We don’t talk much publicly about suicide and divorce but it is a topic that I’ve discussed with a number of clients. Whether it’s a child whose parents are getting divorced, the person who wants to end the marriage but can’t or the person whose spouse has said they want a divorce, it’s a sign of a person who is struggling for their life and desperately needs help. So before you tell your spouse or child about the end of your marriage, it’s important to ask yourself if you know what you need to know about suicide and divorce.
In this episode of Conversations About Divorce, I’m joined by Samantha Nadler, regional coordinator with the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network. Samantha has attempted suicide numerous times triggered by her parents’ divorce, and her own divorce. You can read Samantha’s survival story here.
Listen in to learn:
- the signs that someone may be considering suicide
- why you always need to take talk of suicide seriously
- when a suicide threat becomes domestic violence
- how you can help someone who is suicidal
- why a suicide threat doesn’t mean changing the divorce decision
Here’s what Samantha Nadler and I discuss:
Children Often Feel Powerless In Divorce
People who feel suicidal talk about feeling powerless, trapped and hopeless and the reality is that that is exactly how children can feel in divorce when there is a high level of conflict between their parents and when that conflict continues post-divorce, typically focused on parenting issues.
Nadler reports that her parents’ divorce came almost as a relief, she thought it would be an end to the fighting. There followed however a bitter custody battle which resulted in her father, who had remarried, being awarded full custody. During the process Nadler felt she had little say in the outcome. She also felt that she didn’t have any allies in the process.
As with everything to do with divorce, it is always better if you and your STBX can work out a compromise. When the courts get involved, the decisions have to be based on the rule of law and where children are concerned, that often means that the child has little or no opportunity to speak directly with a judge. They may be interviewed as part of a parenting or family investigation but it’s easy to see how a child, especially a teen might feel that they have little influence over their life.
Avoid Oversharing With Your Child
Every divorce expert will tell you that the details of why your marriage is ending, the particulars of your divorce process and the specifics of your financial settlement are not to be shared with your child. It’s not appropriate. One of the dangers in sharing these details is that your child will feel that they have to take a side, that they are being asked to judge one of their parents. This lays the foundation for animosity towards that parent that can intensify when the child is expected to spend time with that parent.
Nadler said that her mother had shared many of the details of her father’s extra-marital affair with the woman he later married and this set the stage for feeling powerless when her father was awarded custody.
If you’re getting ready to tell your spouse that you want to end your marriage or you’re going to tell your children, and there is a history of mental illness, then you can reasonably expect the possibility of a suicide threat. Talking through that possibility with your therapist will help you be prepared to support your spouse or child. You could also call your spouse’s therapist to alert them to what is going on but for privacy reasons they may not be able to discuss the situation with you. If it’s your child you’re concerned about, then consider a consult with your child’s therapist ahead of time and then even have an appointment scheduled ready for after you’ve told your child. I’ve known some parents who have told their child with the therapist present.
Don’t Discount Emotions
When someone shares that they are feeling suicidal about a situation, try to avoid looking at the situation from your perspective and thinking that they have nothing to be concerned about, and telling them that. Sure, compared to your worries your teen’s concerns maybe seem self-centered and minimal but their feelings are valid and legitimate.
Similarly, telling someone to simply stop unhealthy behaviors such as self-harming, doesn’t help. Instead, ask them to tell you more about how they are feeling, try not be judgmental and seek professional help.
Pay Attention To Warning Signs
Nadler says there are usually signs that someone is planning suicide but they can be missed since they may not be direct or even verbal. In addition to the warning signs listed below, be aware of sudden changes in behavior, talk of making final arrangements, substance abuse or relapse. Be alert to statements that allude to being gone, such as “Pretty soon you won’t have to worry about me anymore,” or “Guess, you won’t have to deal with me much longer.”
You might interpret the statement to be referring to when your child goes to college or starts shared parenting time, or that your STBX is referring to moving out or when the divorce process is over but they could also be telling you they are considering suicide. If in doubt, ask the person to clarify exactly what they mean.
Take Talk Of Suicide Seriously
You may have heard that if someone tells another that they are feeling suicidal that it means the threat isn’t real. That’s a myth. If someone tells you they’re suicidal, pay attention and take action. It’s not your job to make the assessment of how real the threat is; it’s your job to get professional help. Try responding with, “It sounds like you’re taking this very hard. Would you be willing to get some help?”
When someone hints at taking their own life, you need to confront that head on and be direct. Instead of asking if they are thinking of harming themselves, ask, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” or “Are you planning to take your own life?” Don’t skirt around the issue – “harming yourself” is not the same as “killing yourself.”
No matter what’s going on in your head, avoid being judgmental. That means, don’t ask, “You’re not thinking of killing yourself, are you?” Questions like that may shutdown the dialogue and right now, you need to keep the conversation going and try to get the person to agree to professional help.
With younger children, Nadler says it’s sometimes necessary to modify the questions so they are age appropriate, such as, “Do you ever think of going to sleep and not waking up?”
Is There A Plan?
When someone says they are feeling suicidal, ask them if they have a plan, if they have thought how they would do it. This gets to whether the person has the means to take their own life. Nadler says that if there is plan, then there is intent and that elevates the threat level.
Suicide Threats Can Be Domestic Violence
Threatening to commit suicide is sometimes used as a way to continue to control and manipulate a victim. Nadler experienced that when she told her husband she wanted to end their marriage. He shut himself in a closet with a gun. When she told him she needed to call the Police for help, he told her that the Police would never believe her, that she was the one with the mental health history and it was her that would be taken away. Nadler says her husband, unlike her, had never threatened or attempted suicide and had no mental health history. He was trying to use her vulnerability to manipulate her in a situation in which he did not have total control.
Murder Suicides Happen
The reality is that murder suicides happen especially when there is access to firearms. In this scenario you have to be willing to let professionals take over. If you are the stressor in the situation, then you are at risk. Removing yourself to safety is the first priority.
The Divorce Decision Doesn’t Change
A suicide threat does not change any of the reasons for ending a marriage and so a threat itself is not a legitimate reason for someone to change their mind about divorce. What a suicide threat does point to is the need for the at-risk person to get professional help and while this is on-going, then aspects of the divorce such as the timing, signing of paperwork, one party moving out, and shared parenting time may need to be modified.
Suicide is a very complex condition and it doesn’t happen for one reason. Divorce may be the last straw. I have never contemplated taking my life and truthfully, it’s challenging for me to accept that for some, life can seem so bleak that they feel their death would not be felt by others but I know that is the case. Nadler, says, that as someone who has attempted suicide on multiple occasions suicide will always be an option for her. Another way of thinking that is completely foreign to me. While the only person who is responsible for a suicide is the person who made the decision to end their life, we are all responsible for being alert to the threat and doing what we can to prevent suicide.
Suicide Prevention Resources
If you are or someone you are with is feeling suicidal use these resources to get assistance. If there is an immediate threat to life, call 9-1-1 or go to your nearest emergency room.
Website: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 – press 1 if you are a Veteran.
Text line: 741-741
Chat line: crisischat.org
Suicide Warning Signs
- Talking about wanting to die or kill themselves
- Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online or buying a gun
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Acting anxious or agitated, behaving recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or isolating themselves
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge