After a divorce, build yourself up
January is known for the breaking of New Year's resolutions. It is also known for the breaking up of marriages. More divorces are filed in January than any other month, according to an analysis by Psychology Today magazine.
Recovering from the trauma of a divorce is often harder for older people. "As we get older, our routines and our patterns and our habits get set in stone," says David Sbarra, a psychological scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Sbarra, who grew up in Shoreham, has conducted numerous studies on divorce and its psychological ramifications.
A big problem in getting through the shock of a divorce is that a person's identity -- what Sbarra calls self-concept -- is often tied to a spouse. Divorce not only destroys a couple, it can shatter an individual's sense of self. "The insult to self-concept is more substantial as people age," he says.
So how do you heal? When it comes to your rawest emotions about the divorce, looking deep into yourself may be more harmful than looking the other way. Sbarra's latest study found that people who kept a daily journal of their emotions regarding their divorce were often more distraught months after the breakup than those who kept an unemotional journal of daily activities. This was especially true for people who brooded about every detail of why their marriage failed.
"I think there is this general tendency in clinical psychology, and probably in the lay public, to believe emotional catharsis is always a good thing," Sbarra says. "For some people, it intensifies their distress."
While brooders who wrote about their feelings often had trouble moving on from the breakup, those who kept a journal of mundane activities did better. Sbarra believes they were distracted from their hurt feelings and avoided falling into a constant state of self-inflicted misery. Contrary to what many people believe, avoidance and distraction can do some good. "My basic thinking is there's no problem with putting everything under the rug as long as it doesn't come seeping out the other side," Sbarra says.
The best way to get over a painful divorce or separation is to build yourself up instead of beating yourself up. Sbarra extols the importance of what he terms self-compassion and self-kindness. "Forgive yourself, give yourself a break, don't be so critical," he says. "As you start understanding yourself and seeing yourself clearly, you start feeling better overall."