How Leaving or Being Left Changes the Emotional Aspect of Divorce

I am twice divorced. In my first marriage, getting a divorce was my spouse’s idea, whereas in my second union, it was my own initiation.

Divorce is rarely a mutual decision and each role (“the leaver” or “the one left”) has its own unique experiences. Unfortunately I have traveled down both sides of this potholed street, but on each path there were shining green lights after all the roadwork was completed.

This list is not in any sequential order, nor is it nearly exhaustive. However it’s my hope it will serve to help others understand some of what transpires on both ends of the spectrum.

If You Are the One Being Left:

1. You will go into shock when you find out your spouse’s intentions. Everything might blur and you will not remember a thing about the moment or conversely, every detail and tiny bit of minutia from this time will emblazon itself in your memory forever.

2. You will cry. You will be numb or shut down. You will deny this is real or feel it must be a bad dream. You will be scared. You will rage (either externally or internally depending on your personality.) You will feel rejected and abandoned. You’ll feel you have little or no control. At times you will feel like you must be going crazy. These feelings will trigger other unresolved (possibly buried) events in your life to come to the surface.

3. You will go back in time wondering how things could have been different. You will play the “what if?” game in bed for many nights to come. “What if we had tried some kind of therapy, a book, sought religious help, apologized more, took more vacations, bought more gifts, waited longer to have children, had more date nights, were better cooks or breadwinners, etc.”

4. You will immediately sense the playing field is not level. Your spouse has thought about this for some time now and had a chance to explore options and make plans. You are now in the position of needing to “catch-up.”

5. You may bargain with your spouse or try to talk him/her out of it. Or simply try to buy more time before any real action is taken. You may be told of a specific game plan or procedure and asked to agree to follow it.

6. If there are children, you will want to shelter and shield them from any pain. You will be very resentful that just because your spouse wants the marriage to end, innocent lives will needlessly suffer. You may refuse to tell them and insist your spouse be the one to break the news. Or you may rush to tell them everything before your spouse has an opportunity to communicate his version. It may feel important that they understand you had no part in this.

7. You will likely be supported by family, friends and even strangers who will feel great empathy for the position you suddenly find yourself in. They will invite you places and bring you food and little gifts.

8. You will suspect that you are not being told the entire truth. You will wonder endlessly what is really going on in the mind of your spouse. How long has she/he entertained thoughts of divorce? Did he/she ever really love you at all? Were there red flags that you missed?

9. You will lose trust in other things in life that you previously felt were stable or even took for granted. You will have the feeling that you must look over your shoulder so you will not be blindsided ever again by anyone or anything.

10. You will be highly distracted with this new foreign world you were thrust into when you least expected it. Your mind will constantly be elsewhere. Because of this, you may be at higher risk for personal injury. You could be prone to unusual eating patterns, sleeping problems and other physiological or psychological conditions brought on by stress.

If You are the One Leaving:

1. You will struggle with finding the right time, place and words to make your intentions known. You may have several false starts with your opening sentence and decide to put it off for another time, or you may simply blurt it out surprisingly quickly.

2. You will feel unexpected intense emotions as you observe your spouse’s reactions. You will try to stick with the script of how you imagined this conversation would go, but now that the words have been spoken, it’s no longer just a scenario in your head.

3. You will try to answer your spouse’s questions patiently and thoroughly or you may not want to talk any more at all. You will second guess yourself and wonder if this was actually the correct thing to do. You might consider changing your plans or modifying some of the future events you had envisioned.

4. You will have tears from your own sadness, or possibly out of compassion for your spouse. You may feel helpless because you don’t know what to do about their pain. Or you may feel a firm resolve from months of trying to make things better and coming to terms (on your own) with the defeat. You may feel relief that this is all out in the open now and an impending sense of freedom. You will feel tremendous guilt at being the initiator of “the beginning of the end.” You may feel you have lost control of the entire situation.

5. You may be on the receiving end of pleas, promises and/or dire threats. Your spouse may propose elaborate deals or plans and ideas for you to consider that had never crossed your mind.

6. If there are children, you will wish you could shoulder all of their inevitable anguish. You will feel hugely responsible and your actions will weigh on your mind greatly. You may be tempted to promise them things will get better quickly. You might try to find unique ways to console them or “consolation prizes” to distract them. You fervently hope they can understand this was nobody’s fault.

7. You will probably not be the recipient of other people’s care or concern. You will be viewed as the one who took charge and not necessarily someone who needs help or support. You may even be perceived as the villain who needs to be disapproved of or booed.

8. You may find yourself needing to be firmer and set more boundaries, draw clearer lines. You might make tangible and generous offers to your spouse in light of the fact that this was not their idea and because it eases your conscience. You may decide that people’s responses (your spouse, children or relatives) are simply too overwhelming and actually come close to changing your mind.

9. You will remember the reasons that led up to your thoughts of divorce in the first place. You will remind others there are two sides to every story. You will have the distinct feeling that this is also your life and you’re not getting any younger. You may have a sense of urgency now that the subject has been broached and feel it is time to move forward.

10. You will be highly distracted with this new foreign world that you never dreamt you would enter into when you first took your marriage vows. You will be consumed with trying to achieve the best possible outcome while maintaining your integrity in a world that is filled with judgment. Depending on how you handle these circumstances, ironically you could also be vulnerable or predisposed to the exact same physiological or psychological traumas as your spouse.