Divorce is tough, for just about everyone. But some people move through a breakup without overwhelming distress, even if they’re sad or worried about money, while others get stuck in the bad feelings and can’t seem to climb out. What accounts for the difference?
Self-compassion, says an upcoming study in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science. Self-compassion — a combination of kindness toward oneself, recognition of common humanity, and the ability to let painful emotions pass — “can promote resilience and positive outcomes in the face of divorce,” says psychologist David A. Sbarra, who conducted the study with University of Arizona colleagues Hillary L. Smith and Matthias R. Mehl. Independent of other personality traits, that one capacity predicts better adjustment shortly after divorce and up to nine months later.
The findings have implications for helping people learn to weather breakups in better health and better spirits.
“We’re not interested in the basic statement, ‘People who are coping better today do better nine months from now.’ That doesn’t help anybody,” says Sbarra. “The surprising part here is that when we look at a bunch of positive characteristics” — such as self-esteem, resistance to depression, optimism, or ease with relationships — “this one characteristic — self-compassion — uniquely predicts good outcomes.”
The study involved 105 people, 38 men and 67 women, whose mean age was about 40; they’d been married over 13 years and divorced an average of three to four months. On the first visit, participants were asked to think about their former partner for 30 seconds, then talk for four minutes about their feelings and thoughts related to the separation.
Four trained coders listened to the audio files and rated the participants’ levels of self-compassion, using a standard measure of the construct. The participants also were assessed for other psychological traits, such as depression and their “relationship style.” At the initial visit, three months later, and then after either six or nine months participants reported on their adjustment to the divorce, including the frequency with which they experienced intrusive thoughts and emotions about the separation and their ex-partner.
As expected, the people with high levels of self-compassion at the start both recovered faster and were doing better after a period of months.
How can these data help people going through divorce? Sbarra’s friends, knowing what he studies, often ask for such advice.
“It’s not easy to say, ‘Be less anxious.’ You can’t change your personality so easily. We also know that women do better than men. But you can’t change your sex. What you can change is your stance with respect to your experience.” Understanding your loss as part of bigger human experience helps assuage feelings of isolation, he says. Mindfulness — noting jealousy or anger without judgment or rumination — lets you turn your mind to life in the present without getting stuck in the past.
Can all this be taught? The researchers are unsure but optimistic. Says Sbarra: “This study opens a window for how we can potentially cultivate self-compassion among recently separated adults” and help smooth the journey through one of life’s most difficult experiences.
Association for Psychological Science (2011, September 21). Advice To divorcees: Go easy on yourself.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
When Brian Sibley and Rachael Brownell sat down at their kitchen table to discuss getting a divorce, they agreed on one thing: They wanted to minimize the damage the split would do to their daughters.
Mr. Sibley and Ms. Brownell, who had been married for six years, each went through their own parents’ divorces at the age of 10 and had felt torn between two parents. The two agreed to spare the girls that experience by focusing on their needs.
They told the 4-year-old and the 7-year-old twins that they would all still be a family but that families don’t always live together. “We wanted to acknowledge this is a heartbreak, and this is not how we saw things going, but we still love you,” says Ms. Brownell, a 43-year-old author from Bellingham, Wash. She recalls feeling lonely and embarrassed and never discussing her parents’ divorce with them—feelings she didn’t want her own daughters to have to repeat.
“Children can absolutely thrive after a divorce, but it takes work” on the parents’ part, says Christy Buchanan, professor of psychology at Wake Forest University and co-author of “Adolescents After Divorce.”
The divorce of parents has been blamed for children’s behavior problems, poor grades in school and even trouble in their own romantic relationships as adults. One study says the intensity of conflict between parents is one of the best predictors of how kids will do after a divorce.
There is some good news: The divorce rate, which peaked around 1980, is at its lowest level since 1970. Still, some 1.1 million U.S. children, or 1.5%, lived with a parent who had divorced in the previous year, according to the Census Bureau’s Marital Events of Americans: 2009 survey.
Alicia Cashman, who is 45 and married, says she felt “profound sadness” when she was 13 and her parents told her they were divorcing. She and her three siblings stayed with their father, a professor at a local community college, because he had a flexible work schedule.
She was surprised to find she missed her parents’ arguments. “There was something warm about the fighting, compared with the silence,” she recalls. But soon she realized something important: Both parents were still in her life every day. Her mother moved half a mile away and kept a key to the family house, popping in to bring dinner, clean, monitor homework or make sure the kids were in bed. On holidays, she prepared big meals at the house for everyone, even her ex-husband.
“It was important to have both parents,” says Ms. Cashman, a merchandiser for a greeting-card company in Carlsbad, Calif.
Five years after their divorce, Ms. Cashman’s parents remarried each other, divorcing a second time after seven years. “Things can get better,” Ms. Cashman says. “There is always the possibility of reconnecting, as my parents continued to do throughout their relationship.”
Kevin Lee, a social worker in Dartmouth, Mass., runs support groups for children of divorce called the Banana Splits, one for kids in second and third grades, one for fourth and fifth grades. Each group meets for 90 minutes every other week for two 12-week sessions; high school kids who also are children of divorce help out. Children are referred from local schools and area therapists.
“Children come into the room and hear other kids talking and realize they are not alone,” Mr. Lee says.
Mary Ann Aronsohn, a Los Angeles marriage and family therapist, says parents should think of co-parenting as a business venture and treat their ex-spouse as they would a colleague or a client. Would you yell at a client, denigrate him to others or call him at home at all hours? Don’t do it to your ex, either.
Ms. Aronsohn suggests divorcing couples create a parenting plan, detailing not only child-custody arrangements but also how to make joint parenting decisions.
It may include a “short story” explaining to the children why the marriage ended—”We loved each other very much in the beginning and hoped we could make a life together that would last forever, but we were wrong. You had no fault in this. While we will have different households, we think we will do a better job at being parents”—and a “mission statement” describing how they hope to behave.
“This gives kids the freedom to love both parents,” Ms. Aronsohn says.
Some divorcing parents agree to maintain a child’s routine—foods, mealtimes, story time, bedtime—in each household. They may record minutes of meetings with their therapist so they won’t forget the things they have agreed on.
To minimize conflict, they communicate via email and address just one or two issues at a time. Family counselors remind parents not to take what a child says as the gospel truth.
Experts also advise divorcing parents to say nice things about each other. “It doesn’t cost anything to say, ‘Your dad has such a great sense of humor and your laugh is just like his and I love hearing it,’ ” Ms. Aronsohn says.
Tell children you hope they have a good time with daddy this weekend—it frees them up to enjoy themselves and feel less conflicted.
Don’t confide your anger or your grief to your child. Communicate directly with your ex, not through the kids. Don’t ask them to carry messages back and forth, even neutral ones, like, “Tell Mommy to pick you up at 6 p.m.” If the message makes Mom feel bad, the child will feel guilty. With small children, a notebook or log that travels back and forth with the child can help parents record and keep track of details.
Since their separation two years ago, Ms. Brownell and Mr. Sibley have worked together. During a weekend when their 6-year-old daughter was staying with Mr. Sibley, Ms. Brownell got a text from her ex saying a children’s parade in town was starting soon, and the little girl wanted to dress up as either a dinosaur or a ballerina.
Ms. Brownell rummaged through her house looking for the costumes, then rushed downtown. She found her ex and her daughter just as the parade was receding down the block. Both parents helped their daughter put on the dinosaur costume, then ran with her to catch up with the others. They walked in the parade, all three together. “You could see her little, sunny face lit up with joy,” says Ms. Brownell. “That was one of the best moments of my life.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The competition to get your favorite disease recognized in the bible of mental health, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, can be as fierce as the talent contest in the Little Miss St. Paul Contest. The American Psychiatric Association is contemplating adding something called “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS) to the new edition of the DSM, scheduled to be published in May 2013, and the question has launched a national lobbying and letter-writing campaign on both sides. That angry letters and editorials might play any part in a debate about mental health and custody disputes probably tells you most of what you need to know about the validity of PAS.
What is parental alienation syndrome? Richard Bernet, a professor of psychiatry at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and an advocate for its inclusion in the DSM-5, describes it as “a mental condition in which a child, usually one whose parents are engaged in a high conflict divorce, allies himself or herself strongly with one parent, and rejects a relationship with the other parent, without legitimate justification.” There is no doubt that an ugly divorce can affect kids’ relationship with their parents or cause children to choose sides, often in anger. In fact, that probably happens more often than not. But Bernet and others who argue that adding PAS to the Sears, Roebuck catalogue of mental health want to see it recognized as a legitimate mental health disorder in order to “spur insurance coverage, stimulate more systematic research, lend credence to [the] charge of parental alienation in court, and raise the odds that children would get timely treatment.”
They want, in other words, to affix a name, some blame, and also a price tag on a broad range of child responses to a custody fight—some perfectly justified and some not—in the hopes of expanding its use in court.
And what’s the downside to including PAS in the DSM? Well, for one thing, with a minimum of three participants needed to diagnose it, PAS starts to look less like a mental health disorder than an epidemic. It assumes that one crazy person (the mother) brainwashes a second crazy person (the child) into telling lies about a third person (the father). Just because a lot of parents have experienced blocked visitation and unreturned phone calls doesn’t make every instance of that conduct the result of a medical “syndrome.” Joan S. Meier, a professor of clinical law at George Washington University School of Law, has explained it this way: “PAS is a label that offers a particular explanation for a breach in relationship between a child and parent, but insofar as that breach could be explained in other ways, it is not in itself a medical or psychological diagnosis so much as a particular legal hypothesis.”
The most worrisome aspect of the legal fight over parental alienation syndrome may be that it divides supporters and opponents along strict gender lines: As a rule, this is classed as a women’s sickness alleged by men. Fathers’ rights groups are not solely to blame for the fact that an entire “disease” is predicated on the notion that women are lying liars; the inventor of the syndrome can take responsibility for that. But no hypothesis so rooted in gender bias should be credited by medical science. And because evidence of PAS is so frequently offered to counter maternal allegations of abuse, the experts testifying about PAS can be aiding and abetting a system that takes children from abused mothers and hands them right back to abusive fathers. Once again, this doesn’t mean that some parents don’t alienate their children in a divorce. It means that PAS is now used to discredit women whenever they claim abuse.
Much of the blame for the biased history of PAS can be laid at the feet of its originator, Dr. Richard Gardner, who developed the theory—from his own practice and without clinical studies—of mothers who foster hatred for their children’s father as a ”powerful weapon” to grab custody for themselves. This wasn’t a theory born of objective empirical observation. It was a campaign against mothers rooted in the idea that they regularly lie and then “brainwash” their children into lying about paternal abuse. Because of Gardner’s gender-freighted conclusions, it was probably inevitable that men, in the form of fathers’ rights groups, would seize upon the battle to legitimize PAS. One of its most famous spokesmen became Alec Baldwin, who wrote practically a whole book on the subject in 2008, arguing paradoxically that corrupt judges and the courts have too much power over custody disputes and that by recognizing PAS, the courts could make the whole child-custody process more fair. (Here is Baldwin describing PAS as something women mainly do to men.)
Supporters of PAS argue largely from personal experience, and their stories are often compelling. But the theory of PAS is not recognized as valid by the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, or the American Medical Association. And the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has published guidelines for custody courts clarifying that “the theory positing the existence of ‘PAS’ has been discredited by the scientific community. Any testimony that a party to a custody case suffers from the syndrome or ‘parental alienation’ should therefore be ruled inadmissible and/or stricken from the evaluation report.”
Gardner’s long-term scientific credibility was not helped by some of his kookier pronouncements about incest (“intrafamilial pedophilia … is widespread and … is probably an ancient tradition”), or pedophilia (“It is of interest that of all the ancient peoples it may very well be that the Jews were the only ones who were punitive toward pedophiles.”). But he still managed to become the David Barton of child-custody law, having written more than 250 books and articles, cassettes, and videotapes (often self-published) and testified as an expert in approximately 400 cases in more than 25 states.
There are a lot of websites, experts, and emotion invested in this debate. But there aren’t two empirical sides. There is science, and then there is passionate non-science. As Paul Fink, a professor of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine and a past president of the American Psychiatric Association in Arlington, Va., once said of Gardner, “He invented a concept and talked as if it were proven science. It’s not.”
That’s what makes the current debate over inserting PAS into the DSM-5, which has been going on for years, something of a red herring. It almost doesn’t matter. Nobody really believes it’s a scientific theory anymore, and Gardner has been all but discredited where it counts. That’s what worries Meier most of all: “Courts and experts have stopped talking about parental alienation syndrome and started talking about parental alienation,” she says. “By dropping the word ‘syndrome’ they purport to just be describing a behavior; and that’s harder to challenge as inadmissible, even though Parental Alienation is used virtually identically to PAS, with virtually identical quasi-scientific claims and prescriptions.” Back when it was a matter of science, opponents of PAS could advance arguments about admissibility and scientific legitimacy. Now it’s a conclusory legal term that can barely be refuted.
Even without a scientific basis, parental alienation, like climate denialism, has its own language, passions, and saliency. Right or wrong, recognized or not, most family courts now take PAS extremely seriously. Experts testify, court-appointed advocates offer diagnoses, and family-court judges regularly adopt alienation explanations as a way of rejecting abuse allegations. As Meier wrote in a 2009 article: “Despite the palpably extreme and unbalanced quality of both the PAS theory and the thinking of its author, as well as the lack of scientific basis, the theory has for over a decade become virtually ubiquitous in family courts.”
The science just doesn’t matter now. Even though no appellate court has found evidence of PAS to meet the scientific standards for legal admissibility, courts admit evidence of precisely the same phenomenon all the time, and by calling it “parental alienation,” they achieve the same effect: overlooking allegations of abuse by one parent in order to blame the other for “alienating” the child. In other words, whether science supports them or the DSM-5 ultimately validates them, the supporters of Richard Gardner and parental alienation may have already won. While nobody was looking, a mythical legal argument known as parental alienation may have already taken over family courts.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
“I’ll consider not proceeding with the divorce if my spouse will show some sign of commitment — to me, to having children, to a career, to not spending so much money, to something, to anything.”
“She ended the relationship so abruptly that I found myself out of our house in less than a week. During the past three months, she has been able to live in it. Maybe we can talk about who gets the house if she moves out for three months while I live there.”
“I don’t care whom he dates. But if he wants to see our child, he has to stop exposing him to those sexually provocative bimbos he finds so attractive.”
These are real statements from three different divorce cases: one heterosexual marriage, one heterosexual non-marriage and one same-gender union. If you can’t tell which is which, don’t worry. When it comes to letting go, neither sexual orientation nor legal standing changes the emotions of the situation. If one partner keeps making demands, the other will keep fighting back. The result is a perpetuation of their relationship’s downward spiral. If the partners are ever to move on with their lives, this tug-of-war must stop.
Initially, we enter our intimate relationships with certain expectations of who the other person is and what our time together will be like. But many of these expectations are really just our own needs projected onto our loved ones. When s/he turns out not to be what we imagined and the relationship loses its “romance,” we become disappointed. At this point (usually six months into the relationship), we make a choice: to leave and find someone new; to stay and negotiate in hopes of salvaging some of our expectations; to make peace with ourselves that although this person is not whom we imagined, he/she is not so bad and may even be better than what we expected; or to wait and hope that the fantasy person will eventually emerge.
Many people choose either the first option — leave — or the last — wait and hope. If they choose the latter, serious problems will develop because the relationship will be built on dreams and disillusionment, a lethal combination. As the years go by, the dissatisfied spouse gets angry and resentful. At the same time, s/he is afraid to leave the relationship because it’s better than going back into the marketplace. Yet, daily disappointments are a constant reminder that the relationship is not working. Some couples live this way for many years. For others, the pressure becomes too much.
Under the guise of seeking fairness or “seeing the right thing done,” one spouse threatens to exact some kind of penalty from the other. “Either you do such and such, or else you won’t get what you want.” Unfortunately, threats don’t work. They just make the other spouse hunker down, often eliciting counter-demands and further entangling both partners in a death dance of negative intimacy.
This is not to say there isn’t a time and place to make a reasonable demand. But these demands are not about being reasonable. These are about:
• disillusionment over unfulfilled expectations
• self-anger for “being such an idiot”
• grief over the loss of the imaginary relationship that never
was and the real one that took its place.
Something’s got to give if the situation is going to change. That “something” is letting go. The first step in letting go is acknowledging that your expectations were and still are unrealistic. Making demands and counter-demands won’t change a thing. Your partner was never thrifty, responsible, tidy, affectionate, committed, loyal, hot in bed, respectful, considerate, honest, stylish, buff, romantic, on-time, a generous mother, a caring father — you fill in the blank. Ultimatums are not going to change this.
These demands must be seen for what they are: rather than a pathway to “fairness” or “justice,” they are expressions of resentment, betrayal, disillusionment, rage, and anger — all valid feelings, but not very productive ones. Feel them. Acknowledge that their cause is unrealistic expectations coupled with grief.
The second step is accepting that you are partially responsible for this situation. If you let go and stop making demands your spouse will never meet, you can stop punishing each other. In fact, there will be no reason to punish each other. But if you hang on to your anger and grief, you will keep this negative relationship. In other words, even if your spouse is the biggest jerk on the planet, you’re the one who’s choosing to stay in this relationship. Accept that you’re an active player and move on to the final step.
Once you acknowledge that your demands and expectations are unrealistic and accept your half of the responsibility for sustaining this relationship, all you need is permission to let go. So give it. Then, with no effort at all, a kind of “falling away” of the downward spiral occurs as you find yourself moving up and out. Tears flow as you grieve the finality of this action and the loss this moment represents. But at the same time, a window opens in your heart and life energy begins to flow in and out again.
Decisions about assets and debts are easily made, support issues are resolved, and parenting plans are established with a minimum of conflict. The energy in the center of your life changes from negative to positive. A victim transforms into a hero/ine. You move beyond the limits you set for yourself. So liberating and fulfilling is this moment, you ask yourself, “Why did I wait so long?”
Clearly, letting go is not about giving up something. It’s about getting something back: namely, your life, your true self. You are no longer bound in a relationship that was pulling you down, fettered by unrealistic expectations, self-anger, and unresolved grief. Now, unrestrained by chains of your own devising, you are free to become the authentic person you are, reclaiming the joy that is your right.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )