Q: My husband left me suddenly 18 months ago, after 20 years of marriage. I was completely shocked because I did not see it coming; we had our problems, but no more so than most couples. He said he had been unhappy for years and said he was waiting for the children to be in college before he left. (We have a boy and a girl who were 18 and 19 at the time.) They were both devastated by the break-up and refused to see him for a while.
That was 18 months ago, and I thought things were settling, but then I heard he was living with his new, much younger, girlfriend. I found myself devastated all over again. I have been crying and feel intensely upset and angry. I had put the best part of my life into the marriage and he threw it all away and left us all behind. I feel so angry. As a religious person, it was never my plan to be separated and I feel so betrayed. I keep thinking, what did I do wrong? I should have spotted things weren’t right and done something.
A: Coming to terms with the end of a marriage is difficult at the best of times, but when it is not your decision and you don’t see it coming, it can be particularly traumatic. Added to the upset and sadness you would normally feel, you can feel confusion about why the break-up happened, question your own judgment, and feel anger and rage at being let down and betrayed by your partner.
It is normal to feel that the 20 years of your marriage have been invalidated and to feel an acute sense of loss – particularly if you have a strong belief in marriage, as you do.
It is common to swing between extreme emotions, from being angry with your partner for his betrayal to being depressed and questioning why this happened to you, or ruminating about whether you could have done something differently and changed how things turned out. While time is, of course, a great healer, this pain can return as reminders of your own loss at life events such as weddings, family gatherings or, as in your own case, as your ex-partner moves on with life without you.
Adult children and separation
While many parents leave it until their children are adults to separate, this does not necessarily reduce the upset they might feel. I have counselled many young adults who are devastated by their parents’ separation, experiencing a loss of their sense of home and stability. Though it is, of course, their parents’ business, they frequently get caught up in the sense of betrayal and can feel very similar emotions to those of their parents.
In helping your adult children, it is important not to overdepend on them as an ally and confidante in what happened between you and their father (seek other people for your own support), and try to give them a balanced and appropriate account of what happened.
In addition, it is helpful to support them in maintaining their relationship with their father or at least make sure you are in no way hindering this. It helps if you give them “emotional” permission not to have to take a side in the dispute, and for them to develop their relationship with their father on their own terms.
It is important when you feel upset like you do to reach out and seek help. Gaining the support of another person can make a big difference in helping you cope. Have you considered attending counselling? Most people find it helpful to talk to someone outside the family; someone who can listen and support you without being caught up in the emotions as a friend or family member might be.
A good counsellor will give you time and space to tease out in your own mind what happened in your marriage so you can have a balanced understanding that allows you to start moving on. It is important to be patient with yourself and not to expect too much as you learn to move on.
Frequently, when people experience a setback in their coping – such as your upset at your ex-partner moving in with his girlfriend – they beat themselves up about this and become angry that they still feel this way. This, of course, only adds to your pain.
Accept how you feel
An alternative approach is to accept compassionately how you are feeling. Mindfully notice your emotions – There I am feeling upset again . . . that is understandable – and then let these emotions pass in their own good time. Having an expectation that you must feel a certain way is not going to speed your recovery but only slow it down.
Moving on and building a new life
As well as accepting and understanding where you are, it is also important to move on and build a new life for yourself beyond your marriage. You probably had already started to do this, prior to the recent setback. The key is to set goals for yourself that you really want to achieve. Try to see the new opportunities in your life that being single gives you.
The ideal is to have a mixture of long-term goals (perhaps starting a new career, or finding a new relationship) and short-term ones (such as taking up a hobby, getting fit and healthy, or meeting friends). Make a list of all the things you have dreamed of doing, and look at how you might start working towards some of these.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.