Phobia of Divorce:Another Perspective/Dr. Robert Lebovits

Posted on June 6, 2013


For some time now I have more closely examined the manner in which clients organize their lives, attend to certain pains and ignore others, and create their own realities by the choices they make. On any number of occasions I have heard a client present some self-described insurmountable hurdle that essentially precludes any progress (e.g., “I don’t know how to let go”; “If only I could trust”; “I need to be in control and I wouldn’t know how to function without it”). I now ask a rather simple question: I know this sounds impossible to you now, but how would you like it to be? Contrary to the expected response that it would be a joy – or at least a relief – to be able to get beyond the impasse, more often than not clients are ambivalent at best. Frequently they are silent or own up to reluctance to have things become different even if it would be better. Part of this resistance I believe is a reflection of a thought process that restricts the capacity to generate new life possibilities, not so much a phobia as a repetition compulsion. Yet much of the ambivalence is due to the fear of any change, no matter how beneficial it might be. Since every life circumstance will have its share of misfortunes and tribulations, many stick to the devil they know rather than risk facing the devil they don’t know.
Divorce is certainly one of the most – if not the most – dramatic life change one can make. What would be expected to create more opposition and foot-dragging to altering one’s path to the future than divorce, not specifically owing to the prediction of shame or loneliness or because the mizbeach will weep?
The notion of an “unnecessary divorce” is curious since divorce is a process and not an occurrence. By the time many couples come in for treatment they are well into the devolution of their marriage and certainly display little hopefulness. The focus is primarily on their pain and suffering, not the pleasant moments they once – still do? – share. Even so, once upon a time they very likely saw their spouses as the person they could not live without. Whether or no it is possible to reverse the course of the relationship, we ought not relinquish that past reality. I have worked with couples who confronted a family crisis that created havoc in their relationship, such as the death of a child. I don’t believe their divorce should have been – but then neither should they have had to face the awful predicament they endured. Some troubled couples still feel affection for each other, yet they were unable to reconnect due to individual dysfunctions. Were they better off going their separate ways? They weren’t happy to do so. Sadly, I have also observed situations where spouses were more committed to their need to be “right” than to getting along and sabotaged all efforts at reconciliation until the desire to keep the marriage was fully extinguished. In those circumstances divorce could be a merciful ending to misery.
A marriage where abuse, violence, and/or intense conflicts are routine is not a tolerable environment for anyone. That said, we should not minimize the devastating impact divorce can have on children. Wallerstein’s longitudinal studies indicate roughly 25% of children of divorced parents suffer from some psychological harm deserving of mental health intervention. My experience with families where low level conflict is fairly chronic argues against the notion that parental animosity is more damaging than breaking up the family. Most kids want the security and sense of stability that a complete family structure provides and they tolerate their parents emotional strife if it’s not thrown in their faces. Boundaries are everything.
You don’t have to be divorce phobic to forswear divorce. But in treating couples divorce must be presented as a possible outcome from the very start. People who feel trapped in their immediate situation – whether it is a job, a relationship, or a crisis – are unable to induce the motivation and energy it takes to effect change. Helplessness leads to paralysis. Only when an individual can clearly see that to stay or to go is a real choice – for oneself and for one’s spouse – can he or she make a commitment to engage and appreciate the spouse’s efforts as well.

Dr. Robert Lebovits is a practicing psychologist in Pittsburgh, PA and an adjunct faculty professor at the University of Pittsburgh.