Lesia Oesterreich, M.S.
Family Life Extension Specialist
Human Development and Family Studies
Iowa State University
Marital separation and divorce can be two of the most difficult
events in an adult's life. Much stress comes from three sources:
- the daily tasks and responsibilities that must be reorganized,
- the loss of significant relationships and possessions,
- and the need to establish a new identity as an individual.
Sources of Stress
1. Restructured family life
- Household tasks
- Family finances
- Relationships with extended family and friends
- Parenting roles and responsibilities
- Family life
- Sexual relationship
- Being single again
- Questions: Who am I? What do I want to do with my life?
Restructuring the family
For most couples with children, a divorce does not mean the
end of a family. Instead, it means the family must restructure
the way it handles household chores, family finances, parenting
roles, and relationships with extended family and friends. This
reorganization can create much stress.
Tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and shopping must be managed.
Each parent may have to assume tasks formerly shared by two adults,
a situation that may feel overwhelming.
Financial arrangements often must be reworked, adding considerably
more stress and tension between parents. Finances may become a
leading source of anger.
If one parent is the main wage earner and the other the main
caretaker, each may have to cover both roles after a divorce.
Parents must answer various child care questions: Who will stay
home with a sick child? Who will leave work early to take a child
to the dentist?
Relationships with extended family and friends
Interaction with extended family and friends must be reconsidered.
Family members may take sides, disrupting relationships and removing
potential sources of guidance and comfort.
Losing significant relationships, possessions, and dreams
Everyone needs the love, security, closeness, and belonging
that comes from relationships with others. Marriage is one of
the most significant relationships. Its loss causes much of the
stress and emotional turmoil of divorce.
Not all individuals experience loss with the same intensity, in
the same way, or at the same time. Some people experience loss
of closeness when they realize the relationship is ending. For
others, the idea of separation can be overwhelming, and they hang
onto the hope that the relationship can be saved.
Other losses resulting from separation and divorce undermine a
person's sense of security and well-being. Although they do not
realize it, many people become attached to a way of life, a home
and possessions, pets, and daily contact with children.
Divorce is a crisis that affects a person's identity. Individuals
no longer occupy the role of husband or wife. At the same time,
they must rethink changes in their roles as parents, workers,
and caretakers. People often are caught off guard by the need
to reconsider questions such as “Who am I?” and “What
do I want to do with my life?”
Detecting personal stress symptoms
People develop patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that
signal stress. If you are not aware of these patterns, you might
ignore their signals. On the list below, check the responses you
make to stressful situations.
- withdrawal from others,
- substance misuse (drugs, alcohol, tobacco, food),
- disrupted sleep,
- other emotional changes,
- mood swings, and
Thoughts and feelings related to stress
- thinking you cannot cope,
- feeling frightened for an unknown reason,
- worrying about everything, large or small,
- feeling afraid that something bad will happen,
- feeling that you are about to fall apart,
- having the same worrisome thought over and over,
- having a negative view of yourself,
- having a negative view of the world,
- feeling bored with everything,
- being unable to concentrate,
- having nightmares,
- feeling helpless,
- feeling hopeless,
- feeling worthless,
- feeling unable to make decisions,
- feeling confused,
- blaming yourself, and
Taking charge of your life
One way to reduce stress is to take charge of your life. Here
are some suggestions for ways you can regain personal control.
- sitting in a quiet place and thinking of nothing,
- listening to music and floating with the melody, and
- tensing and relaxing your muscles.
Control your environment by
- scheduling activities so you don't have to rush,
- setting priorities and sticking to them,
- taking on one task at a time,
- taking drugs only when a doctor prescribes them,
- saying no to a request, and
- balancing work and play.
Slow down by
- eating slowly,
- walking slowly,
- talking slowly,
- listening until others are finished speaking,
- starting activities early, and
- getting enough rest.
Control your anger by
- telling someone how you feel before you lose control,
- walking away from a situation until you cool off,
- doing something physical to work off pent-up energy,
- respecting another person's right to have a different opinion,
- praising others more than criticizing them.
Schedule recreation by
- going somewhere you enjoy with a friend or relative,
- playing your favorite sport,
- working on your favorite hobby, and
- engaging in a relaxing activity.
Understand yourself by
- talking over personal feelings and concerns with a trusted
friend or relative,
- listing your good points and posting the list where you and
others can see it, and
- building close relationships with people who make you feel
important and appreciated.
Remember, if your negative emotions begin to interfere with
your role as a parent or employee, it may be helpful to seek support
from a professional counselor or therapist.
Adjusting to divorce
Although individuals are different, most adults need two or
three years to adapt to the changes separation and divorce bring.
People who also encounter problems such as job loss or illness
during this period need additional time for adjustment. For adults,
this involves three basic tasks.
Task 1-Accepting the divorce
Individuals must accept that the marriage is over and establish
an identity that is not tied to their former spouse. For this
to occur, the individual must be convinced that there is no use
investing further in this relationship.
Former spouses must make peace with each other. This involves
realizing that continued nastiness only creates more nastiness
in return. Often this realization creates a more balanced view
of the relationship. An individual able to forgive the former
spouse for the marriage's end is able to appreciate what is good
about that person.
Individuals also must recognize their part in the breakup. They
must stop blaming their former spouses and examine honestly their
own role in the relationship. Such self-examination includes
- remembering the reasons for originally choosing the mate
and making necessary revisions in expectations for future mates,
- accepting individual contributions to the destructive patterns
of behavior within the marriage so that these patterns are not
repeated in future relationships, and
- exploring how individual experiences growing up may play
a role in marital struggles.
Task 2-Balancing being a single person and a single parent
Individuals must establish sources of support for each of these
roles. They need to begin feeling competent as a single person
and as a single parent.
Task 3-Establishing future-oriented instead of past-oriented goals
People who are adjusting well are ready to move on. They begin
to have new hobbies or leisure activities, or enter into new dating
relationships. In contrast, those not ready to move on may need
more time to mourn the loss of a spouse. These individuals may
not have exhausted their efforts to rekindle the relationship.
They may not realize that the relationship is over.
A final note
Dealing with the stress and change from a separation or divorce
is not easy. It helps to become familiar with your sources of
stress and your style of coping. Take time to think about ways
that you can take charge of your life by controlling your environment
and your anger with positive coping skills.
Realize that adjusting to divorce takes time. Be sure to pat yourself
on the back occasionally as you move forward in re-establishing
your life. Baby steps toward adjustment can sometimes be as significant
as giant steps. The important thing is to keep moving forward
National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Part of CYFERNET, the
National Extension Service Children Youth and Family Educational
Research Network. Permission is granted to reproduce these materials
in whole or in part for educational purposes only(not for profit
beyond the cost of reproduction) provided that the author and
Network receive acknowledgment and this notice is included:
Reprinted with permission from National Network for Child Care
Oesterreich, L. (1996). Divorce matters: Coping with stress and
[Pm 1637]. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Extension.
Any additions or changes to these materials must be preapproved
by the author.
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FORMAT AVAILABLE:: Print – 4 pages
Level 2 – Iowa State University Extension
DOCUMENT SIZE:: 48K or 6 pages
NOTE:: Originally developed as Parenting Apart: Strategies
for Effective Co-Parenting by M. Mulroy, R. Sabatelli, C. Malley,
and R. Waldron (1995), University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension.
Adapted with permission for use in Iowa by Lesia Oesterreich,
ISU Extension family life specialist.
ENTRY DATE:: July 1998