by Zonder Family Law Group
Zonder Family Law Group recently sat down with Raina Krell, PhD and LPCC, of Westlake Village Therapists to discuss the mental and emotional challenges the spouse who decides to leave the marriage may face.
ZFLG: A lot of attention is paid to the emotions and mental health of the spouse who is “left.” But those deciding to end a marriage can also experience a negative emotional impact. What are some of the most prevalent feelings those doing the “leaving” struggle with?
Raina: This is a very meaningful topic to consider. Those who leave a marriage are an often-overlooked group with frequently minimized emotional needs. The “leaver” actually experiences emotional difficulties and a challenging transitional period not unlike their spousal counterparts. Despite overt demonstrations of relief that may be exhibited by the initiator of the divorce, they too experience feelings of guilt and pain. To understand this further, let’s explore the root cause that impacts both the “leavers” and the partners who were left.
As a starting point, I believe it is important to understand that humans are attachment-oriented beings, we are ‘pack animals’ so to speak. We are wired this way to bond with one another essentially to ensure our survival. Therefore, feelings of sadness, loss and guilt are experienced when the status of our intimate partner commitments change, regardless of whether we instigated this change or were informed of our partner’s independent choice to leave the relationship. And, our emotional responses are further complicated when there are children and extended family members involved and affected by the unfolding transition.
ZFLG: What are some steps a person can take to overcome the guilt they may feel from leaving a marriage?
Raina: The critical process to appreciate here is the mandate to properly confront your feelings and uncover the underlying compromise of values that have activated your guilt. The dissolution of a primary relationship elicits grief and loss, impacting those who left the relationship and those who feel left behind. As I mentioned, both parties will experience emotional intensity for a period of time. Guilt is a part of this emotional experience, and should be recognized as a normal and appropriate response. As defined, guilt is the feeling that you did something wrong. Guilt serves us by activating self-analysis and the squeeze on our integrity resulting in this feeling of psychological discomfort. Within the context of divorce, a partner who chose to leave may feel guilty for changing the agreement, by declaring their refusal to continue the partnership.
That being said, the partner who did not initiate the break up may also experience guilt when they assess their own contributions to the relationship. Themes of abandonment, betrayal, fear, and dissatisfaction may be present for both parties. Despite the roles and unique characteristics of each partner and each marriage, the imperative for both individuals is to engage in honest introspection along with compassionate self AND other care. Avoidance of doing this emotional work often appears as denial, distraction, and emotional numbing, that may include self-destructive behaviors. Clearly, the stakes are high here. Addressing one’s emotional experience of loss is a serious endeavor to be honestly approached in a purposeful manner.
The first step in addressing guilt is to authentically acknowledge one’s feelings and behaviors. I often remind my clients and families that a primary need for all humans, from birth and throughout one’s lifetime, is to feel seen and heard. Begin with self-awareness and insight-oriented efforts. That being said, start with the fundamental questions, “what do I feel guilty about?” “what was my part here?” “what choices did I have… what decisions could I have made?” and so on. Be willing to show up for yourself with transparency and full disclosure by asking yourself these questions. Perhaps partnering with a supportive person, such as a trusted friend or a therapist, is the most constructive method for exploring these inquiries. Most importantly, do not sugarcoat your responses as the consequence of avoiding an honest analysis may repress your feelings of guilt rather than yield a beneficial catharsis.
The second step is simply to slow down. People often feel that action is necessary following the declaration of wanting a divorce. I encourage my clients to sit with this decision at this point rather than moving quickly to the next step. Allow the dust to settle and your partner to “catch up” in coming to terms with your expressed intent to divorce. Both parties need time to emotionally and physically adjust. Our nervous systems need time to cool down and regulate. Once clients realize that urgency is unnecessary and actually undermines solid decision-making, adoption of a slow and steady approach is the optimal arrangement for positive outcomes for all.
The third step is to engage your community for support. Who you let into your inner circle is critical to your emotional well being. Thus, I strongly recommend choosing your committee of confidants wisely. Friends, family members, therapists, attorneys, and divorce coaches may be represented in this inner circle and should be invited because they offer well balanced perspectives that are essential to the uncoupling process you are engaging in.
The fourth and final step is to literally repeat steps one, two and three again, and again.
ZFLG: How do you deal with feelings of regret or wondering if you made the right decision?
Raina: Regret is also a natural emotional response. Emerging feelings of regret may accompany guilt and loss related to initiating divorce proceedings. The recommendation for addressing regret, along with guilt and loss, involves dedicated engagement in therapeutic work wherein unfilled, as well as unrealistic expectations about the relationship are carefully explored.
ZFLG: How can discernment counseling/working with a therapist pre-divorce help the spouse who wants to end the marriage?
Raina: Discernment counseling offers a supportive space to validate the points of view of a “mixed agenda” couple, when one partner is “leaning in” and the other is “leaning out” of the marriage. This approach departs from a traditional couples therapy model with the purpose being primarily to repair and restore the marital relationship. Discernment counseling offers three pathways to consider: maintain the status quo, agree to take divorce off the table with a 6-month intensive relationship repair effort, or evaluate the possibility of mindfully separating/divorcing. Direct conversations about all three options are encouraged and supported. Sometimes, the groundwork for a constructive and thoughtful divorce process can be laid during pre-divorce discernment counseling sessions with the foundational purpose being to validate the disparate perspectives of both parties.
ZFLG: What is the best way to move on when your spouse may not be ready to?
Raina: The best way to move forward is to do so slowly and compassionately. Be conscientious with your words and avoid misleading comments or actions that will only serve to delay the process of transitioning to a new kind of relationship. I would recommend gently encouraging your spouse to seek emotional support from others, as you should as well even if your level of readiness seems to surpass that of your spouse. Transitional periods create vulnerabilities in all of us, despite our instigation, awareness or degree of preparation for changes to come. Finally, I would recommend developing healthy and considerate boundaries early on in the process. Boundaries keep us safe and functional, and enable us to show up in all facets of our lives with a wise mind and a thoughtful posture.
ZFLG: What do you want people to know about your practice and how can they get in touch with you?
Raina: I practice in Westlake Village, California where I offer both in-person and telehealth services. As a psychotherapist, I provide counseling for individuals, couples and families, as well as consultation services for professionals and referents. My clinical focus is best described as helping my clients address presenting issues, such as anxiety, depression, relationship dynamics and life transitions, within a compassionate and collaborative connection.