Divorce: try a little tenderness
Divorce affects different people in a variety of ways. Whilst it can be hard on most, some might find divorce catastrophic, as if a large and fundamental part of their life has been torn away.
What could account for the sweep of emotions felt by different people undergoing similar experiences is the subject of a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.
The answer, according to the study, is self-compassion. Promoting resilience and positive outcomes in the face of divorce takes a combination of kindness towards yourself, a recognition of common humanity and the ability to allow painful emotions to pass, says the University of Arizona's David A Sbarra, who helped conduct the study.
The findings have implications for helping people to come through divorce in better mental health and spirits.
"We’re not interested in the basic statement 'People who are coping better today do better nine months from now'. That doesn’t help anybody," says Mr Sbarra.
"The surprising part here is that when we look at a bunch of positive characteristics – self-esteem, resistance to depression, optimism or ease with relationships – this one characteristic, self-compassion, uniquely predicts good outcomes."
The subjects for study were 67 women and 38 men, with an average age of 40. They had been married for over 13 years and divorced for an average of 3-4 months. On their first visit, participants were asked to spend 30 seconds thinking about their former partners, after which they talked for 4 minutes on their separation and how they felt.
On hearing the audio files, 4 trained researchers rated participants’ levels of self-compassion, assessing them also for other psychological traits such as depression and their 'relationship style'.
Participants reported on how they adjusted to their divorce, including how often they had intrusive thoughts and emotions about the separation. These reports were made at the 1st visit, after 3 months and again after 6 or 9 months. Those with high levels of self-compassion at the start recovered faster and were also doing better after a few months.
How can these findings help people going through divorce? "It’s not easy to say," said Mr Sbarra. "You can’t change your personality so easily. We also know that women do better than men, but you can’t change your gender. What you can change is your stance with respect to your experience."
Mr Sbarra also believes that understanding loss as part of the broader human experience helps lift feelings of isolation. He added that mindfulness – non-judgementally logging emotions such as jealousy or anger – lets you focus on life in the present without getting stuck in the past.
Of whether this can be taught, however, the researchers are unsure. "This study opens a window for how we can potentially cultivate self-compassion among recently-separated adults. It helps smooth the journey through one of life’s most difficult experiences," Mr Sbarra concluded.
"The implications of this study are fascinating," said Emma Pearmaine, Family Law Solicitor at Simpson Millar LLP. "As with Collaborative Law, a new approach to family law where lawyers and clients look for settlements in good faith whilst avoiding court, its findings suggest that a recognition of human frailty in others could play a major role in making divorce easier for all parties to bear."
The Simpson Millar Family Law Team regularly refers clients to a specialist Divorce Counsellor to assist with the emotional effects of separation. Emma says "we are finding that male client’s particularly benefit from this specialist counselling because unlike many women, they often don’t have the support network of friends whom they would talk to about personal issues in this time of crisis."
It is essential to choose a solicitor who will understand your emotional state, as well as provide you with the specialist legal advice you need.