As the divorce process unfolds, especially within the first several months, you will probably go through a series of emotional extremes. The divorce, as it tears apart the fabric of your marriage, will probably tear you up as well. You will be astounded by the intensity of raw pain that can sweep over you, sometimes quite unexpectedly.

This is a dangerous time psychologically, and it may not be clear how this emotional eruption could lead to extreme consequences. The person you thought you knew and loved is no longer there, “replaced” by some scary, spiteful stranger. Frightening scenarios, involving both yourself and the other person, become immediately present as possibilities; you will no longer know what to expect from your former spouse or even from yourself. Even if you struggle to hold onto some shred of love, or at least positive feeling, for your former spouse, you will be afflicted by thoughts and feelings that seem to flood into your mind from some primitive, nightmare side of reality.

In such moments, you may feel like you are losing your mind. You can go places emotionally where no one else can reach you. You may scream, cry, shake, or rage uncontrollably. You may feel exhausted one moment and then keyed up the next. Sleep is difficult. You do not know what to do with yourself.

Violated and violent, perhaps even filled with thoughts of hurting yourself or others, you may experience the urge to act on these extreme emotions, to enact the evils which now plague you, to overcome fear by becoming frightening, to overcome alienation by making your hell real for others, to inflict what you are suffering on the one “responsible” for it, to let others know how it feels to be in such pain, to give vent to the rage, to destroy the marriage that is “destroying” you. You want your day in court; want the indifferent world to know you have been wronged!

You may be appalled at yourself, and yet continue to hold onto this desperate “remedy,” as if it were a perverse life saver, as if this pain is all that holds you together and keeps you emotionally connected with the marriage you are losing. You know that you need to “get over it,” as friends would recommend if they knew what you were feeling and contemplating, and yet it seems that “getting over it” would leave you with nothing.

This extreme state may last for a brief moment, or several days, or longer. You may be able to suppress or contain it, for the most part. Some people may not even feel it. But most do.

If you ever find yourself on this pathway toward extreme action, do not give in. Hold on. Give life a chance to make things better for you, even if you can’t see any hope and don’t have a clue about how to keep going. Take a long walk. Call someone who loves you. Seek professional assistance if necessary, but remember that the extreme pain will eventually pass, while the consequences of extreme actions may not. You are bereft now, but not forever. Seeds of new life will eventually spring up. You can look for these little hints of life, simple, small, seemingly inconsequential moments in which you catch a glimpse of something and feel yourself respond and know that you might survive.

In the throes of divorce, people experience the pain of disrupted emotional attachment. The roots of emotional attachment go very deep in our lives. Establishing and maintaining attachment is the most crucial thing at the earliest point in life; without it, we would have died as an infant. Even now, as adults, any threat to emotional attachment feels highly upsetting and dangerous. We can feel like we are dying emotionally, like there is no more life in our life.

We may try to fill the “blankness” with the “stimulation” of sex, or with endless hours of work, or with concern about the kids, or with a new relationship. But the blankness tends to remain. With time and reflection, however, there may be a shift of feeling and new emotional connections may become possible.

Surviving the breakup of a marriage or, for that matter, surviving the loss of any cherished individual, can leave us a little wiser about love. By getting a little distance from the pain, we come to know that:

  • relationships can and do end;
  • love has many unforeseen, but inevitable, twists and turns;
  • love is based as much on a decision to remain steadfast, in spite of the inevitable twists and turns, as it is on the fulfillment of fantasy or gratification of unmet needs; and
  • we can survive loss.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, by distancing ourselves from the intensity of extreme pain experienced during a breakup, we are able more fully to appreciate the gift of a meaningful, satisfying relationship and, with time, take steps to build such a relationship in the future.