Every divorce has its own grievous tale to tell, surely. But there’s one divorce story I have been hearing of late that is particularly malignant. Seemingly out of the blue, one spouse pronounces to the other that, essentially, s/he has had a change of heart; s/he doesn’t want to be married anymore. While this is an equal opportunity assault, I’ve been hearing more of wives being summarily discarded by their husbands than the reverse. Perhaps this is an artifact of women’s greater readiness to speak openly about their personal suffering.
Of course there are plenty of instances when the demise of a marriage is long in coming, unavoidable, overdue, even a true and necessary liberation (e.g. in cases of psychological or physical abuse and addiction). In contrast, these “carcinogenic divorces” involve spouses’ stunning their mates with sudden and unilateral abandonment after 15, 20, 25 years of marriage. They refuse to attempt couples therapy to try first to repair the rift. Their cold ruthlessness and distorted depiction of their years together are so surreal that the rejected spouses feels like their spouses has been taken over by an alien life force. They ask “who the heck have I been married to all this time?”
This is how it goes: They’re out for dinner. She’s thinking they’re out for an escape from their two or three children. He’s got something to say, something he’s given a lot of private thought to, something that might be hard for her to hear. He doesn’t want to be married to her anymore.
-He’s been unhappy in the marriage for some time, but they don’t have time to talk because she’s always so busy --with the kids, her work, her enfeebled aging parents!
-No he doesn’t want to do couples therapy to work on the marriage; he’s done. There’s no going back.
-No he doesn’t think the kids will be troubled by a divorce; half the kids’ friends are going through the same thing! they’ll be fine. They’re resilient.
-Sure he has been saying that he loves her, and their last getaway was nice…but still…
-Well, yes, actually, there is another woman, but that’s not what this is about. He would still want to end the marriage, even without his girlfriend. More often than not, it seems, they secure the next “trapeze” to leap to (i.e. their replacement mate) before letting go of their marriage.
Which prompts a related question: how do the “trapezes,” the interlopers who participate in killing a marriage, live with themselves? They’re accomplices in the bloodless destruction of an intact family. But they’re also walking into a buzz-saw. They “buy” the defecting mate’s one-sided, self-exonerating story of marital woe, and delude themselves into thinking they won’t ALSO become an abandoned trapeze in just the same way (despite second marriages ending in divorce a whopping 75% of the time). It’s a humbling reminder that we are all capable of blinding self-delusion and denial.
As I write, a dear friend from out of town, whom I’ll call Lauren, lies in an oncology post-op unit at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, recovering from a double mastectomy. She is an exquisitely lovely, gracious, artistically gifted woman who tended to her physical health so well that she didn’t even come down with colds. She’d had yearly mammograms, no family history of breast cancer, no red flags. Yet she had succumbed to a virulent strain of breast cancer. Only 5 months earlier, her husband left her reeling with the pronouncement that he no longer wanted to be married to her, after 23 years and three wonderful children.
She is the 5th woman I’ve known in less than 2 years who has been besieged by an aggressive breed of breast cancer within months of summary abandonment by her husband. No scientific research supports the common conviction that stress “causes cancer” by disabling the immune system’s ability to fight off rogue cancer cells that roam through our systems every day. Rather than cancer cells opportunistically developing when immune systems are weakened, the reality appears to be that immune systems are cannibalized by the growing cancer cells. While I don’t want to turn a blind eye to the current state of research, this barrage of personal experience compels me to wonder whether further research will ultimately demonstrate the linkage. Perhaps the interaction is more indirect such that once cancer takes hold, its ravaging destruction is hastened by the immune system’s collapse under the crush of harrowing and sleep-robbing worries:
-about the children’s once secure worlds shredded by insecurity and torn allegiances;
-about divided assets and hemorrhaged marital savings creating acute financial distress
-about the agony of enduring holidays childless, for the first time since they were born;
-about dashed assumptions about one’s “golden years” of retirement and aging together
-about confronting the forced choice of entering the bleak dating world as a single middle aged divorcee or soldiering through the rest of one’s years alone.
The wives and husbands being cast overboard are the same people the defecting spouses had once considered “the love of their lives.” Are they not at all aware of the agony they are inflicting on their mates and on their very own children? I don’t want to demonize the defectors; they too have their truths and grievances deserving compassionate understanding. But that’s the point: why would they so doggedly resist professional help? How can they elect to jump ship or shove their spouses overboard, without doing virtually everything in their powers to first repair the problems? How is it possible for folks to devastate those closest to them, and not be in enough of an agony of guilt, to do anything possible to prevent dissolution? Can they not even SEE the pain they’re causing?
Sadly, too often it is the case that those who act with ruthless insensitivity to the very people they once loved, learned that capacity from someone; often from past family members who defined what love was through their actions, especially through those that were cruel or abandoning. Sadder still, these spouses may be passing on the same painful legacy to their own children through these carcinogenic divorces. If the malignancy of the children’s aggrieved distress is not treated now, with attentive psychological care, their children will be prone to subjecting their future family spouses and children with similar insensitivity. And so, the malfunctioning family pattern metastasizes, like a psychological-slinky over time, generation upon generation.
What can you do to shore up your equanimity and immunity, if you’re in the throes of a carcinogenic divorce?
1) Tend to your physical health with timely physical exams, good sleep hygiene (8 hours/night, extra naps), exercise, do Yoga, meditate, eat nutritionally balanced meals, get massages.
2) Learn and practice self-relaxation techniques of deep-breathing and visualization; see Montclair.Patch.org post 9/2/11.
3) Get a good lawyer and protect your security asap.
4) Ward off self-isolation during one of the times of greatest turmoil you’ll ever know in your life. Call together your “inner circle” of dearest friends to mastermind your recovery from your staggering blow; plan times to have fun, to gain order, to weave a web of support for the children. Join or start a support group of folks reeling from the same life blow; having others “in the same boat” can buoy your spirits and hasten your recovery.
5) Get counseling if you’re finding the process too crushing, depressing, anxiety-provoking to work through yourself.
6) Coax your kids to talk as freely as they can about their reactions, questions, frustrations and worries. Find them therapists to help them sort through this life upheaval so they can reconcile themselves to your divorce without vestiges of self-blame or estrangement from one or both parents.
7) “Love your children more than you hate your ex;” opt in favor of the best parenting decisions over vindictive urges to retaliate against your ex with your children as fodder (see Montclair.Patch.org post 5/20/11)
8) Don’t let your ex’s sweeping defilement of your marriage deprive you of your positive memories of real times you treasure (particularly involving your children!)
9) Call on whatever system of intellectual, musical, artistic or spiritual supports will lend fortifying calm, meaning, guidance and resolve in navigating these tumultuous waters.
10) Don’t collapse into victimhood: Coax forth your own growth and liberation by examining ways that you were intrinsically unfulfilled in your marriage, and never really recognized it. Seize the courage to find opportunity in your newfound freedom to awaken dormant dreams. You will emerge far more faithful to yourself and authentic with others if you more keenly listen to and heed your inner truths. The human spirit’s capacity to find new direction and inspiration out of ruin is stunning and boundless.