Separation and divorce: Adult issues
Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Separation and divorce occur when a husband and wife decide to cease living together. In some cases, separation is temporary, allowing a couple to resolve their problems and resume living together. A divorce is a permanent loss and the end of a marriage.
In the United States, divorce is very common, with approximately one divorce for every two marriages in an average year. This is among the highest divorce rates in the world (although rates of marriage and remarriage in the United States are also among the highest). This rate, however, varied considerably over the twentieth century. Factors contributing to these trends include the decreasing significance of religious stigma against divorce, the increasing perception that marriage should be based on love and serve personal growth and self-fulfillment, and the attainment by women of economic self-sufficiency.
Demographically, divorce is more common in couples who married young, who experienced a premarital pregnancy, and who are financially downwardly mobile. Divorce is also more prevalent in couples who come from divorced families or have not resolved attachments or conflicts with their families of origin. Divorce is more frequent in subsequent marriages than in first marriages.
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Divorce as a Legal and Economic Reality (Psychology and Mental Health)
Divorce, like marriage, is a legal arrangement with significant economic consequences. The major legal issues include division of property, alimony, child support, custody, and visitation. Although these issues are settled by the divorcing couple through negotiation or litigation, the courts of each state now have guidelines that specify certain parameters as generally appropriate. How these are handled will have a large impact on the psychological experience of divorce. The legal process establishes and promotes an adversarial relationship for the couple. Although this arrangement is to be expected of a jurisprudence system built on an adversarial pursuit of justice, an essentially combative relationship is profoundly antithetical to the goal of a psychologically healthy divorce. Rather than working together toward a mutually satisfying result, divorcing couples are trained to compete in a distinctly win-lose arena, often with disastrous consequences for both. As an appreciation of the psychological costs of these consequences has grown, mediation has emerged as an increasingly popular alternative way of resolving the legal issues.
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The Psychological Phases of Divorce (Psychology and Mental Health)
When a couple divorces, a great loss is experienced by all family members. This experience is not a momentary event. Its impact continues to unfold over time, as its meaning undergoes various transformations until it is gradually assimilated. There are predictable stages involved in letting go of a marriage and moving on in life. These stages appear in the experience of both members of the couple, regardless of who wanted the separation or divorce. The spouse who decides to live apart usually begins grieving the relationship while the couple is still living together. Although both spouses go through a mourning process, they often go through stages at different times and rates.
Much of the literature in the psychology of divorce has been devoted to mapping these phases. Some recognize that the steps of divorce actually begin in the period before separation. As Constance Ahrons demonstrated in The Good Divorce (1994), divorce is not entered into easily or quickly. Typically, the preseparation phase involves a protracted period of confused tension, and it is during this painfully drawn-out ending that the most serious psychological harm is inflicted on any children. Divorced couples frequently realize, in hindsight, that the marriage should have ended sooner. Sadly, it is this period of painful conflict that often provides the needed momentum for the separation to be enacted as welcome relief....
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Stages of Grieving (Psychology and Mental Health)
In the first phase, denial, people may completely deny the marital problem, or, in a more sophisticated form, they may minimize the import of problem by a sort of magical thinking, an “if only . . . ” fantasy (“It could all be resolved if only . . . ”). Such a fantasy can be held in the mind only (safe from any testing against reality), or it may lead to desperate, even self-destructive efforts to resurrect a dead relationship. In the extreme, this course can become a pathological morbid dependency on the partner. Unable to move on, such people may remain fixated on their former spouse for many years afterward. Even after it becomes evident that the partner has actually left, people can still use wishful thinking to minimize the real impact of this rupture. For example, they may think that the partner will come back once he or she realizes that no one else will be as suitable. The children of divorcing parents are prone to such fantasies of reconciliation as well. They will be very vulnerable to construing parents’ words or actions as hopeful indicators of this possibility.
In the second phase, anger, people tend to blame the breakup on the other partner. Thoughts such as “If he (or she) were not like this, we could still be married” are very common. Here, unlike the experience of grieving a death, there is an overwhelming sense of personal rejection by one who was loved dearly. It is this profound hurt that...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Ahrons, Constance. The Good Divorce. Rev. and updated. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Sage and simply presented advice on how to keep one’s family together when one’s marriage falls apart.
Clarke-Stewart, Alison, and Cornelia Brentano. Divorce: Causes and Consequences. New York: Yale University Press, 2008. This text focuses on the psychological issues involved in divorce and outlines the results of the current research. In addition, it measures the emotional impact of divorce on children and adults.
Everett, Craig, and Sandra Everett. Healthy Divorce. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998. A simple presentation of fourteen stages of separation, divorce, and remarriage.
Gardner, Richard A. The Parental Alienation Syndrome. 2d ed. Cresskill, N.J.: Creative Therapeutics, 2000. A comprehensive depiction of a disorder in children brought about by a divorced parent who alienates the child from the other parent.
Guttman, Joseph. Divorce in Psychosocial Perspective. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1993. A good summary of various models of the divorce process, emphasizing a psychosocial approach.
Kaufman, Taube S. The Combined Family. New York: Plenum, 1993. A well-presented guide to understanding one’s family roles within step-relationships.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. 1969. Reprint. New York: Routledge,...
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