Divorce has infiltrated our culture more and more over the years. It is not uncommon to hear about a friend, relative, or neighbor preparing to divorce their spouse. While this practice may sometimes be in the couple’s best interests, it can still be a hard experience. But is it traumatic? If so, how do we overcome and heal from divorce trauma?
Is Divorce Traumatic?
Ginger Caudell, LPC, Clinical Director of Garrett Counseling, says “Counselor Caroline taught me that the hurt partner always has PTSD, and in working with divorcing couples, divorce recovery, domestic violence victims in partnerships, it is easy to see that pain turned into symptoms of trauma. For people to move forward with confidence and resolve, the hurt needs to be tended and mended.” While the trauma response to divorce does fall short of clinical Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, it is commonly recognized as a potentially traumatizing experience. One academic journal that explored the intense stress related to divorce had this to say, “According to the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), which measures the relationship between life events, stress and susceptibility to illness, divorce is considered to be one of the most severe life stressors, [second only to] the death of a loved one.” (Abrams, 2021). That level of stress definitely goes hand in hand with trauma. An article by American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress says, “the psychological ramifications of the divorce process are considerable, and one cannot overlook the potential traumatizing effects of divorce.”
The high levels of stress, change, and even hostility, can be damaging to all parties involved – especially to children. AAETS explores how divorce can be destructive towards children’s attachment development. They state “should the divorce process occur at a point where the child’s attachment style is not fully developed, it stands to reason that the likelihood of secure attachment developing is reduced.” In other words, divorce may impact a child’s long-term ability to interact with others. Garrett Counseling’s Maegan Harris says, “Divorce not only affects the two adults involved, but it also affects every member of that family unit. There are many emotions attached to divorce but the main emotions that come to mind for me are the guilt and shame that children of divorced families often feel. They have to adapt to new routine changes, new people, new environments, etc. These transitions are challenging and stressful for adults. Children of divorced families struggle with these changes just as much as adults and don’t always understand what’s happening resulting in self-blame.”
How to Overcome Divorce Trauma
Now that we know divorce can be traumatic, how do we overcome and heal from divorce trauma? First, let’s distinguish between “overcome” and “heal.” When I say “overcome,” I am referring to the process of getting past the divorce, pushing through the traumatic events. When I say “heal,” I am referring to the attempts to process the trauma after overcoming it and healing from the damage it has caused.
When we talk about overcoming divorce trauma, there are multiple ways to work towards getting past it. Two important things to remember are to slow down and take the time necessary to process the trauma and to remember self-care.. In her article, Abrams says, “It is helpful to take things one day at a time… Even if what you really want is to rush through and ‘get it over with,’” and “You need to take care of yourself… If you recognize that you are experiencing overwhelming feelings, then it should make sense that you need to prioritize your own recovery” (Abrams, 2021).
Some believe that participating in classes or training can help lessen the impact of divorce trauma. A recent study in Denmark looked at the impact of an online training course for both divorcing partners. The course was called Cooperation After Divorce (CAD) Intervention, and it consisted of an 18 module program completed by both parties. The effectiveness was surprisingly positive, and the study found “CAD intervention was highly effective in reducing stress levels among recently divorced Danes. Further, these intervention effects were maintained [for] 12 months” (Cipric et al., 2020). The successful stress reduction from the program and the potential for other programs like it would likely lessen the traumatic effects of divorce.
How to Heal from Divorce Trauma
Once a person is able to overcome the trauma of divorce, they will need time and space to heal. There are many therapeutic strategies that can be beneficial in healing from divorce trauma. Clint Reeves, LPC, says, “Counseling can serve to facilitate healing and restore a more balanced perspective of the world for those involved in the process of divorce recovery.” A 2004 article in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage suggests “a model based on Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), hypnosis, and Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) that may be combined with the efforts of mediation, divorce education, and support and counseling groups to reduce the pain and anguish being experienced [by divorce]” (Taylor, 2004). Perhaps the most compelling part of the article is the combination of therapeutic interventions with other practices, such as divorce education and meditation. Another recommended therapeutic intervention is narrative therapy. Narrative therapy is a type of therapy that helps people separate the problems in their lives from themselves. People undergoing narrative therapy are assisted in recognizing their own skills that can minimize their problems, and their personal experiences are woven into their own personal story about themselves. In the case of divorce trauma, a person undergoing narrative therapy would likely work to understand the divorce as a small part of their overall life story. As you can see, healing from trauma will likely need a combination of methods.
Signs of Divorce Trauma
How can you tell if someone you know is experiencing divorce trauma, or even if you have experienced divorce trauma yourself? In general, typical signs of trauma are also indicators of divorce trauma:
- Feelings of isolation and irritability.
There are also some signs that are specific to divorce trauma. A 2004 study in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage found several differences between those who have and have not experienced separation and/or divorce. The study found that the divorced/separated group reported poorer health and more dissatisfaction with their health. According to the study, divorced women are more likely to have been hospitalized or disabled in the last five years compared to women in their first marriage. Furthermore, the divorced are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as drinking too much and smoking. The divorced are also more likely to have experienced physical danger as indicated by having been hit, beaten or threatened with a gun (Forste & Heaton, 2004). Though these characteristics are not necessarily indicative of divorce trauma, one with divorce trauma very likely has at least one of them.
Help Is Available
Divorce trauma therapy is derived from family therapy, which requires work related to understanding the impact of divorce on the family system. Additional forms of therapy – like EMDR, narrative therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, behavioral therapy, and client-centered therapy – can also be beneficial. Regardless of the type of therapy used, some method of therapy is essential to processing divorce trauma. The therapists at Garrett Counseling are here to support you as you overcome and heal from divorce trauma. Contact us at (256) 239-5662 or online.
If you are looking for more about divorce, these articles might be helpful:
- Do Custody Evaluations Benefit the Children, Protect Their Mental Health, and Help the Family Move Forward?
- Bookshelf: Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide For Changing Families
Allison Abrams, L. C. S. W.-R. (2021, July 9). Can divorce or separation lead to PTSD? Verywell Mind. Retrieved August 23, 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/post-divorce-trauma-4583824
Cipric, A., Strizzi, J. M., Øveru, C. S., Lange, T., Tulhofer, A., Sander, S., Gad-Kjeld, S., & Hald, G. M. (2020). Cooperation after divorce: An RCT study of the effects of a digital intervention platform on self-perceived stress. Psychosocial Intervention, 29(2), 113–123.
Forste, R., & Heaton, T. B. (2004). The divorce generation. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 41(1-2), 95–114.
Pietsch, U. K. (2002). Facilitating post-divorce transition using narrative therapy. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 1(1), 65–81. https://doi.org/10.1300/j398v01n01_05
Schepard, A., Atwood, J., & Schlissel, S. W. (n.d.). Preventing trauma for the children of divorce through education and … Hofstra.edu.
Taylor, R. J. (2004). Therapeutic intervention of trauma and stress brought on by Divorce. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 41(1-2), 129–135.
The trauma of divorce: Reducing the impact of separation on children. American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2022, from https://www.aaets.org/traumatic-stress-library/the-trauma-of-divorce-reducing-the-impact-of-separation-on-children