anxiety in separation and divorce

The ending of our committed couple relationship typically starts the gruelling and exhausting separation experience. Even when we separate well and communicate respectfully without too much acrimony, it still takes a lot out of us as we dismantle nearly every aspect of our former lives together to create two separate units.

There are many decisions we need to make concerning the day-to-day practicalities and functioning, financial aspects, as well as the complex emotional aspects resulting from having had our relationship end. Within this mix is also a great deal of uncertainty about how our lives will be in the future. For most of us in this situation, this uncertainty causes us to feel anxious.

What are we anxious about during our separation?

As a therapist who also works with separating couples, my clients’ have multiple anxieties stemming from their separation. These anxieties often wake them in the early hours of the morning. Here are their top 3:

  1. Anxiety about our financial future
  • Will I have enough money to support myself properly?
  • Will there be sufficient funds to live comfortably enough, or will I have to live on a restrictive budget?
  • Will we need to sell the family home?
  • Will I have enough to offer my children the opportunities I wanted them to have prior to separation, such as private schooling or to take them on a holiday?
  • Will I be able to look after the finances without my partner (if not done this in the relationship)?
  1. We are often anxious about our children
  • How will this news break their hearts?
  • Will they be ok if their parents are separated? Is this scarring them for life?
  • Will they need to move out of their home?
  • Will they need to go to a new school?
  • What about their friends?
  • Will I be a good enough parent by myself?
  • Am I enough of a parent for them?
  • Will they be ok at their other parent’s home without me?
  • Will their other parent remember their medicine? Night-time routine? Feed them healthy enough food? Get them off their screens? Pack their school bags properly? Use sunscreen?
  1. We are also anxious about life without our partner
  • Will I feel safe without them at home?
  • Who am I without them?
  • What kind of lawyer have they chosen? Will they be out to get me?
  • What is going to happen to our friends and families? Will I lose some of them too?
  • How do I manage the continuous noise inside of my mind about my relationship ending?
  • How am I really doing? Am I drinking too much? Have I started controlling food or binge eating? Am I working too hard? Exercising too much? Am I partying too hard or going manic? Or even having sex with people I don’t really know? Am I withdrawing and isolating too much? Are these really helping me? Am I really safe?
  • What’s wrong with me? Am I not good enough?
  • Will anyone find me interesting or attractive again?

How do we try to create certainty when we don’t yet have any?

In her book, The Mind-Strength Method: Four steps to curb anxiety, conquer worry & build resilience, Dr. Jodie Lowinger notes that we engage in certain ‘safety behaviours’ to eliminate uncertainty and achieve control. Despite being called ‘safety behaviours’, they are not offering any real safety, they offer us the illusion of safety in the face of uncertainty.

I’m sharing the 3 ‘safety behaviours’ that she describes that I often hear in my consulting room when people are separating. These are:

  1. Worry – When we repeatedly focus our attention on the problems, we end up feeling more anxious. Lowinger recognises how problematic this in and states that a “negative outcome is the inevitable part of worry – by the very nature of worry it is not a story with a happy ending… in its extreme form is called catastrophising.” (p.108)
  2. Mind reading – This strategy is highly problematic, and we will never achieve certainty this way. When my clients attempt to read my mind, they are mostly so far off the mark. We need to ask people what they are thinking.
  3. Over-checking and reassurance seeking – Lowinger notes that these 2 strategies do not work as neither will provide the certainty we seek as it does not exist. We may experience momentary relief, however, the anxiety will creep back in.

One of the biggest gifts we can give ourselves during our separation and divorce process is to learn to accept uncertainty. We need to surrender to uncertainty, otherwise, we will keep using ‘safety behaviours’ that provide no actual safety. There is no solution to uncertainty besides surrender. We need to develop helpful strategies that calms our anxiety down.

 

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