The Ex-Wife Syndrome / Leaving Him Behind
Excerpt - Chapter 2 - "WHAT IS AN EX-WIFE?"
No matter how awful the marriage, no matter how traumatic the divorce, when the decree is handed down and the dust begins to settle, the newly divorced woman has experienced loss. A marriage is over, a whole way of life - with its good points as well as its bad - is gone. Finished too is the role of wife as the woman has played it throughout the marriage, with it's satisfying aspects as well as its frustrations. As many writers on divorce have pointed out, in large part recovering from divorce means mourning and ultimately accepting those losses. Not until she goes through the natural grieving process can the newly divorced woman turn expectantly to the future.
In many ways, the postdivorce healing period is identical with the grieving that occurs after the loss of a loved one. Both processes play themselves out in a relatively predictable amount of time, and in both cases, when sufferers move through the process too quickly or fail to reach acceptance within the predicted time span, psychologists become alert to the possibility that the process has become stalled or has gone awry. The normal mourning for the death of a loved one can last up to two years. The range for normal recovery from divorce is approximately six to eighteen months after the divorce becomes final.
THE NORMAL RECOVERY PROCESS
Healing from divorce takes place on three different levels simultaneously—emotional, practical, and intellectual. On the emotional level, where grief is felt most intensely, the divorced woman, like the widow, mourns the loss of attachment, a phrase that means exactly what it says; after divorce, as after the death of someone close to us, we miss the connectedness to another that human beings crave, and we must come to terms with that loss. Sadness, loneliness, and feelings of uncertainty are perfectly natural and are expected during this healing period. In the healthy recovery process, the acuteness of the sense of loss recedes with the passage of time.
Then there are the practical matters Celeste anticipated as she turned her key in the lock. Gradually, through practice, the newly divorced woman comes to terms with the logistics of being a single woman and head of household. At first, she may feel that she is going through the motions, but gradually she starts learning or relearning the ropes with respect to friends, dating, work, sexuality, the handling of finances, making child-rearing decisions on her own, and finding nonexplosive, painless ways to deal with her ex-husband in her unavoidable encounters with him. When all goes well, the progress she makes on the emotional level spurs her recovery on the practical level, and vice versa: a problem arises, she solves it as a single woman, and her newly emerging self-concept as a single woman becomes more clearly defined. Small successes in daily living nourish the new identity; the new identity eases the challenges of daily living. In this way, the woman gradually shapes and comes to accept her new way of life and her new view of herself.
The third critical aspect of healing takes place in the divorced woman's mind. Again and again, she thinks through the events leading up to and including the divorce itself—to find their true meaning and ultimately to accept it. In the thick of battle it was impossible to reflect on and interpret the war, but now she has the freedom to replay her mental videos as often as necessary to reach a final understanding of what she's gone through. Again and again, she reviews, rehashes, replays. "I practically drove myself crazy with thinking about it," a woman will say. "I was obsessed with understanding what had happened. I just couldn't let it go."
Exactly! Understanding is the prerequisite to acceptance, and acceptance is the prerequisite to moving on. An extended period of intense thinking about divorce is natural and necessary, and it allows the healthy woman eventually to develop a final interpretation of the collapse of her marriage and the subsequent divorce that satisfies her need to understand. As the answers to initial questions—"What went wrong?" "Who was to blame?" "What could I have done differently?"—fall into place, the emotional integration of the experience progresses. As questions regarding the past are answered, one by one they recede from her consciousness, and she is able to turn her attention to the present. By the end of the normal six to eighteen months (though, remember, this is an average, not a strict rule), the healthy woman has laid the experience to rest.
WHEN RECOVERY GOES AWRY
But what of the woman who is unable to arrive at answers to her questions, whose mind and emotions are constantly stirred up by unsuccessful attempts at interpreting and laying to rest what she has been through? And suppose this woman—call her Alice—is making every attempt to come to a final interpretation by struggling with who was to blame, what she could have done, and what caused the initial rift while simultaneously doing continuous battle with her ex-husband over the children, support payments, and their conflicting attitudes regarding the divorce settlement. Suppose, too, that Alice finds the loss of attachment unbearable and her loneliness frightening in its intensity. Finally, imagine that Alice is plagued by deep but unarticulated beliefs that a woman without a husband is incomplete, that a divorced woman has failed at her job as the keeper of the marriage, and that she'll never feel intimacy with another man again.
Alice is stalled in the recovery process. Her frequent encounters with her ex-husband only add to her unanswered questions about what she's been through, since they inevitably end in arguments even more vicious than those that led up to the divorce. Far from achieving an interpretation of her recent past that she can live with, Alice feels ever more isolated by a haze of anxiety and depression. She's fearful of the intensity of her emotions and furious at herself for her inability to pull herself together.
Months go by, then a year, then two. They are marked by continual encounters with her ex-husband that Alice dreads, endures, then reels from in the aftermath. The divorce is in the distant past, but the issues that provoke conflict, mostly involving the children, just keep coming. Between periods of emotional chaos, feelings of anxiety and depression keep Alice cut off from the outside world. Luckily, she loves her work in a marketing firm and comes alive there temporarily, but the world at the office has a sense of unreality for Alice, as if she were merely playacting there. At home the continual possibility that her ex will show up and another argument will break out hangs over Alice like a threat.
Far too confused to understand that the healing process is being continually interrupted by the ongoing encounters with her ex, Alice begins to question her ability to manage her own life. She's bewildered by her inability to focus, by her terrible irritability, and by her eternal restlessness. Exhaustion dogs her; she has no energy, and her house falls apart around her. She can't seem to take an interest in her appearance any longer; she can't seem to take an interest in anything. She gains weight and eats poorly, binging for comfort, then fasting for days to the point of starvation. She's terribly lonely, and knows she should get herself out of the house and involved in some social activity, but she turns down every invitation from concerned coworkers, and eventually they stop inviting her out. Another year passes, and Alice is still collapsing after work on the couch, waking at eleven to eat a TV dinner, and then crying herself to sleep. With misery increasing daily, she finally does what she meant to do a long time ago: she asks her friend at the office for the name of her therapist. "Can you tell me a bit about why you are seeking therapy?" the psychologist asks when Alice calls. After a long silence, Alice tells her, "No, I really can't. I'm not myself. I'm not anybody. I just don't know who I am or what I'm doing anymore." So speaks a woman three years divorced, her recovery gone awry, leaving her trapped in the limbo of ex-wife land.
THE EX-WIFE SYNDROME
Sufferers of the Ex-Wife Syndrome are prisoners who are blind to the walls surrounding them, blind to the fact that they are held fast. With their divorces final and the whole world before them, they assume their newly single status with the idea that they will live full, productive, enjoyable lives. But after a time they find themselves unable to transform their lives and move on. The question of why this is so is the greatest mystery of these women's lives.
When they enter psychotherapy, such women present a cluster of recognizable symptoms and describe a set of specific feelings and behaviors that can safely be described as self-destructive. Most of these symptoms, feelings, and behaviors are familiar; many are associated with psychological distress in general. It is the combination of symptoms and the circumstances in which they occur that determine the diagnosis of the Ex-Wife Syndrome. In general, the symptoms are these:
- depression and anxiety
- sleep and eating disturbances
- low self-esteem and the self-devaluing thoughts and behaviors associated with this state
- behavior that is an effort to compensate for a poor self-image (for example, overprotective parenting, extreme workaholism, highly rigorous dieting and physical-fitness programs, a slavish effort to be fashionable)
- difficulty in forming social relationships
- fear of and resistance to intimacy
- suicidal thoughts based on undefined shame and self-disgust
- psychological paralysis—the inability, despite the desire, to "get moving again"
- a tendency to sabotage any potentially positive life changes
- a tendency to be secretive, giving out an "official story" while keeping the real story to—though more often from—oneself
- an ongoing connectedness to the ex-husband that the sufferer unknowingly but fiercely nurtures and protects regardless of the man's indifference or downright hostility
The most pervasive of these symptoms are intense anxiety and debilitating depression, as is the case with most psychological conditions arising from an unresolved inner conflict. But to say that an inner conflict causes the anxiety and depression is not to say that the sufferer always understands the connection between her pain and this inner conflict. In fact, in most cases my patients enter therapy because their psychological and emotional pain have become unbearable but the reasons for it remain mysterious to them. They are haunted by questions they cannot answer. If you have troubled to read this far out of concern for yourself, I suspect you have asked yourself these same questions at one time or another:
Why do I feel anxious and depressed so much of the time?
Why am I unable to sleep and eat—or to do anything but sleep and eat?
Why am I plagued by thoughts of revenge? of unbearable jealousy? of suicide?
For the women in my practice, these questions are the starting places for psychotherapy. But in every case of the Ex-Wife Syndrome I see, it isn't long before the patient is focusing in therapy on symptoms farther down the list. Now they ask such questions as these:
Why, when I'm feeling so lonely, do I shy away from new relationships, especially ones of potential intimacy?
Why, when I am so deeply dissatisfied, am I sabotaging the good things about my day-to-day life and any chances I might have to change it?
Why, when I know intellectually that my family and friends wish me well and can be my support during the transition period after marriage, am I keeping secrets, giving out Pollyanna stories, and suffering alone and in silence?
Why, when my marriage is over and my ex-husband has moved on to a new life, is he still the central figure in my life? Why can't I let him go?
Two more questions keep arising, often as "throwaways" at the end of an hour or in a very hushed, sometimes shamed voice after a long silence:
Why, with the marriage over and the divorce final, am I still having
sexual fantasies about my husband? And sometimes: Why, oh why, did I go to bed with him last night?
TWO TELLTALE SYMPTOMS
Few women with the Ex-Wife Syndrome make the conscious connection between the emotional distress that brings them into therapy and their connectedness to their former husbands. Typically, these women begin therapy by focusing on generalized symptoms— anxiety, depression, furious bursts of uncontrollable anger, lack of focus, plummeting reserves of energy, indecisiveness, and so on. But eventually, as the interpreting process proceeds, two distinct symptoms emerge and absorb the woman's attention: self-sabotage and a secretiveness—-from the self. These two symptoms have been present to some degree in every case of the Ex-Wife Syndrome I have treated. In essence, they serve as markers, and studying them in detail reveals the nature of the bond to the past that lies at the heart of the syndrome.
Eve, a bright, beautiful, and highly successful interior designer had been divorced for three years. Because her husband resented her flair for business, her marriage had been a deadening experience for her. Richard didn't actually "forbid" her to work, but he made it clear that he couldn't be happy if she did. For years, Eve dutifully stayed home and played "wife." Then Richard began to complain of boredom. His restlessness quickly escalated into a constant stream of criticism that Eve found abusive and, finally, intolerable.
As soon as she understood that Richard's behavior change was permanent, Eve filed for divorce and went back to work. She specialized in the design of office spaces and other commercial properties, and her business grew by the month as word of mouth spread. In fact, things were happening almost too quickly. Eve knew she had to move the business out of her home and into an office and hire a business manager to run it. But the very idea of taking these steps exhausted her. She kept finding reasons not to take them, and the details of running her business began threatening to overwhelm her. She was so snowed under with administrative work that she had to stay up all night to do her designs.
Complicating things further was Manny, an attorney who cared deeply about Eve. He wanted to help her find an office, even offered to look around himself. As for their more intimate relationship, he was clear in his desire to marry her. But knowing she was still bruised, he was willing to proceed cautiously. Still, he wanted some reassurance that he stood a chance with Eve. He knew she liked him, but could he hope for a commitment some time in the future? Was she serious about him, or was he just wasting his time?
Eve did care for Manny, and she assumed they would probably marry someday, but she felt incapable of talking about their relationship. In fact, Eve froze whenever Manny pressed her on how she felt about him. Soon they were hitting the same snag in every conversation:
"Look, Manny, you know I care for you. Why do I have to say it?"
"Because I don't know. And it makes me nervous to see that you can't bring yourself to say it. Let me know I'm not wasting my time here, will you?"
"Don't put words in my mouth, Manny. Please."
Eve couldn't say it, and in therapy it became clear why: because the energy and attention required for intimacy were already reserved—for Richard, the ex-husband who had given her so much grief. It wasn't love she felt for Richard; it was a powerful anger and a continued, unabated need to argue with him mentally and vindicate herself. As we will see, love is only one possible manifestation of the emotional connection that ties the sufferer of the Ex-Wife Syndrome to her ex-husband.
Though Richard had long since remarried, Eve was still—internally—talking to him, arguing with him, battling with him in her mind over every move she made. His voice, his attitudes still dinned in her ears as she contemplated the steps necessary to keep her business thriving. In a sense, it was a question of orientation: how could she open to Manny when she was still turned back toward Richard, doing battle? Though Eve was unaware of it, she was still being faithful to her long-gone partner.
Eve's deepest feelings centered around Richard. Thus engaged, she sent Manny to the sidelines—and she lost him. He acted on his intuition that Eve wasn't able to love him. Her sadness at this loss and her bewilderment at her own behavior brought Eve into therapy.
Eve's is a story of sabotage from within. One way to view her seemingly self-destructive behavior is as a means of telling herself a fundamental truth that she has been unable to admit into conscious awareness. In a very real sense, Eve was unable to take full responsibility for her business and was unable to love Manny, or anyone, until she had resolved the inner conflict between her past and present. As a first step, she had to see that she was psycho logically connected to Richard and that the connection, like a chain around her ankle, was holding her back from life.
It took Eve some hard work in therapy to understand that she was still linked to Richard, still viewing herself and behaving like an ex-wife. Although to a large extent the link to her former husband was determining how she acted and felt, on a conscious level she was unaware of its existence. I call this stubborn, buried connection the "secret from the self."
Eve thought of herself as a capable, self-reliant woman with the ability to succeed in both the professional and personal realms. She had many reasons to hold this view of herself and few reasons to doubt it. Eve knew she was in no way a loser—and yet in a matter of months her business had faltered under her indecisiveness and, for the same reason, a good man had withdrawn from the scene. It hurt Eve to look within for an explanation, but eventually, in the supportive psychotherapeutic environment, she was able to see the secret attachment to Richard she had been keeping from herself.
Looking inward at this secret is always painful, and the more self-reliant the woman, the more shrouded the secret and the more painful its unmasking. Where the Ex-Wife Syndrome is present, the secret remains outside conscious awareness, so it finds expression in two ways: through feelings (the characteristic depression, anxiety, anger and rage, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, and often shame) and through behavior. Behavior consists of self-sabotaging actions and actions performed consistently and compulsively to keep the connection alive.
An example of a strong woman sabotaged from within in this way is Joanne, a patient in my practice who managed to keep her secret from herself for many years. Her story is of particular interest because while she was unknowingly suffering from the Ex-Wife Syndrome, on the surface she seemed to be glorying in her freedom from her husband and actively and energetically ensuring her autonomy.
She had been married to a prominent psychiatrist for twenty vears, but, like the cobbler's barefoot children, she had never re ceived from Harry what he gave generously in his work—empathy and understanding. The relationship was a battleground, and Joanne, who wanted the spontaneous affection and support that Harry couldn't give, was the perpetual loser. When her daughters had grown up, they urged her to leave the marriage, and she did, only to become embroiled in one of the angriest, longest-running property battles in her city's history.
Joanne and Harry's litigation went on for years and years. During this time Harry remarried and began a new family, severing his biological connection with Joanne and establishing a new biological family unit. The litigation was a pesky subtheme in his life that he allowed his lawyers to handle.
As for Joanne, far from languishing, she spent all day on the phone, in the library, and in meetings with her attorney defining her settlement terms. Still, beneath the activity and assertive talk, Joanne was stuck. The court battle had become life itself. It consumed her time and energy and all her best thinking. Friends, potential suitors, even her daughters took a backseat to her work with her attorneys and the constant paperwork she did for the case.
For nearly ten years, Joanne kept up the fight. In her eyes, and in those of her family and friends, she had changed her circumstances drastically by divorcing Harry. But in truth she was maintaining the battle that had characterized her marriage for as long as it lasted. Deep within her was the fear of the freedom she had ostensibly sought. She steered clear of freedom and change by continuing to swim in familiar, if turbulent, waters.
In therapy, Joanne wrestled for months with the wisdom of pursuing her course. What was fueling her taste for battle? What was preventing her from settling the case and, after all these years, getting it out of her life? In our sessions, I urged her to consider these questions again and again, asking her to try to answer as if for the first time. We talked a lot about the dynamics of the marriage and about the meaning of marriage vows in general. What had attracted Joanne to Harry all those years ago? What expectations did she bring to the marriage? What, specifically, were her disappointments, her satisfactions, with the way the marriage evolved? I asked the same about the divorce: What satisfactions, what dis appointments, had Joanne experienced from it? Gradually, in returning periodically to my questions, Joanne began to see that she was still emotionally attached to Harry and, in her way, loyal to him. As long as the battle that was their marriage raged in Joanne's heart, she was still Harry's ex-wife. There was no room in that heart to accept anyone else—not even a revised image of Joanne herself as a single, divorced woman with an eye to the future. The marriage to Harry—the emotional marriage—had yet to be rooted out.
LIGHTING THE INNER LANDSCAPE
You may ask yourself how the book in your hands can substitute for months, sometimes years, of face-to-face psychotherapy. The answer is that it can't; nothing can substitute for face-to-face psychotherapy, and this book doesn't pretend to try. However, it does offer an effective cure to the Ex-Wife Syndrome that always works. Because the Ex-Wife Syndrome is largely rooted in the secret from the self, once that secret is brought to light with the famous "aha!" that accompanies a true, transforming insight, a woman who has been stalled in her recovery can reach a final interpretation, complete the severance of attachment to her former husband, and move on.
But how to achieve that famous "aha!"? How to cast the beam of light that illuminates the inner landscape? The therapist helps the patient achieve illumination by restoring a function the patient has lost—the blocked interpretive function. This doesn't mean that the patient describes her life and the therapist explains it. Rather, it means that as the patient recalls and recounts her experience, the therapist urges her toward interpreting it accurately—that is, toward finding the true meaning in it that has been obscured by misunderstanding, inappropriate thoughts, and distortion.
The psychotherapist effects this "urging" with a word here, a question there, as the patient speaks, to encourage her to pause over a shadowy memory, a too glib anecdote, a family joke, and seek its true significance with respect to the current emotional pain.
This book is designed to serve a similar function: to urge you toward self-understanding by guiding you toward the issues central to the Ex-Wife Syndrome. Here and there, I will offer you sets of questions designed to point your attention toward shadowy areas that I know, from experience, have significance for the Ex-Wife Syndrome. I encourage you to read these questions with pencil in hand, pause over them, write down answers. If you are a journal keeper, you may even be inspired to take notes on any new ideas they bring to mind as you work to see with fresh eyes your marriage, divorce, and current relationship with your ex. The goal is a gradual illumination, as insight follows insight and the path that led you to your current circumstances becomes clear. I liken the process to turning up a dimmer switch: awareness gradually grows to clarify the influences on your behavior and feelings.
AM I AN EX-WIFE?
These questions are not a precise diagnostic tool. Instead, they are meant to direct your attention to matters that may have remained outside your awareness in your day-to-day life. There is no "score." "Yes" answers to any of these questions could indicate an unbroken attachment: many "yes" answers would suggest that the man you are legally divorced from still plays a major role in your life and attracts an inappropriate amount of your attention.
- Do you feel controlled by your ex-husband in any area of your life? For example, with respect to child-rearing, finances, your home, your livelihood, your work, your social life. In what area or areas?
- Do you find yourself talking about your ex to friends, family, or any new men in your life? Is it difficult for you to stop referring to him even after you have resolved to do so?
- Does your ex still have the power to hurt you?
- Are you still "in love" with your ex? If yes, list the three qualities that most draw you to him.
- Do you harbor fantasies of any type about him (getting him back, seducing him, killing him, seeing him poverty-stricken or hurt)? What are they?
- Is he capable of making you doubt yourself? Recall the three most recent instances.
- Does it seem to you now that being married to him was easier than being divorced from him (even if the marriage was awful)? If yes, why?
- Do you feel a sense of impending doom without any apparent reason? In what circumstances have you recently felt this way?
- Do you wake up feeling anxious when you know you are going to have contact with your ex?
- After you speak to your ex, do you feel strong emotions? For example, excited, sick, scared, depressed, or angry?
- If your ex becomes upset with you, is your day or week ruined? Think of recent instances.
- Is your ex often in your thoughts? In what context?
- Do you feel that you are stuck or trapped with your ex for the rest of your life?
- Do you care whether your ex thinks you are a good person? If so, why?
- Is it important to you to get even with your ex?
- Is it important to you that you look good if you bump into your ex?
- Do you regret getting a divorce?
- Do you feel that divorcing him made you a loser?
- Do you feel that your life has no meaning?
- Do you feel that his life does have meaning, and does it inspire jealousy in you?
In therapy, one comment comes up again and again: "Sure, I know the divorce was traumatic, hut divorce is hard for everybody. I'm just at loose ends, that's all, can't get my life in order. But I don't see why I have to rehash the damn divorce again."
The response to this objection is quite specific: defense mechanisms. This term refers to psychological phenomena that protect us against excessive emotional pain. Defense mechanisms work by distorting reality to make it, in the short term at least, more bearable. But in the long term, these distortions account for our inability to recover from emotionally painful experiences and move on. Simply stated, it is impossible to come to terms with an inner conflict and resolve it without focusing directly on the conflict itself. But defense mechanisms often stand between our conflicts and our clear perceptions of them. It is defense mechanisms that keep from us any secrets we have buried from ourselves. In the case of the Ex-Wife Syndrome, it is often defense mechanisms that convince a woman she is finished with a man to whom she is still vitally and destructively attached.
There are many defense mechanisms, but those most relevant to the Ex-Wife Syndrome are these:
- denial—the conscious attempt to suppress or screen out of awareness an unpleasant reality by refusing to perceive it or face it. For example, Bette continues to believe that her ex-husband loves only her and will return to her regardless of the fact that he has told her he's seeing a woman seriously and is thinking of remarrying. Bette is denying reality and basing her behavior on the distortion resulting from that denial.
- suppression—a form of selective memory, which filters out unpleasant or unwieldy facts. For example, Colleen grieves relentlessly after Ed's death, deeming all other men unfit to replace him and committing herself to perpetual widowhood. Her closest friend would tell you, though, that Colleen is suppressing her memories of Ed's continual diminishment of her and his constant carping and snapping. Again, Colleen's reality is distorted by her suppression, with the consequence that she is unable to complete the grieving process and move on to begin a new phase of her life.
- fantasy—a form of escape that gratifies frustrated desires but takes the person out of reality and into an imaginary world. Ruthann, for example, hates her ex-husband, Phil, and spends much of her time alone fantasizing about killing him. The danger here is not that she will do it—although in an extreme case, where other psychological adjustments were awry, this would be a danger—but that she will never sec and act on the truth: that she must take the initiative in breaking her bond to him, which is reinforced by her anger, and in learning to live on her own.
- rationalization—the attempt to prove that one's behavior is justifiable and worthy of your own or others' approval. An example here is Angela, who justifies her constant calls to her ex-husband, Mike, by insisting that their financial life is just too complicated for her to resolve alone. She argues that their mutual investments are her chief interest when she calls, whereas in reality those investments merely serve as a pretext for her continual involvement with Mike.
- intellectualization—acknowledging hurtful situations but defusing them of their emotional charge by means of logic. Beverly, for instance, met her husband's constant infidelities with a fierce commitment to "open marriage." The two had agreed on an open arrangement before they married, and Beverly knew that if she showed the slightest jealousy her husband would leave her. Instead, she talked a good line about the right of every man and woman to "live and love as fully as possible in a lifetime." The toll she paid for fostering this distortion of her emotional reality was a growing sense that her life was an empty shell.
- displacement—assigning the blame for one's negative feelings to a person other than the one responsible. As an example, Deborah and Paul had an "amicable" divorce, and Deborah was proud of the fact that both had conducted themselves as civilized human beings. She was nonetheless increasingly convinced that all men were fools and could hardly contain her impatience in any interactions with a man. Deborah's irrational prejudice, a generalization that distorted life as it is, prevented her from expressing and resolving her terrible anger at Paul and "protected" her from ever having a meaningful relationship with a man again.
ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION: SIGNPOSTS OF CONFLICT
Defense mechanisms distort reality and keep our deepest secrets from us, and they can function ably for a long, long time. But they never work perfectly. Psychological distress continually leaks through the barrier of denial or repression, fantasy or excessive intellectualization, and pervades awareness. And the forms this distress takes most often are everybody's worst enemies, anxiety and depression.
Depression, which is really unexpressed anger turned inward, and anxiety, which is simply fear, well up to haunt us as we attempt to ignore or evade unresolved internal conflicts and simply go on with our lives. For women who work smoothly through recovery from divorce, the difficult patches in which these feelings surface are inevitable but relatively brief. But for sufferers of the Ex-Wife Syndrome, in whom the connection to the former husband remains both stubborn and vital, depression and anxiety can become a way of life. These distressing feelings are the direct results of the discrepancy between distortion ("The divorce is behind me") and reality ("I am still deeply connected").
An analogy drawn from daily life demonstrates how this works. Suppose you hear the brakes on your car grind—not once, not twice, but every time you step on the pedal. But suppose you don't have the money for a brake job and contemplating the dilemma triggers a feeling of despair over your financial difficulties. Denial— a resistance to thinking about your brake problem at all—kicks in. However, your brakes keep grinding, and every time you hear them, energy goes toward suppressing the truth while anxiety at the possibility of brake failure clouds your consciousness. As the cycle continues, the anxiety, not the underlying conflict, becomes the major focus of distress. "Why am I so jumpy all the time?" you ask yourself. "Why can't I relax? Why does my back hurt? Why do I dread leaving my house and entering the outside world? I'm a weakling, a coward, a failure at life," Denial of the brake problem, then, not only distorts your perception of the state of your car, but it fills your perception of reality with a nagging, generalized anxiety and a heavy fog of depression.
In the chapters to come, I will recount many anecdotes and case histories to help trigger your recognition of secrets you may be keeping from yourself. And should you discover in the light of new insight evidence of an unbroken connection holding you to your former husband, you will find here many practical strategies and guidelines for severing that bond and changing your behavior permanently. I cannot promise you that this book will bring you complete freedom from unhappiness stemming from life's contingencies, for example, from financial worries or your children's school problems. But I do promise that as you disengage from your ex-husband, the anxiety and depression that have been masking the true impediment to your moving on will lift.
But, a warning is in order. Cutting the cord is a process, not a single act, and each step can elicit psychological discomfort. Again, this discomfort usually takes the form of temporary anxiety and depression, the all-purpose signals that deep psychological conflicts not yet resolved are active beneath the surface.
Seeking and acting on the truth about yourself is never easy. Tearfulness and self-doubt arise often in the face of the unknown. Forewarning you to expect hard patches should help you cope with them and understand their part in the process, and at every stage I will make a point of alerting you to potential difficulties. In chapter five you will find some guidelines for easing short-term anxiety and depression. Suffice it to say here, however, that although in a sense I do promise you a rose garden (at least as compared with the Ex-Wife Syndrome), the path you will travel toward self-renewal as an autonomous single divorced woman will not always be smooth and sunny. There will be waves of fear; there will be discouragements and setbacks. But Pollyanna-type happiness is the dream of little girls; the more realistic goal of grown women is to embrace life as it is here and now.
FACE FACTS/TAKE ACTION
You will free yourself of the Ex-Wife Syndrome when you sever the connection between yourself and your ex-husband. You will not accomplish this overnight but as a gradual result of the interplay between new insights and practical action. Throughout this book, I use the phrase face facts/take action to stand for this process, and the book is structured to reflect the increasing interplay you will experience between insight and practical solutions. The description of the syndrome presented in these first two chapters is meant as a grounding in the psychological facts. More and more, as the book goes on, I will suggest ways of taking practical steps to act on the facts you face. The ultimate aim is to help you shape a life for yourself—and your children, if you have them—that reflects your and their personal needs, desires, pleasures, and goals. And within the bounds of these rather broad objectives lie some more specific goals I hope to help you achieve:
- learn a new way of relating to your ex-husband, as someone who is no longer a member of your inner circle
- learn to recognize and resist his treatment of you as dependent on, responsible to, or intimately connected to him
- eliminate the emotional charge that the new obsolete relationship with your ex-husband still carries for you
- redefine any feelings of "love" you may have in light of their power to bind you to your ex-husband
- stop playing the role of victim, laid to waste by the loss of your marriage
- recognize and eliminate typical ex-wife fantasies ("I'm incomplete without him," "He still loves me," "He'll come back to me when he's through sowing his oats," "I could never love another man," "No other man could ever love me," "The marriage wasn't that bad")
- control the impulse to overcompensate for blows you've sustained to your self-esteem by behaving like superwoman and supermother
- recognize and eliminate dependent behavior in yourself
- learn the skills necessary to function effectively and with satisfaction as a single woman and single mother
- focus on your own power, knowledge, and decisiveness rather than assigning these qualities to men—especially your ex-husband and especially regarding your children and your finances
- understand, enforce, and enjoy your right to privacy, which means ending your ex-husband's access to your home and your life
- negotiate issues regarding the children while continuing to maintain the boundaries around your private life
- assess your current social and sexual needs and cultivate new relationships that meet them
I hope this list gives you a taste of the growing sense of renewed energy that will come as you learn to embrace the present—a vitalizing change after the sadness and frustration of focusing on the past. The "cure" for the Ex-Wife Syndrome is based on this shift in perspective, and the following pages will help you make it.
FINDING YOUR OWN PACE
In the next two chapters, we turn to the bond itself, and I present a wide array of case histories of women struggling to recover from the Ex-Wife Syndrome and study them as a research scientist studies slides from many different subjects. The result is a microscopic view of the bond to the ex-husband in all its manifestations. The goal is to provide you with a panorama of women with whom you might potentially identify and whose stories might trigger recognition and new insight into your own past and current life. However, before turning to the very heart of the Ex-Wife Syndrome, I must caution you to go easy, to have patience, and to restrain yourself from acting on impulse rather than on a foundation of understanding and psychological readiness.
You cannot wake up tomorrow and begin making strong assertions—"Get out and stay out!" You must first achieve true insight into the buried secrets and distortions that have been holding you to your past. It's important to know that the process of disconnecting doesn't work when you fake it (what does?). Jean Piaget, the great and pioneering developmental psychologist, echoed Shakespeare in pointing out that "readiness is all," and this quote wouldn't be out of place on your refrigerator door.
When readiness comes, it's unmistakable, I've seen it expressed hundreds of times in therapy, and each time it confirms my belief in the process of self-exploration. A client comes in after many weeks or months of looking hard at the problem and trying to figure out the first or the next step to take. Perhaps she suddenly sees she can no longer allow her ex-husband to call her at work. With a lot of effort, she has identified the kinds of interactions that keep her emotionally connected to him and has realized that his upsetting phone calls increase the emotional charge between them, "I'm going to tell him not to do it; I'll tell the switchboard to screen him out. Here's how I'll say it, and I'll only say it once. Yeah!" she says. "I'm going to do it!"
When the issue—and the solution—becomes that real, the deed is all but done. From that moment on, I know this woman is at a new level of strength. Her voice, her resolve, and her actions are all authentic, and their authenticity gives them authority.
In working toward healing with the aid of this book, how will you know on your own when you have reached a new level of strength? In exactly the same way my patients know in therapy. After all, I don't deem a patient "ready" and then "pass" her to a new stage of healing; I observe and sense the authenticity of her progress along with the patient herself. Readiness occurs when an idea or insight understood intellectually is fully integrated into the woman's emotional reality—a roundabout way of saying when she fully faces the facts. Throughout this program of self-cure, you will be internalizing and integrating new insights into your own emotional experience. This process in turn will enable you to push through the inevitable anxiety surrounding new, untried behavior to take the actions you come to recognize as necessary. When it all comes together and it's time to act, you'll feel a sense of tightness so clear it will shine.