Adjusting to Divorce or Breakup of Long-Term Relationships
Although the chain of events leading to marriage is unique for each individual, most people marry with the hope that the relationship will last. Divorce often represents loss of this hope as well as loss of one’s spouse, lifestyle, the security of familiarity, and part of one’s identity and self-worth (Park et al., 2011). Divorce also often represents stressful changes in parenting time and circumstances (Schrodt, 2011). In the following discussion, we refer to a breakup as divorce, but people who end nonmarital intimate relationships also can experience these losses (Sbarra, 2006).
The loss a person feels during a divorce or a breakup of a meaningful relationship is often comparable to the loss experienced when a loved one dies (Napolitane, 1997). In both cases one undergoes a grieving process, but no recognized grief rituals are provided by society to help one ending a relationship. Initially, a person may experience shock: "This cannot be happening to me." What might follow is a feeling of disorientation— a sense that one’s entire world has turned upside down. Volatile emotions may unexpectedly surface. Feelings of guilt may become strong. Loneliness is common. Learning to reach out to others for emotional support can help diminish feelings of aloneness. Finally (usually not for several months or a year), a sense of relief and acceptance may come. After several months of separation, a person who is not developing a sense of acceptance may benefit from professional help.
Although many of the feelings that accompany ending a relationship are uncomfortable and painful, a potential exists for personal growth in the adjustment process. Many people come to experience an exciting sense of autonomy. Others find that being single presents opportunities to experience more fully dimensions of themselves that had been submerged in the marriage. The end of an important relationship or marriage can offer an opportunity to reassess oneself and one’s past, a process that may lead to a new life.