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Blindsided — When the End of a Marriage Comes as a Complete Shock

Blindsided — When the End of a Marriage Comes as a Complete Shock

{8 minutes to read}  “I want a divorce,” declares Harry as he settles into his seat at the dinner table. Jane is not sure if she heard correctly. She would prefer to be experiencing a minor stroke or psychotic hallucination rather than to have heard correctly. 

But she did hear correctly, and she is completely blindsided. 

Jane has been happily married for 20 years and thought that Harry had been too. Only last week, the pair were discussing plans for an upcoming vacation. 

Along with Jane’s astonishment is a gripping fear.

Throughout the marriage, Jane has been a stay-at-home spouse. Harry, an accountant by trade, managed the household finances, so Jane was unaware of even the basic facts of their fiscal situation. Now, Jane feels emotionally abandoned, frightened, financially insecure, and worried. She is spinning.

In this article, we examine the question of what to do when blindsided. 


What is first aid in a situation like this? Jane's well-being, self-regard, and sense of control are the first things that need protecting. The second thing inherent in the first, although seemingly oxymoronic, is protecting the relationship with her spouse/soon-to-be ex-spouse. We’ll unpack both below.

Cling, but not to the Ex

When feeling — or being — abandoned, one natural human reaction is to cleave to the departing for dear life. I want to fully acknowledge the innate intelligence of the mortal life force in doing so. If a caregiver leaves unexpectedly, the infant cries, clings, and tantrums to get attention and, hopefully, his needs met. When a traumatic departure occurs in adult life, it is natural for this inherent, primary reaction to take over. We must choose another way as much as possible to keep matters from worsening and self-esteem from plummeting.

Ode to Needs

Needs are appropriate. They signal to us all what requires our attention. Let’s not waste time criticizing ourselves or anyone else for having intense, urgent needs. It is no longer fashionable to pretend to ourselves or anyone else that we sustain ourselves on ice chips and lemon water, or the relational equivalent. We are not emotional anorexics. 

Finding safe, nurturing resources is key. 

Resource into one another, we must! The suggestion is to not resource into the exiting spouse. The needs for reassurance, comfort, and support are vital; seeking them from an unavailable or unwilling individual can be fruitless and harmful.

Not only will Jane not get her needs met, but she may further distance Harry, who has articulated his need for space and separateness and is prioritizing his own needs at present. If Jane looks to Harry and Harry rebuffs her, Jane may feel exposed, ashamed, rejected, and increasingly desperate. At the same time, Harry’s rebuke can increase Jane’s negative feelings about herself and anger towards Harry.

Conversely, the more Jane can turn elsewhere for support, the sooner she and her relationship with Harry can regain some equilibrium. Jane will accomplish three things:

  • Prioritizing herself as a capable individual who, with help, can take care of herself, independent of Harry. 

  • Respecting Harry’s request for greater autonomy and the opportunity to consider his individual needs;

  • Situating and appreciating herself within the larger world, rather than limiting herself to the closed system of support within the marital relationship.

By exerting self-control and refraining from turning to the departing spouse now, Jane by no means forfeits Harry’s support later. In fact, by respecting Harry’s needs now, and herself as more capable than she currently feels, Jane is likely inviting more support sooner. 


Assuming physical safety is not an issue, then emotional, mental, and psychological support are the priority. Feeling securely connected to people who are both loving and familiar is optimal. If that scenario is not available, support from other resources is crucial. The goal of any supportive groups, therapies, and activities, is to help Jane regain her footing and experience herself as firmly connected to others and herself. For her to put one foot in front of the other, and over time, to walk forward with strength and purpose.

How much and what kind of support depends upon how much the current crisis has affected Jane. Much of this depends upon Jane’s make-up. A fortunate few may be replete with inner resources such as a buoyant resilience, exemplary coping skills, and a naturally optimistic disposition; Jane may be a soul who meets life’s upheavals without being thrown asunder. For the rest of us, whose past losses and traumas and ever-ordinary fears and self-doubts can be stirred by a sudden loss, an increased level of intervention can be both necessary and wise. If Jane needs a weekend in bed, it’s one thing. If Jane cannot envision getting out of bed, ever, it’s obviously quite another. There are interventions for everyone, from an extra therapy session a week, to taking some time for more intensive treatment. Our next article will provide a deeper dive into these options. 

This is a time for Jane to turn to all the other resources she has in her life. In a marriage where one party has been dependent on the other and isn't anticipating a divorce, Jane might not have accrued the external support she now needs. Luckily, some resources have established themselves, and Jane need only avail herself of them.

Almost everywhere in the world and in almost every neighborhood, there are 12-step programs like Codependence Anonymous and Al-Anon. They are free and many meetings are now online. There are divorce support groups, of course (we have one), and other support groups that might be fitting, so it’s important to cast a wide net. Ideally, Jane can establish anchors throughout her week, consisting of dependable meetings and events independent of Harry. 

While self-help groups are invaluable, this is also the time to reach for professional help. A mediator, attorney, accountant, or therapist may all be appropriate professionals to connect with. Simply having a free consultation, offered by many professionals, can help Jane illuminate some of her concerns, and even ease her mind. This is also a time to seek input from friends who have been through divorce and can share resources, including professionals, they used. 

Communicating with the Spouse

Once both spouses have caught their breath, they might find it useful to meet in a structured setting with a neutral third party, such as a mediator. A more controlled environment can facilitate a fresh dialogue between the spouses, in which they can explore ways to cooperate and support one another. 


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