The decision to embark upon a divorce is laden with questions about what the future will look like. These unanswered questions often keep individuals from ending marriages because the fear of the unknown is immobilizing. The frequently referenced statistic in marriage counseling is that most people stay for approximately 5 years after their marriage is not longer salvageable. This statistic speaks to the intensity of fear and anxiety that accompany this life change. In fact, it may be one of the only times in life when a person knowingly chooses to put their life into a crisis state.
If fear is allowed to hide in the dark corner, it continues to build and grow. Regardless of your situation, divorce is associated with some level of shame. Feelings of failure, self-blame, anger, and disappointment create a fertile breeding ground for fear and shame to flourish. Fear and anxiety begin to diminish when you start the process of identification. By identifying your fears and acknowledging your shame, you shine a light into those dark corners and as a result, compassion and curiosity can replace these feelings. You can start to be emotionally honest with yourself and embrace the changes that either need to occur or you are already encountering. So what are most, if not all, people afraid of when faced with divorce?
The Financial Fear - Financial fears are unique to each divorce situations. Many stay-at-home or part-time working individuals are afraid that they won’t be able to maintain a lifestyle for themselves and their children that is in any way comparable to the one that they had when married. How will I survive? Where will I live? I haven’t worked in years, who will hire me? How would I ever make the money that we made as a couple? What will it means to the kids if I go back to work? Working men and women have different financial fears. They often fear that they will have to give away money that they feel they have earned through many years of professional dedication. Why do I have to give my money to someone who I can’t be married to? Will I have enough left to sustain my own lifestyle? How long will I be tethered to this person financially?
The Social Fear - Regardless of whether or not we have supportive relationships in our lives, divorce threatens our current social norms. Married life involves married friends. These are the friendships that we expect to be taxed when we are going through a divorce. It makes sense that other married couples will have loyalty dilemmas and may choose sides. We can understand that couple friends may feel threatened by our new status or it may bring up issues for them about their own marriage. Does this make it less fear-provoking or less hurtful? No. The most hurtful thing is when it isn’t the friends that we expected who suddenly change. When I was divorcing, my closest friend was also going through a divorce. I remember thinking that it was so fortunate because we could support each other and our kids could to relate to one another. However, as our individual situations progressed, we became more and more distant. We were both experiencing drastic change but each of our new lives brought on new circumstances. We had less in common than we did when we were both unhappily married friends. I could have never predicted this outcome or the level of despair that it would cause me. What I realized was that it isn’t the friendships that we expect to change or the judgments that we know are coming that hurt us. Well, they hurt a bit. The greater loss comes when we anticipate support and love from a friend and they can’t provide it. It is inevitably more about their own fear and not our situation, but it is indeed a loss.
The Kid Fear - This is the biggie! Many people stay married with the intention of protecting or prioritizing their children. There is no doubt that we can associate divorce with failure, particularly a parenting failure. Research has shown that children of divorce have a very small difference in overall adjustment and adult functioning when compared to children of married parents. It is the conflict that occurs between divorced individuals that leaves an impact, not the divorce. In fact, the modeling of an unhealthy marital relationship over the course of 18 years is arguably more detrimental on the adult relationships of these children. All parents have a fear of damaging their children or causing long-term harm through their own inadequacies. These fears are just put under a microscope when a parent is deciding to end their marriage. Acknowledging this fear is powerful as we can use it to guide us when making decisions pertaining to the divorce process. For example: Isn't it important for the children to spend time with both parents? Do I really need to fight over the sofa or the dining room set? Could we attend a holiday concert and sit together as a united front for our children? Creating an amicable divorce and accepting change will model resiliency for our children. This is demonstrating strength through adversity.
The What Next Fear - We are creatures of habit. We like stability and security and we like to know what is coming next. In fact, I would argue that most anxiety is anticipatory. The beginning of a divorce is the great unknown and it is combined with the legal system which feels terrifying and mysterious to most people. We listen to everyone’s horror stories because people who have been to battle want to share their scars. Does this mean that we stay stuck? Well, security and stability are delusions on some level because we truly only have the moment that we are currently experiencing. Practicing mindfulness can improve the process of divorce. By learning how to become aware of the present moment and experiencing it completely, we can’t try to anticipate what is coming next. As a result, our anxiety abates. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t have to involve serious changes in our life. It means paying attention to what is happening in the here and now and more importantly, not judging it.
Fear is going to present itself to your along your divorce journey. Those mentioned here are some of the most common but we each have our own unique path and fears. If you can use these fears to propel you forward, you will create growth. Observe them. Learn from them. Even appreciate them because fear means that you are changing and challenging yourself rather than accepting the status quo.