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What Makes Divorce so Scary?

Rachel Alexander April 28, 2015

One of my tasks as a New Jersey and New York mediator is to normalize my clients lives as they go through the divorce process. For many, it is terrifying. My clients are generally high functioning, well adjusted and competent. They have managed for years in a world (this one) full of challenges, losses, disappointments and change. They are mature.

Why then does divorce bring them to their knees? I think about this a lot.

Of course there is the loss of the partner, the restructuring of life aspects – living arrangements, finances, etc. And the children – all the accompanying issues of custody and how the changes will impact them, the loss of time with them, and so on.

These issues are major but well identified. I think there is something more. Something that goes more to the root of what causes at least some to experience something akin to abject terror, and others to cling for dear life to relationship equivalents of the Titanic.

One of the major functions of marriage is social order and organization – at least as identified by those who put religion in this category (See Civilization and Its Discontents and The Future of An Illusion, both Sigmund Freud). Part of how we stay grounded in our lives with some sense of safety, predictability and belonging, is through our social organizations – working for a company, spending holidays with family, performing the same traditions and rituals as the preceding generations, living in communities with others of like socio-economic backgrounds, similar values, etc. Daily structure and routine help regulate our systems and keep us connected to how our world and those running it function.

When a tragic, violent or even merely sudden and drastic change occurs, one of its residual effects is that it reminds us how unpredictable life is and how out of control we actually are. That, in spite of our huddling together in neighborhoods, investing in sophisticated alarm systems, swallowing supplements and admonishing our children to meet only us exactly at pick-up time, we are all completely, entirely vulnerable to danger.

Not only does divorce mimic and induce much of the same trauma of any shocking, life altering experience; it rattles our trust in the sameness and predictableness we have established.

It follows that if the structure of marriage meets some of our basic needs for safety, then the loss of a marriage – even a bad marriage – can leave us feeling exposed.

I have started likening it to the difference between being in a secure state run by a stable, however fallible and inadequate, government, versus entering a territory in which the government was recently overthrown, and the country is now being run by rebel forces.

A married woman at an event alone, because her husband is working late, elicits an entirely different response than an unmarried woman in attendance. A single person among a sea of the married can be regarded like a free radical among healthy cells. Our status as married can feel similar to “employed,” “member,” “chosen.” “Married” defines us by our choice to join (an implies someone also found us desirable enough to join their life to ours). “Divorced” defines us by our act of disconnecting. Synonyms for divorce include: removed, unconnected, split, detached, separated, removed, broken up. No wonder it’s regarded as a less preferred state – even when it is done to advance the well being of all involved. Even linguistically divorce is a disfavoured state, one that’s antithetical to some of the survival strategies of our species. We are communal beings who, from our earliest pre-homo sapien form, relied on a solid interrelatedness – a group, a tribe – in order to stay alive.

Married can serve as a letter of introduction, a silent nod of consent – yes, I’m upholding my social compact, I’m like you, doing my part, mowing my lawn, I belong. There is not only a sense of safety on the part of the married person, but among those around her too – she’s one of us, a participant, not a rebel, or troublemaker, or descentor.

While the stigma attached to divorce is far less intense than it was fifty years ago, it is far from dead and buried.

By acknowledging the collective social consciousness and its dissonance with divorce, we can appreciate more fully what makes even a simple divorce extremely difficult.

What do you think contributes to the fear over divorce? Please share your thoughts whether you have experienced divorce yourself and/or are a divorce professional. I think it’s an important, dynamic dialogue and look forward to your participation.