These days, trauma is a hot-button issue. Psychology has become more aware of different types of trauma and their effects.
Trauma is often associated with abuse. While the connection between the two is clear, not all trauma is the result of abuse. Sometimes, an abrupt shock can produce trauma symptoms. Anything from a sudden move to the loss of a pet can result in trauma.
Divorce is an inherently traumatic event. Even if you initiate the divorce, you are likely to experience some traumatic fallout. You are going from a predictable life, one you may have lived for years, to starting all over. You could even be excited about the divorce initially, only to find yourself suffering expected trauma when the dust settles.
In this two-part blog series, we will explore the topic of trauma and how it relates to divorce. First, we will consider how a divorce can lead to trauma. Then we will cover some symptoms you may encounter from that trauma. In part two, we will cover ways you can deal with that trauma and eventually find some healing and balance.
How a Divorce Can Cause Trauma
You Are Unprepared
The focus of this article is on preparation, but sometimes, that simply isn’t possible. Most often, the trauma of divorce is the result of shock. Even when a couple is having a hard time, there is often one partner who believes they can work it out. When they are formally told the marriage is over, they still take a severe hit to the system.
Studies indicate that men are more often surprised by a divorce than women. Women tend to be more aware of when a marriage is failing. They tend to suffer in silence, trying to navigate this unhealthy relationship. After much deliberation, they abruptly end the marriage. Afterward, women tend to feel freer and more relieved, and the men begin experiencing suffering.
A sudden divorce can leave feelings of betrayal and confusion. It can cause deep emotional scarring that takes time to manage and heal.
Ultimately, nothing can prepare you for being blindsided by a divorce. If your divorce was sudden and unexpected, be aware that you may suffer trauma symptoms.
You May Feel Powerless
Losing your power creates awful feelings. You want to take control of a situation, but there’s nothing you can do. This is often the case in a divorce. If your partner wants out, there aren’t many options for salvaging the relationship or changing their mind.
Powerlessness is especially hard on those who desperately tried to save their marriage. Unfortunately, this person has already struggled with feeling powerless as all their attempts continued to fail. Now they feel completely void of control because the marriage ended anyway.
If your divorce has left you feeling helpless, do not attempt to regain control. Pressuring and pleading with your spouse isn’t going to help. If anything, it will probably drive them further away. Do your best to accept your current reality. Your marriage is over, and now you have to find ways to move forward without your spouse.
You May Need Time to Recover from Abuse
Abusive relationships are cyclical. The victim is never to blame for the treatment they received, but they do get caught in a pattern. This pattern becomes “normal” for both the abuser and the victim. Even if the victim initiated the divorce, breaking from this pattern is going to be difficult.
Remember, not all abuse is physical. Sometimes, a partner engages in gaslighting. This is where the abuser not only lies but also creates a false reality for the victim. The abused partner ceases to trust their own instincts, replacing their objective reality with the abuser’s false narrative. More indirectly, abuse can take the form of unilateral decision-making. One partner can constantly make choices that affect the relationship without the other’s consent. In some ways, it can be harder to recover from mental and emotional abuse. It gets into the foundation of your mind, and it takes time to relearn how to think for yourself.
Abuse may not be a long-term problem, either. One partner may suddenly become abusive after they are told the marriage is over. This sudden abuse can leave traumatic injuries regardless of whether it represents the entire relationship.
Emotionally disconnecting from an abusive relationship takes time. Even if you cut off all contact with your abuser, a part of you probably wants to reengage with the abusive cycle. Don’t obey your impulses to reach out or mend the relationship. True disconnection is similar to deprogramming from religious abuse. It takes a lot of time and energy, and you should seek professional help along the way.
Symptoms of Post-Divorce Trauma
Within the mental health community, there is some debate about the definition of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Many still believe that PTSD strictly applies to life-threatening situations. However, some research indicates that people can suffer PTSD from less threatening stressors like divorce.
Regardless of whether divorce leads to “true” PTSD, you can use PTSD as a framework to understand your trauma post-divorce. Here are some PTSD-like symptoms you could encounter when your marriage ends.
Traumatic response can make you hyper-aware and hyper-vigilant. You may be jumpy, reacting to the smallest noises or movements in your periphery. Under extreme stress, you could even react to things that aren’t there.
Trauma can disrupt your sleep, and this can go either way. You could find yourself sleeping too much or not enough. Your appetite could suffer similarly. You may be constantly hungry and overeat, or you could lose your appetite altogether.
Trauma can sometimes get stuck inside your mind. You can have sudden flashbacks to the event. Small, unrelated matters can trigger painful memories. These memories can freeze, running on a loop in your mind. You could also experience ruminations, constantly playing out scenarios and conversations, and you may find it difficult to stop these thoughts.
This overstimulation can affect your memory. You may lose things more frequently or miss important deadlines. Your concentration can also suffer from a traumatic event.
Trauma can lead to depression, anxiety, and anger issues. This can bring forth many of the problems discussed above. You may also lose interest in your hobbies, or you could obsessively invest in hobbies to the detriment of other obligations. There may be feelings of guilt or shame as you try to understand and “solve” what happened.
These intense feelings can lead to substance abuse. If you are abusing drugs or alcohol to cope with your divorce, seek professional help.
When you are under intense amounts of trauma-related stress, your relationships can suffer. It may be hard to maintain a healthy friendship if you’re prone to anger or outbursts. You may want to isolate yourself, avoiding contact with others. Alternatively, you could become too invested in others, meddling and crossing boundaries.
Your friends and family love you and want to help. Reach out to them when necessary, but also be aware of healthy boundaries and behaviors within these relationships.
Softening the Blow
Any of the above traumas can happen to you in a divorce. However, the divorce process itself can also create trauma, especially in an ugly courtroom battle. Take steps to make the divorce as smooth as possible.
We encourage our clients to seek mediation. In this process, you can avoid court and work together. A neutral, legal professional will guide your negotiations.
Mediation will not shield you from emotional trauma, but it can help things from getting worse. It could help provide closure. At best, it can give you and your spouse one last project to work on together. For some, mediation gives them a chance to part amicably. They can take comfort in knowing that all post-divorce decisions were made together.
In the next part of this series, we will offer suggestions for how to treat your post-divorce trauma
For help with avoiding an ugly divorce, call us today at (949) 558-2624. You can also contact us online.