Men & Divorce

Ellie Wymard, Ph.D.

The lonely withdrawal from married life is very real to men. They express loss in a million different ways. Some men are without solace, barely able to function, and say that "divorce is worse than death!" The other extreme is evidenced by men who rage rather than mourn. They endure their pain by working longer hours, overindulging in alcohol, or by engaging in frenetic sex or death-defying sporting activities. To show strength, they hide their grief, even from themselves.

Most ex-husbands express their grief somewhere between these polarities. But it is common for all of them, at some point, to feel desolate because loss is an inevitable consequence of divorce.

If a man has been successful
solving problems in his job
but can't control his marriage,
he's thrown by it.

Anyone who has mourned the death of a spouse may not appreciate the comparison, but death and divorce share similarities. Any experience of loss, regardless of what it is, carries with it similar issues that need to be resolved. In general, the problems of loss include forsaking the camaraderie, companionship, understanding, and compassion of a particular person, and accommodating the loneliness that ensues from separation. Feelings of anger, anguish, confusion, and sadness also need to be worked through. Even men who accept divorce as the best answer for their unhappy marriages confront the ultimate questions that death poses: "Who am I now? What did it all mean? Where am I going?"

Divorce vs. Death

According to bereavement experts, when a man's wife dies, the mourning husband will come to the other side, and ultimately say, "She is dead and is not coming back". But when it comes to divorce, certain aspects of loss become slightly magnified. Cathleen Fanslow Brunjes, Bereavement Coordinator' for Hospice Care of Long Island, New York, made the distinction by saying,"Bear in mind that with divorce there's not a body to mourn. It's disenfranchised grief.

"The attendant rituals are missing: there's no wake or funeral. The day the divorce is finalized may pass unnoticed. Family and friends aren't bringing food and casseroles. From society's viewpoint, you couldn't make the marriage work, or you weren't right together anyway. So expressions of grief are somehow unacceptable. Friends grow impatient. If a man has been successful solving problems in his job but can't control his marriage, he's thrown by it. All this works against a man when he feels inside that he has a lot to cry about."

Husbands who are betrayed frequently claim that a wife's death would have been easier to absorb than the reality of her leaving for another man or in search of freedom. Douglas Gillette, co-author of "King, Warrior, Magician, Lover", commented, "When a man is voted against — when his sexuality, capacity to protect, provide, excite is found wanting — it's a disastrous blow to self-worth. Men feel abandoned. There's no other message when a wife leaves a husband."

Men have resisted their grief
because it has made them feel
fragile, unstable, and out of control.

When ex-husbands drag through the day, lack concentration, lose or gain weight, suffer insomnia or crave sleep, and feel guilt followed by anger, they are experiencing the normal symptoms of grief. When divorced men describe feeling emptiness, loneliness, nothingness, and fear that they are going crazy, losing it, or having a nervous breakdown, therapists agree that they are consumed by grief. The best prescription is to go through the hurt, and understand why it is there.

Grief & Divorce

In addition to exploring the unconscious in order to explain the grief of an abandoned husband, therapists also interpret grief within a situational and cultural context. For example, among husbands immobilized after divorce are those who have been taken care of by their wives almost as if they were little boys. In this childlike position, they turn wives into mothers, and are passive while their "mothers" wait on them. For most couples, this behavior is not the result of a rational decision. The comfort of being tended to is seductive, and wives are slow to see the web they are creating.

Until separation forces them to face how dependent they have been on their wives for daily maintenance, encouragement, and understanding, men generally think they are self-reliant. Regardless of how good or bad the marriage was, many of the ex-husbands I interviewed have described feeling "paralyzed" or "numb," "as if I had a leg cut off." Even in a marriage with sparse communication, a husband's support system is often dismantled when the marriage ends and he is on his own.

Grief is a natural, if unexpected, part of the divorce process, but men, in general, are surprised by the force of its demands. Buried deep in our society's subconscious is the stoical image of John Wayne, callous to sadness and heartbreak. While therapists concur that grief is ultimately cured alone, a man moving through divorce often thinks that no one else has ever felt the way he does. At some point in the divorce cycle, a man will feel bereft, helpless, and desolate. But if he silences these feelings, other men have also silenced them. If he feels guilt and embarrassment, so have other men. If he is scared by his confusion, other men have also known that fear.

Grief is not madness, but ex-husbands often endure it as a shameful secret. Grief is so mistaken as a sign of weakness that men have aborted mourning by expressing anger and hostility, emotions natural to separation and divorce, but more "acceptable" for men to vent than sorrow. Finding it easier to verbalize anger than grief, they blame their wives or themselves for causing the marriage to fail.

Role Expectations

In the past 30 years, taboos have relaxed about what is acceptable for a woman to express about her inner life. Not so with men. Men have resisted their grief because it has made them feel fragile, unstable, and out of control. They have feared that their symptoms were pathological, when, indeed, they are to be expected. If men bury their grief, it will only overwhelm them at another time. Role expectations therefore complicate a man's behavioral response to grief in a way not generally experienced by women.

Bereavement experts have, therefore, suggested to me that a divorced man can be reassured that he is not different from other men, and yet is recognizable as himself, if he understands the stages of bereavement. Once he accepts the fact that grief is a normal emotional response to the irretrievable loss of another person, he may gain insight into the range of emotions he is feeling and find solace in knowing that others have been where he is.


RelationshipsThis article was excerpted from 

Men on Divorce - Conversations With Ex-Husbands
by Ellie Wymard.

Excerpted with permission from the publisher. ©1994. Published by Hay House, www.hayhouse.com.

Info/Order this book


Ellie Wymard, Ph.D.About The Author

Ellie Wymard, Ph.D. is the director of the Master of Fine Arts program and a professor of English at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, as well as a national television and radio personality. She is also the author of Talking Steel Towns: The Women and Men of America's Steel Valley; Conversations With Uncommon Women: Insights from women who've risen above life's challenges to achieve extraordinary success; Men On Divorce; and Divorced Women, New Lives.     (More info on this author)


 

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