Therapy and Divorce

Divorce can act as a rite of passage—an initiation into a new life.

By describing divorce in this way, I am not saying that it is a good or a bad event. But it does happen, and it happens frequently, and finding meaning and perspective during the process of divorce is crucial to healing and transformation.

Many of my clients have felt stuck in a marriage or committed, long-term relationship. On one end of the spectrum, partners may grow in different directions and struggle with feeling limited by the relationship. Other marriages face more damaging patterns. In these relationships, partners unconsciously hurt each other. Often these damaging patterns stem from early life relationships with parents and get replayed with the partner.

Couples therapy can clarify what’s been wrong and lead to renewed connection. Sometimes this renewed connection allows for a relationship that works well for both partners. Other times it becomes clear that the couple will separate.

If either or both partners have felt stuck and miserable for a long time, separating can release a great burst of energy that was bound up in the difficulties of maintaining an unhappy state together.

Whether splitting up brings this release or not, it still hurts. The life the couple dreamed of having together comes to a stop. Profound feelings of loss and grief can last for some time, and when one or both partners didn’t really want the divorce, these feelings can go on even longer and cause more suffering.

Some individuals will find themselves plunged into a depression during or after divorce. The question then becomes whether this dark time is barren of new life, or instead can become a kind of pregnant darkness that initiates the person into a fuller experience of his or her life. This is one area where therapy is especially helpful—to help midwife the client’s newly emerging life and provide support during a hard time.

After a divorce, my clients report a whole range of feelings, all of which are important to feel and work through in therapy. Feelings of grief, uncertainty, excitement, fear, loneliness, new potential, anxiety around finances, and many other feelings are part of the mix.

Questions of self-identity and the future often come up. Who am I apart from this other person and my relationship with them? Will I find another partner? Do I even want a relationship? Will I replay my own old patterns? How will I parent my kids (if there are children from the marriage)?

Divorce is a rite of passage that often comes during the midlife years from about age 35 through age 60. For so many, these years are a time of deep changes in many areas of life—relationships, parenting, health, and career. Clients find themselves turning inward, searching for answers, exploring complex feelings, redefining self-identity, and wondering about the future. This is an excellent time to find a therapist who can help you navigate these waters and embrace the new life that is waiting for you.

Midlife Crisis (and Transformation) in Portland?

What might a so-called midlife crisis really look like? And does it really happen here? In Portland, aren’t we (I’m generalizing to make a point) pretty well put-together? We’re conscious about the environment, intentional about what we eat, invested in local communities, authentic in relationships, and so on….

It’s not good or bad to have these ideas about being conscious and well-put together, but it’s important not to take them as literal truths. Part of the danger of such literalism is that something important could get overlooked: that there come times in life where our self-image falls apart–a little or a lot–and may even need to fall apart for us to transform. Midlife is a period where this sometimes happens, leading to a renewal of life and self.

The so-called midlife crisis is often seen in psychology as happening as early as 35 years old, and often later, at some point in the 40s or 50s. The psychologist Carl Jung contributed a lot to the psychology of midlife. Jung’s view feels a little old in some ways, but still holds deep insight if we adjust for cultural changes that have occurred since his time. Jung argued that the first part of adulthood usually focuses on adapting to life in society. We get educations, find work, build a career, have relationships, become parents, and thus establish a well put-together place in the world.

It’s usually once we have been through a lot of this stuff of life’s first half that we may reach a critical moment. It certainly doesn’t happen to everybody, but something may come along to upset the structures that we have so carefully built and tended in the first half of life. The outward cause of the upset could be a death, an illness, a divorce, the loss of a job, a new relationship, an inner malaise, a depression, trauma, or any number of events on the outside or inside of life that threaten to shake up the known structures of life and self.

A lot of strong feelings can come through during this time. It’s not necessarily all bad or all good feelings that come, but an intensity of feelings and a variety too. The Jungian analyst Murray Stein and others have written about midlife crisis as a kind of second adolescence. If you will remember the tumultuous feelings and developments of your first adolescence, you might get some flavor for the second adolescence of midlife. Like the teen years, midlife can be a major transition into a new phase: what Jung called the “second half of life.”

And like the teen years, midlife can feel unsettling. We can feel confused and uncertain of the future. It’s often a rich and satisfying time as well as a challenging one. We may begin to realize that the old structures of our life could use some readjusting. We may begin to enjoy living in ways we forgot we knew. A feeling of renewal can come, and a feeling of increasing freedom to be ourselves.

The midlife crisis and transformation doesn’t tend to happen without struggle. There’s a reason people in one form of midlife crisis or another end up in therapy. In Jung’s view, therapy can facilitate a long-term process of change. The uprooted feelings of midlife can lead into a new feeling of rootedness, deeper in our real selves than we had imagined possible. Then life can proceed out of a new source of vitality and development.

I ran across this poem by Pablo Neruda today, and I think its language evokes some of the feelings and potential of the so-called midlife crisis and transformation.

Lost In The Forest
by poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

Lost in the forest, I broke off a dark twig
and lifted its whisper to my thirsty lips:
maybe it was the voice of the rain crying,
a cracked bell, or a torn heart.

Something from far off it seemed
deep and secret to me, hidden by the earth,
a shout muffled by huge autumns,
by the moist half-open darkness of the leaves.

Wakening from the dreaming forest there, the hazel-sprig
sang under my tongue, its drifting fragrance
climbed up through my conscious mind

as if suddenly the roots I had left behind
cried out to me, the land I had lost with my childhood—
and I stopped, wounded by the wandering scent.

In Between Places

There’s a lot in this quote from Jungian analyst Murray Stein’s book Transformation.

When a person goes through deep change, from one way of being and living to another, there is a time in between being the old self and becoming the new self, and this time period is confusing, disconcerting, sometimes exciting, and difficult.

Stein calls this period “liminality”–which means a time in between.

“In liminality, a person feels at a loss for steady points of reference. When the established hierarchies of the past have dissolved and before new images and attitudes have emerged fully, and while those that have appeared are not yet solid and reliable, everything seems to be in flux. Dreams during this psychological metamorphosis tend to show themes both of breakdown (images of buildings being torn down, of changing houses, sometimes of actual dismemberment and physical disintegration) and of emergence (images of construction, giving birth, marriage, the divine child). Angst is the mood of liminality. A person is ambivalent and depressed, and this is punctuated by periods of enthusiasm, adventure, and experimentation. People go on living, but not quite in this world. The analyst feels like the old man in the dream quoted above–watching a process unfold, observing the seasons passing, waiting patiently for new structures to emerge and solidify. It is an article of faith that what is under way is ‘a system “developing itself,” a process embodying the whole specific nature of the living creature’–faith that a butterfly will emerge from the cocoon where liminality reigns.”
-from Murray Stein’s book, Transformation: Emergence of the Self.