Does every single person who gets divorced need therapy or can I realistically heal from this on my own?
Dear Resilient Stock,
Thank you for writing in with this tremendously valuable question as I know many go through the experience of divorce and can come out of it feeling hurt, lonely, afraid, and unsure if they did something wrong or if they will find love again. Here, I will share some literature with you, so you can gain a deeper understanding of your experience and how you can, perhaps, discern for yourself if psychotherapy may be a good step forward for you.
Divorce is so complicated. Psychologically speaking, there are nearly always unique factors that make every individual’s circumstance a bit different from what is in the data. This is my little disclaimer that I don’t know your particular situation, so in terms of my thoughts below, take what most resonates as true for you and leave the rest. I invite you to connect to yourself in a compassionate and loving way, and let your heart tell you what is the next, or perhaps the first, step in your healing process.
In the sciences, there are typically multiple ways of interpreting what data seems to suggest. In the study of divorce, the psychological outcomes may be a byproduct of the divorce process. Another perspective suggests perhaps there were preexisting psychological factors that a partner brought with him/her into the marriage that may have contributed to the breakup. It could also be that both of these aspects are at play to some extent.
Professor of sociology at Penn State University, Paul R. Amato, PhD, has found that divorced Americans and Europeans tend to report less happiness, increased depression symptoms, higher social isolation, more negative life events, and health problems when compared to married individuals. The reasons for this might be because divorce never happens overnight. It tends to be a long-drawn process that takes months, sometimes years, to resolve, which, in turns, allows both parties to accumulate stress over time. This stress can take the form of increased financial pressure, child custody issues, ongoing conflicts with the ex, challenges of co-parenting, and the loss of one’s home as well as one’s social network due to married friends tending to “hang out” together. There are likely other effects, too. I believe if someone is experiencing any one or more of these, therapy can help.
With divorce, one also loses out on the various helpful dimensions of marriage, including “emotional support, companionship, a regular sexual partner, and economic security,” Amato writes in one of his reports. Additionally, one’s partner, at least in wholesome relationships, may be a healthy influence by coaching and caring for their partner, encouraging them to discontinue compromising behaviors, like excessive drinking and smoking. Therefore, the above seems to suggest something to the effect of humans needing or benefitting from a consistent, loyal, and fulfilling, romantic partnership. Further, this partnership may serve to satisfy one’s need for intimacy and protect the individual from unhealthful behaviors. In short, there seems to be a reliable “survival advantage” for the married over the not married, suggests social scientist Michael S. Rendall, PhD, from the University of Maryland.
The other side of this is that the human being is resilient. There is evidence to suggest that it is possible to eventually get over and recover from the stress of divorce. Research supports that there are helpful factors promoting recovery that include having access to resources, such as sufficient income, more advanced education, social supports, and the love of someone new.
Psychological factors seem to matter as well. For instance, those who view the divorce as an opportunity to learn and grow are likely to fair better than those who do not share this outlook. Researchers have noted, however, that the optimistic view is more likely to be espoused by the initiator of the divorce. Based on the study of the literature, Amato notes that it is those who have access to resources and the psychological ability to interpret or reframe their divorce experience toward growth opportunities that tend to make quicker adjustments.
Therefore, those who do not have these resources or characteristics may have a greater need to seek a counselor or therapist who can teach them the psychological skills to recover, provide them with social support, and assist them in gaining access to whatever other resources may benefit them. For example, a newly divorced person may benefit from enrolling in continuing education courses to boost their social connections and gain new job skills that can help them advance in or initiate a new career to generate greater financial health.
As mentioned earlier, it could be that individuals may bring certain negative psychological and interpersonal characteristics with them into a marriage that may destabilize the relationship. These psychological vulnerabilities could also become exacerbated as the relationships erodes and ends in divorce. In this case, a critical look back at one’s past to determine if there is a history of rocky or challenging relationships may suggest that therapy can be useful to learn new ways of being in relationship. I say this, of course, without judgement and with a view that we all have had challenges and can engage in a lifetime of growth in our intimate relationships. It takes some openness, courage, and determination to choose to change.
Having read this article, I invite you to reflect how any of the material discussed may relate to your unique situation. Ultimately, you have to make the discernment as to whether or not you will take the step to seek the guidance of a therapist. You may also benefit from doing a bit more research on your own, locating local resources for those experiencing divorce, and seeking support from those you love and trust and who you feel genuinely care about you. In general, if you feel that you are having a difficult time bouncing back from this in any area of your life (i.e., work, social relationships, etc.) that is a good indicator that therapy may be good idea.
I would also like to point out that psychotherapy does not always have to be for those times when we feel like “something is wrong with me” or those moments when we are unhappy. Psychotherapy is useful to promote self-development and spiritual growth as well as when we simply want to get more out of life and love. It was Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Psychotherapy is the place for self-examination, and it is, therefore, a place where you can go to heal whatever hurt you may be enduring and create the most meaningful life you can for yourself.
Thank you for writing in and I truly wish you the best on your journey!
By John Rettger