Divorce & Separation Challenges
While divorce or separation may often be the right choice, it can nonetheless come with a variety of mental health challenges. Even when both partners want to divorce or separate, the change can be a painful one, and the challenges increase in situations where the partners have conflicting goals, perspectives, or motivations.
Prevalence of challenges related to divorce and separation
Because issues related to divorce and separation vary so much and are deeply personal, it’s hard to say for sure how common they are.
However, divorce itself is very common in the United States, with the American Psychological Association reporting that about 40 to 50 percent of married couples end up divorcing. These rates are even higher for second, third, and subsequent marriages.
Some studies also suggest that divorce and separation can have negative effects on your mental health. For example, one study found that being in conflict with an ex-spouse takes a toll on mental health, while another study indicated that people who have been depressed in the past are more likely to relapse if they go through a divorce.
Symptoms of challenges related to divorce and separation
Divorce and separation are different for everyone, and people vary widely in their emotional and psychological responses to these issues. That said, some of the most common symptoms include:
- Anxiety or worry: You may be frequently preoccupied with concerns about your divorce or separation and its consequences, and you may and struggle to focus on other things.
- Sadness or depression: Losing your relationship with your partner might make you feel sad, hopeless, or fatigued.
- Anger or irritability: You may be impatient or short-tempered with those around you.
- General stress: You may have trouble sleeping or experience physical symptoms including muscle tension, headaches, and digestive troubles.
- Social withdrawal or conflict: A divorce or separation might cause you to feel uncomfortable or tense in social situations, even with close friends or loved ones.
- Guilt, shame, or self-blame: Especially in a culture that places a high value on partnered relationships, you may blame yourself and feel guilty or ashamed if you’re going through a divorce or separation.
Different types of challenges related to divorce and separation
Again, issues related to divorce and separation come in countless forms, and this is by no means an exhaustive list. However, some especially common scenarios include:
- Uncontested divorce: In an uncontested divorce, both partners want to divorce, have similar goals, and work together throughout the process.
- Contested divorce: In a contested divorce, one partner may not want to divorce or there may be serious disagreements around key factors like child custody or division of assets.
- Separation of unmarried partners: Separating from a partner to whom you are not married may be less legally complicated, but it can be just as emotionally fraught, especially since society may not recognize your loss as something significant.
- Concerns about children: Worries about child custody and how a divorce or separation will affect a couple’s child(ren) are among the most common stressors in divorce and separation.
- Financial issues: Often, divorces and separations turn contentious around issues of how to divide up financial assets and property. The overall expenses associated with getting divorced, which might include legal fees or moving fees, can also have a significant psychological impact on individuals.
- Divorce or separation related to infidelity: Some studies indicate that infidelity is the most common reason that couple seek divorce.
- Issues related to substance use: Drinking or drug use by one or both partners are also common factors in the decision to divorce or separate.
- Violence, abuse, and gaslighting: When divorce or separation involves emotional or physical violence or intimidation from one or more partners, the relationship can be considered abusive. Abuse is usually far more dangerous and stressful than the other scenarios described here.
What to do if you’re experiencing challenges related to divorce and separation
If you’re looking for support as you go through a divorce or separation, you have several options. Some of them include:
- Therapy: Find a therapist who can help you process your experience of the divorce or separation and work toward resolving any related mental health symptoms. You might work with a therapist on your own, or you might attend couples’ therapy, in which you and your partner both participate in sessions with a therapist. (See more tips below on selecting a therapist.)
- Support groups: A support group can help you process your feelings and connect with others who are going through similar experiences. You can find more information about divorce support groups and learn how to find one in your area here.
- Meditation or mindfulness practices. Making space for quiet reflection can help you gain perspective on your divorce or separation, and it may also reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety that these issues can cause.
- Connect with other friends and loved ones. While you may want to withdraw from your other relationships, relying on the important people in your life can be a crucial resource as you go through a divorce or separation. Be sure to stay in contact with supportive friends and family and ask for help when you need it.
- Hotlines and safety resources: If you are experiencing abuse related to a divorce or separation, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or www.TheHotline.org. If a child may be in danger, you should also contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453. If you’re having thoughts of suicide or need immediate support, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at at 1-800-273-8255.
What to look for in a therapist for challenges related to divorce and separation
A therapist who typically works with clients whose symptoms, or situations, are similar to yours
Therapists offer a number of different approaches to treating these issues. Some approaches involve just one person attending sessions, while others might require both partners and/or additional family members to attend. Common options include:
- Couples Therapy
- Family Therapy
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Mindfulness Practices
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy
Know what questions you need to ask potential therapists
These questions may prove helpful when interviewing potential therapists:
- What therapy type (possibly one of the examples above) do you use when helping clients manage the effects of divorce and separation?
- Does you have experience working with clients who have my particular symptoms?
Prioritize personal fit
While personality fit is a nuanced factor, it is critical to your success in therapy. Multiple studies have revealed the importance of this factor, often referred to as “therapeutic alliance.”
On your initial phone call with the therapist, ask yourself:
- Could I see myself forming a connection with this therapist?
- Does their approach suit my personality?
- Do I feel like I will be heard and respected by this therapist?
Additionally, consider these factors:
- Some therapists are more reflective and spend most of the session listening and drawing insights about your patterns and coping styles.
- Some therapists are more directive, establishing weekly agendas and assigning tasks to complete between sessions.
- Some utilize specific techniques or tools (exposure exercises, eye movements, tapping, breath work, guided imagery, art and music, etc.).
- Some use a combination of multiple approaches.
Consider cost, location, and scheduling
Divorce can be costly, but you may be able to find a therapist who’s affordable for your budget, and most importantly, who’ll be there to help you navigate the stress of separation.
Before making an appointment, consider the following:
- Can I afford these session fees? The cost of therapy for addiction depends on location, practitioner, and whether you’re using insurance.
- Can I commit to attending sessions regularly? Remember to account for travel time, and other demands in your schedule.
- Do the therapists’ available times work for me? Some therapists offer evening and weekend appointments if you have an otherwise limited schedule.
New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.