifestyle and financial issues of divorce and a person’s entire identity being “ripped out.”
What to say instead? Practice reflective listening, for example “I hear you saying that you don’t know how to live without your family.” You also need to ask if the person has a plan for how they would take their life. More on that below.
Slowdown The Divorce
One of the most helpful ways to respond to suicidal thoughts is to slowdown the divorce. If it’s your STBX who’s feeling suicidal, you can offer this. If you’re feeling suicidal, you can request this of your spouse.
“What really divorce is, when you take away the emotional impact, is a business transaction,” said Bodyfelt. “You are dividing up your assets and there is no reason you can’t pause that business transaction.”
Pausing the divorce process will give yourself time to get help, to get healthy and to be able to proceed with the divorce. “Your health and your mental health is a priority,” said Bodyfelt.
Tell Your Attorney
If you are working with an attorney for your divorce, be sure to open up to them with what is going on. Chances are you won’t be the first case you attorney has worked on where suicide is a concern. They will be able to advise you on your legal options for slowing down the process. For example, if someone is feeling suicidal then it could be argued that they don’t have the capacity to make the decisions necessary for the division of assets or parenting. This might point to the need to appoint someone to act on their behalf or simply to have a waiting period to get more information about their health.
Is The Suicide Talk A Power And Control Tactic?
There are times when talk about suicide is made more as a threat, as a manipulative response to persuade the other person from proceeding with the divorce. Responses like this, especially when there’s been a history of abuse, are a power and control tactic. But it’s not always easy to discern the difference.
“This is a very difficult situation to be in because it’s, ‘OK, is my spouse just doing this to control me or does my spouse really mean it?'” said Bodyfelt.
If there has been a history of abuse, then the concerns broaden to how to keep yourself safe.
“If you are dealing with someone who is threatening suicide and who has power and control issues, do you have a plan to protect yourself, your children and your pets?” said Bodyfelt.
Your local domestic violence organization will have resources to help you formulate a plan. Don’t downplay or discount the threat to your personal safety – these are the situations that lead to the murder-suicides we see reported in the press.
I have also had clients who in this situation, admit that they wish their spouse would follow through on their threat of suicide. And that’s understandable, too. After years of an unhealthy marriage, emotional abuse, months of vicious fighting over the divorce, suicide would frankly bring an end to the turmoil.
Do You Have A Plan?
The suggested response from many mental health experts to suicidal talk is to ask the person if they have a plan for how they would take their life. If they have a plan, then they are in imminent danger and you need to call 911. If it’s you, and you have a plan, then you need to seek immediate help.
If they haven’t formulated a plan, then the threat is less urgent but you should still urge them to seek treatment. There are lots of resources available – the hardest may be getting the person who is feeling suicidal to accept help.
Having a plan and a history of power and control behavior increases the danger to yourself and this makes it vitally important for you to have your own safety plan.
What If It’s Your Child?
If it’s your child who is talking about suicide, then again, it’s urgent that you get them clinical help and consider getting them admitted to a residential program. Divorce will compound whatever issues the child is already dealing with.
“Children think that everything that is happening around them is because of them,” said Bodyfelt. “So if mom and dad are fighting sometimes that child will think, it’s my fault because of something I did.”
Divorce studies have shown that it is not the divorce itself that has long lasting negative impacts on children but rather on-going conflict between the parents, how the parents handle the divorce and how the parents treat each other after the divorce.
If your child is talking suicide then it’s absolutely critical for both parents to work together on supporting treatment for their child in short-term and then, how to parent their child together. That’s easy to say. The reality, and I have seen this with clients, is that the level of conflict and disagreement may be so high between the parents, that they are unable to even agree on treatment.
Bodyfelt recommends making your home as safe as possible by removing guns and weapons from the house or keeping them securely locked with ammunition locked up separately. It also means cleaning out old prescription medication and keeping current medications secure.
Should You Cancel The Divorce?
While slowing down the divorce is smart and advisable, canceling it or withdrawing it altogether likely doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t address the underlying reasons for why either you or your STBX has decided to end the marriage.
Your child might ask you to promise not to get divorced. Bodyfelt and I agree that no matter what, you should not make promises you can’t keep. Following the advice for how to talk to your child about divorce is a starting point but given the heightened safety concerns, enlisting the help of a mental health professional is strongly advised.
Make A No Harm Agreement
Mental health professionals will often make a no harm agreement with a patient who is feeling suicidal. It involves a commitment that the person will not harm themselves and might say between the current day and the next appointment. They sometimes include the names and phone numbers of people that the person agrees to call if they do consider acting on their suicidal thoughts.
You could make a verbal agreement but putting it in writing may result in a deeper commitment.
“It’s a little more formal, ” said Bodyfelt. “It’s not enforceable but the spirit and intention of it is really powerful.”
Divorce often means taking each day as it comes and if there is the danger of you, your STBX or your child taking their life, then taking things one day at a time is all you can you and in these situations, having a no-harm agreement, could provide another safety net, especially if it is in writing.
“I think we’re conditioned that once we have our signature or we say ‘I promise this,’ we have a tendency to shift our mindset to, ‘I made that commitment to that person, I’m beholden to that person,” said Bodyfelt.
It’s Never Your Fault
When a person chooses to take their life, then it is exactly that. It is their choice. It’s not your fault and you are not to blame. I want to reinforce this because knowing this and accepting this is not easy.
Joining Mandy for this important Conversation, was fellow divorce coach Martha Bodyfelt. Read more about Martha’s work at her website, SurvivingYourSplit.com and sign up for Martha’s free divorce survival guide.