The Trauma of a Failed Relationship
I saw him sink to his knees, head in his hands, sobbing as he watched the kids wave goodbye and run across the lawn. He couldn’t see me watching, but I watched with a deep, sad curiosity. This man, a man so competent, with a tenured position, a graduate degree, a man well-liked by friends and colleagues, the dude you WANT to grab a beer with and shoot the shit, could no longer hold himself upright.
This was the day I asked him to move out.
While divorce doesn’t officially qualify as a traumatic event according to the DSM-V, anyone who has been through one, or known someone closely who has, knows that it is. As a former trauma therapist, who has worked with veterans, soldiers, with civilians in warzones, refugees, and with many others who have suffered abuse of all kinds, I also know that divorce is earth shattering in similar ways to those events that do meet diagnostic criteria.
Insomnia, anxiety, depression, deep soul pain, guilt, shame, overwhelming fear, agitation, tension, hyperarousal, and all sorts of physical health complaints rear their ugly heads. The world is different. There is tremendous loss. Safety and attachment are in question. There are frequently feelings of powerlessness and a lack of control. The nervous system is on overdrive.
What will happen to me? What will happen to the kids? How will I have enough money to survive? Is there anything I can do to change this or stop it from happening? Why is my voice not heard or respected? How do I possibly rebuild my life? I don’t want any part of what is happening!!
This is the story of many men who are caught in the process of a relationship ending. The pain, the confusion, the anger, the resentment, the numbing and lashing out.
I’ve seen it with my own eyes – both personally and professionally. That far away gaze that trauma therapists are all too familiar with. There’s nothing that can tell me that going through a divorce does not have the power to completely devastate all involved.
Men, in particular, have a raw end of this deal. While I don’t mean to absolve anyone of their personal responsibility, the culture, socialization, and stereotyping of men stacks the cards against them when faced with a personal crisis. The men I talk to in my work repeatedly mention a deep sense of failure and sense of confusion about what their partner wants or expects from them. They talk of their anger and tension. They talk about how hard they are trying to do everything they think they should be doing, be both an attentive father, supportive husband, effective co-parent and house-manager, as well as a suitable provider for their families. They’ll talk about how they’ve squashed their own needs on more than one occasion, bitten their lip at times in fear of only making things worse. They’ve distracted themselves with sports, tv, the internet, or other activities and just put their head down in the name of being dutiful and holding things together. They are good soldiers. And yet they are suffering, suffering beyond measure. Not seen or appreciated for the skills and acts of service they contribute.
Social and media sources pay a fair amount of energy highlighting underserved populations and topics that are challenging including: women’s rights, immigration, minority rights, sexual identity, equality, racism and the economic disparity that are all immensely important and powerful topics affecting our communities. These areas desperately need our attention and it isn’t a competition. For centuries, many argue that men have wielded too much power, in fact, and have had the upper-hand on all fronts. Yet, a conversation that has been less frequent has been how these men, with so much privilege and authority, have not been permitted to be vulnerable or admit defeat. Ask a man to identify the areas where he does not feel competent and you’ll quickly see what I’m talking about. It’s not always that “male ego” or “narcissism” that we can point our fingers at. Our boys have been taught to swallow their pain, their hurt, their fears, to shine as our leaders. Admitting defeat would have grave repercussions on how they position and perceive themselves in the world.
So the shut down occurs. They close their hearts off and plough through. They bleed out in private, with a lack luster robust support system, with alcohol, drugs, food, sex or workaholism as the band aid – reaching for ways to distract them from themselves. Their humanity, their beautiful souls and hearts that are meant for sharing and loving freely, are locked away or left only for a select few. And while this is not the story of every man, and one must be cautious with all generalizations, being a man in the world comes with its own set of limitations and cultural expectations that put them at risk for suffering silently with the effects of trauma. A recent article by Elder, Domino, Mata-Galán & Kilmartin, (2017) proposed a unique model for how men deal with trauma. In particular they highlight topics such as avoiding blame, using sex to cope and maintaining the allusion of being “strong” in order to avoid feeling weak. The point out that perhaps we might view some “masculinity behaviors” (i.e., aggression, substance use) more compassionately, not merely acting out or poor coping, but (for some) trauma-avoidance symptomology that interferes with their recovery and healing process.
These are our sons. Our brothers. Our friends. Our lovers. Our partners. They don’t need guilt and shame about their privilege. They need love, the space to put down their burden, to be accepted and appreciated for who they are in the world. This is the way we grow good men. Everything else perpetuates the disconnect, the dis-ease, the anger….all which only serves to breed further disconnection and fuel future trauma.
Margaret Gavian, PhD, LP is a Coach and Psychologist in the Twin Cities specializing in helping men save their relationship. She does a variety of teaching, speaking and consulting nationally with leaders, executives, community organizations, and health care systems. She operates her telehealth practice out of her home in Golden Valley, MN and in her free time relishes in her role as a mother to her boys, Julian and Morgan.
For more information or to connect to Margaret: Margaret.firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-447-8428 cell.