When a Family Divorces
by Mark Sichel, LCSW and Alicia L. Cervini
When life was more predictable and structured, it seemed that milestone family events--weddings, births, graduations, christenings, etc.--brought families together. Lately, it seems that family events often trigger devastating disappointment and shatter family relationships instead. It is as if divorce is no longer a choice that only unhappy spouses are making. In the modern age, the "family divorce" statistics are on the rise, as more and more family members declare irreconcilable differences with their loved ones and decide to go their separate ways.
"Family divorce" --seemingly irreparable rifts in relationships between family members-- often comes as a surprise. The major refrain when a family first falls apart is "I just can't believe this is going on. It doesn't feel real to me. Other people get into situations like this, not me. I've always been the good girl, gotten along with my parents, done the right thing. I just can't believe this is really happening."
Janet*, a 24-year-old junior associate in her father's law firm, began
dating Cal, another of the firm's young associates. They quickly fell in
love and began a very serious relationship. Janet spent increasing amounts
of time at Cal's house and she and Cal became more and more convinced that
they wanted to marry. When her father became aware of the seriousness of
their relationship, he stopped speaking to Cal and became increasingly
distant from Janet. When Cal talked to Janet's Dad about their relationship
and their plans of marriage, he was shocked to hear that Nick, Janet's
father, would not support their marriage or attend their wedding. Janet
became frozen in a state of disbelief. She had always imagined her Dad
escorting her down the aisle and being an integral part of her wedding. She
could not believe he was taking this stand. She proceeded with her wedding
plans, but walked through the experience in a frozen state of shock. She felt
helpless, hopeless, disoriented and numb.
Janet's are not the only psychological reactions to a sudden schism in a family relationship. Other common initial reactions are poor appetite or overeating, insomnia or hypersomnia, low energy, fatigue, low self-esteem, difficulty concentrating, feelings of hopelessness, feelings of surreality, restlessness and irritability.
As individuals reorganize and regroup following the initial
rupture in the family, a second stage of behaviors, reactions, and feelings
will begin to emerge. For some people, this second stage can begin weeks after
the shattering experience; for others it can take months. In the second stage, the initial psychological symptoms are replaced by strong emotional reactions.
Flora and Al are a couple who have been married thirty years. They have a
grown daughter named Camille, who recently eloped with her boyfriend of many
years. Camille did without the traditional wedding with all of its trappings, because her parents disapproved of her marriage. They felt her new husband was too different religiously and ethnically and would not be able to properly support their daughter. Flora was devastated that her daughter had eloped, but she wanted to keep the peace within the family. Her husband Al, on the other hand, was enraged by Camille's defiance and wanted nothing further to do with his daughter. Al was demanding a "family divorce." Flora felt caught between a rock and a hard place; her husband, whom she adored, was unwilling to accept Camille's marriage and unwilling to see or speak with their daughter and son-in-law. She felt destroyed by the fact that the two people she loved most in the world were unable to be in the same room together. After her initial reaction of numb shock, Flora began to fluctuate wildly between profound sadness and explosive rage directed at both her husband and her daughter.
In the second phase of a reaction to a family split, periods of rage and sadness are characterized by alternating fantasies of revenge and reunion. Revenge fantasies usually star whoever is thought to be responsible for the family rupture. For example, despite her deep and abiding love for Al, Flora occasionally found herself wishing that something horrible would befall her husband. The other common fantasy is of a magical reconciliation whereby the person who initiated the "divorce" will suddenly come to their senses, beg forgiveness of the family, and bring everyone together once again.
When a family divorces, it hurts everyone in the family in some way. Neither stage of dealing with a rift in the family is pleasant, but the psychological and emotional pain does not have to last forever. Reversing a "family divorce" is not easy, but it is possible through persistence and hard work. Accusations, indignation and rage can make way for more peaceful communication. Common sense and self-control can be employed to help sidestep potentially dangerous topics and resentments can recede if new ground rules for behavior are initiated and respected.
To learn more about rifts in families, read "I'm Done" - When Families Stop Speaking.
To find out more about why family members decide to stop speaking to one another, read "I'm Done" - The Family Drama.
*The names of all clients have been changed to protect their identities.
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