Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: November 2010
Divorce is usually a painful subject–although for some people a divorce is a reason for joy. But if it hurts, it probably hurts more if you are an HSP. No doubt this is why I have avoided writing about it for fourteen years of Comfort Zones. How can I possibly help? Also, each divorce is so different that it is difficult to say anything that is true in general. But I will try.
Divorce may sometimes be worse than the death of a spouse. Maybe by the time you divorce the love is gone, but there is other pain involved. You may feel like a failure at marriage or at least at choosing a good partner. You are disappointed in yourself or the other or both of you. You may be filled with anger, even rage–very distressing for an HSP. You may fear the future in a far different way than after the death of a spouse–mainly that you will never be able to have a successful relationship. Most of all, at times you are probably feeling extremely alone and lonely, so that if you wanted the divorce, it may seem like a big mistake, and if you did not want it, it may seem like an insurmountably tragic loss. Let’s start here.
Know the Difference between Attachment and Love
Because HSPs feel so strongly, we need to understand better what we are feeling and why, so that we can regulate our emotions accordingly. During and after a divorce, you are likely to feel a deep loss, even if you feel it is the best thing for you that the relationship is over. This is because when we live with anyone for long we form an attachment. If some of the shared times were happy, your attachment will be even stronger. Every divorce involves the severing of an attachment to a close other. Such an attachment is a deeply instinctual bond that, when it ends, can cause loneliness, of course–sometimes in the form of a severe, almost primitive pain.
Attachment is NOT the same as love. As I define love, it is an attraction to a particular person, so that you want to be around them, get to know them as fully as possible, and help them as much as you can. Attachment is not so particular. Attachments form with people who have met some of our needs–maybe a need for physical closeness or sex, a home, companionship, a sense of belonging to someone, or a bit of control over someone’s love for you.
Attachment can remain even after the person stops meeting your needs, through simple association of the person with the satisfied need. But this is not love. Maybe your marriage began as love, for one or both of you. By the time of your divorce, however, the love was gone for at least one of you.
You are always attached to someone you love, but you do not always love someone to whom you are attached. Further, if someone is attached to you, he or she may not actually love you as I defined it above. This is important for HSPs to appreciate, as we tend to meet people’s needs as much as we can, which means people get attached to us. We also feel our own needs more strongly, and so become much attached to people who meet or once met even some of them.
When you feel overwhelmed by your emotions around your divorce, try to think as objectively as you can about what was love as I define it and what was attachment. It takes time to relinquish an attachment. It is a very primitive instinct. But if you see the love is gone or was never there–that your intense feelings are due to a waning attachment–it can help you accept the slowness and pain of the process of detaching as not really having much to do with real love.
Face Your Shame and Guilt
Shame and guilt are almost always a part of divorce, and HSPs are especially prone to these emotions. As I like to point out, research finds that, to our brain, shame and rejection hurt as much as physical pain. These emotions accompany feeling terrible about yourself, which is not going to help you during this change in your life. So you need to consider how much shame you are feeling about your divorce and start to do something about it.
Shame can be especially bad if you see yourself as the one who was left, as is often the case for HSPs. But consider whether you wanted the relationship to end just as much as your partner did, who actually did the leaving. The fact is, being an HSP made you less likely to be the one to end it. You would be conscientious about your vows and keep trying.
You also might have been more nervous about your alternatives. The best single predictor of divorce is having a better alternative (either another partner or another lifestyle). HSPs, not being impulsive, are less likely to trust an untried alternative. But if for some reason your unconscious thought it was time for you to be out of the relationship, you may well have done things that made your spouse so miserable (withdrawing or criticizing–we are good at both) that he or she was sure to go. So do not be so certain you were the one left.
Whatever your reason for shame and guilt, try to have some compassion for yourself. There are two ways of looking at any action that has negative consequences. One is the attitude of the law and the courtroom: the person who did the action was responsible and should have known better. The other is more psychological and compassionate: the person could not help it, given everything that has happened to this person and the things he or she could not have known at the time.
A judicial perspective has some values, but not in the case of divorce, when things are so complicated and both persons surely played some role, even if only to put up with the other too long. So stop being your own D.A. and judge. Have some compassion for yourself. Isn’t it true that you did the best you could at the time? Perhaps you can even extend that compassion to your ex-spouse, too.
Who Was at Fault–Set the Shame Ball Down
During a divorce the shame ball gets tossed back and forth between spouses. “We would still be together if it weren’t for you.” “Are you kidding? You’re the one who…” “If only he had…” “Too bad she couldn’t…” Back and forth goes the shame of being the cause of this disaster. So back and forth the shame ball goes. No one wants to be stuck with it.
It is so much better to set the ball down, to let go of that judicial perspective of who should be blamed. Of course, sometimes a person has had an intense, lifelong need to avoid shame in all situations and is very skilled at getting out of any blame and attaching it to others. If your partner is that way, you will have to work especially hard to get him or her to set the shame ball down rather than hurling it back to you. Accepting some of the blame can help. “Maybe we both contributed to this fiasco.” “I know you tried–so did I.” “They say a divorce is always the work of two people, and I can sure see my role in it.” If you are still being blamed too much, certainly try to defend yourself at times, but also try to look beneath to your partner’s desperation and let some of the attacks roll off of you.
The Standard Advice, Adapted to HSPs
If you Google “coping with a divorce” you will find tons of excellent, if repetitive, advice. But this list is adapted for HSPs.
- Grieve deeply and thoroughly. This is easier said than done, obviously. I have written about HSPs and grief (see Comfort Zone May 2006 and August 2009). When you are grieving, you can feel all sorts of emotions besides sadness–anger, fear, shame, guilt, and even joy at times. At times you may feel it mostly in a physical way, often as a deep exhaustion. Hence, as an HSP you will need to take breaks from grieving. Allow yourself some distractions. It’s okay to feel joy or to laugh. The grief is not going anywhere right away. Indeed, there is no standard amount of time for grieving before you “get over it.”
- Take especially good care of yourself. If this is the advice that the “coping with divorce” websites give to everyone, how much more true it has to be for HSPs. Cut down on your work if possible and take good care of yourself in all the other ways–enough sleep, healthy food, outdoor exercise. This can be a challenge when you are upset, but you must do it if you want to avoid falling into a depression that could require medication to control. (There are a number of good websites that give the symptoms of serious depression.) Remember that HSPs respond especially well to being in nature and to being in or near water.
- Make a particular effort to spend time with people who love you and know how to listen to your feelings with acceptance. This may mean long telephone conversations if some of those people are not close by. If possible, include an HSP among those you talk to, or someone who understands your sensitivity. Many of those you know will want to try to “fix” your feelings for you, or after awhile tell you that you need to just get over it. In fact, as with any grief, you will need to talk about your divorce again and again. You may want to join a divorce support group to do this. Perhaps from one of these you can even form a subgroup of HSPs going through a divorce.
- Stay away from your ex. Some people advise three to six months, to let the anger die down and to break the habit of turning to each other, which has to end. If there are children involved, however, that is an entirely different situation. There are many books on how to handle that. This distance may be especially helpful to an HSP, but might be harder to do at first. Use your best judgment as to whether contact makes you feel worse or better.
- Figure out what happened so that it does not happen again. Even more than most people, as an HSP you were probably struggling all along to understand what was going wrong with your marriage. You will still be doing it after your divorce, and possibly for many years to come. That’s okay if you remember that this is not about establishing blame. It is for self-knowledge and avoiding making the same mistakes again. But it can easily lead back to shame and guilt, so you may want to work on this with someone you can trust and who knows something about how relationships in general tend to work. Be sure you have plenty of time to explain what happened, and be sure that the other person has truly listened. My book The Undervalued Self would also help you see what happened–and how to avoid a sense of failure, defeat, and depression.
This is a Turning Point
The divorce-advice people will tell you that time heals all and things are going to get better for you after awhile. As an HSP, I imagine that you are not going to be so easily assured. You probably have surmised what the research on divorce has found, that often the happy ending is true for only one partner. This is usually the one who has more money or the better job, is more attractive and outgoing, and generally has more and better alternatives. As that person pulls out of the divorce and feels better and better because of this miraculous recovery, the other, seeing their former partner’s happiness, may feel even worse.
I am imagining that HSPs would be at risk here, in that we often feel a bit inferior to begin with, and while different things make us happy, we may feel we are less happy if we do not have the things that make most people happy. So after a divorce, you may have to give some deep thought as to how you will write your happy ending, or at least curb your undervalued self and climb out of the one-down position. You may need to give up those external standards of long-term happiness after divorce–standards such as who has remarried, is more financially secure, etcetera. You want to be the one who, eventually, in your own time, uses this new freedom to develop your character, expand your consciousness, express your creativity, and form loving connections of all sorts. This is successful divorce the HSP way.