Divorce is a significant, life-altering event and its messy aftermath may play out for years on end. Multiple issues usually need to be looked into, including finances, housing, custody and access, and these often involve handling disagreements with one’s ex-spouse. With so many practical issues weighing on the mind during this stressful period, mental and emotional health can easily be neglected.
Even after the legal procedures of divorce come to a close, it is equally if not more important for both parties to seek emotional and mental closure. The difficulty of attaining such closure is usually greater if individuals are afraid of facing their feelings honestly, often due to how overwhelming and painful a divorce is.
Closure generally refers to the ability to accept that a marriage has ended, signalling a readiness to move forward. But experiences of closure vary, depending on factors such as whether a marital breakdown was mutual and amicable, whether one initiated the divorce or was on the receiving end, and whether there are children who will bind both parties as co-parents in the long term. What is generally common though, is that individuals experience a myriad of emotions which can be complex and painful, and require a constructive way of processing.
Such emotional processing and eventual closure are crucial in helping parties make sense of the pain and confusion of divorce. Unprocessed pain tends to unleash itself in unexpected ways, and may cause hurt to the divorcing parties, their children and their work relationships if left unattended. Even as time passes, old wounds can flare up unexpectedly like an uninvited and unwelcome intruder.
Emotional healing and closure are therefore crucial to help divorcing parties regain functionality of their daily lives. Processing emotions frees up bandwidth for them to focus their energy and attention on other tasks, especially crucial decisions relating to finances, housing and co-parenting. Conversely, a lack of closure may lead divorcing spouses to act on feelings of hurt and blame, potentially causing harm to their children. Without closure, discussions on the interests of their children may lead to perfunctory agreements on custody, care and control, leading to further disagreements down the road.
Although each divorcing couple faces their own set of issues, there are some common ways to facilitate closure in a divorce.
Recognize and acknowledge your emotions. Self-awareness and self-understanding is usually the first step to healing, because we cannot seek closure on something we deny the existence of, or are unaware of. This requires divorcing parties to articulate feelings honestly, recognize that divorce is painful and difficult, and seek healthy outlets to express these emotions, such as journaling or talking to someone.
Identify and understand each party’s contribution to the dissolution of the marriage. It is usually not solely the fault of one party, however tempting it is to perceive divorce this way. Appreciating both perspectives helps one maintain a more balanced and objective viewpoint, and prevents the process from descending into a blame game.
Breaking the news of the divorce to the children. This is usually a major milestone to cross in helping a family come to terms with its breakdown, and often a significant memory etched in the minds of parties involved. It is therefore important for parents to communicate the news of their divorce to their children in a manner that is non-blaming, age-appropriate, consistent, and supportive.
Using rituals. Rituals can help some cope better with the grief and loss associated with divorce. Seemingly trivial actions may evoke much pain, but may paradoxically also be helpful in facilitating closure. Examples include discarding family photos or moving them out of sight, or visiting a place which holds significant meaning to a marriage, for purposes of bidding a symbolic goodbye to the relationship.
Working towards forgiveness. Work towards forgiving yourself and/or your ex-spouse. Forgiveness is not so much an acknowledgement that the other party was right, but a sign that you are able to put the sting of anger and blame behind you, and be freed to move on in life without the burden of bitterness and resentment.
Focusing on the future. After emotions have been processed, parties will be able to focus on the future as they redefine their relationship with their ex-spouse and re-orient their lives post-divorce. For divorcing parties who are parents, the act of closure also entails establishing clear boundaries and roles in co-parenting, giving rise to a newly-defined family relationship.
Closure is important for all divorcing parties, especially if they are parents. Children do not have a choice in whether or not to suffer the pain of a family breakdown, therefore the responsibility lies on adults to do the hard work of seeking a proper closure, and ensure the least damaging outcome for their children. In the words of Robert Emery, a clinical psychologist, mediator, and author of resources on divorce, “We have to be parents so that our kids can be kids”.
Finding closure can be a painful and challenging task, and understandably, most would require support in this journey. Divorced individuals or those journeying through a divorce can consider seeking professional help. A proper closure frees one to look forward to the next chapter of life with greater hope and peace, and gives children the best chance to adjust and thrive in the face of difficult circumstances.