Divorce alone doesn’t fit the clinical definition of a traumatic event. But it’s possible that for some people, going through a divorce may lead to trauma-related symptoms.
Divorce can be painful, even when you want it. It’s natural and valid to feel hopeless, sad, or let down if you’re going through a divorce. But this is different from experiencing trauma.
However, the clinical definition of trauma is established by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR). This is the reference handbook that most U.S. mental health professionals use to provide a diagnosis.
According to the DSM-5-TR, trauma is the result of a traumatic event that involves an evident threat to life, serious injury, or sexual assault. In this sense, by definition, a traumatic event isn’t the same as a stressful event.
A traumatic event often overwhelms you to the point that you may feel you have no resources left to deal with it. This may lead you to experience trauma denial, shock, and other mental health challenges. These symptoms are typically known as a trauma response.
“The emotion of trauma and the actual event of trauma are two different things that most people get confused about,” says Sasha Jackson, a licensed clinical social worker in San Joaquin, California.
What you may experience as a traumatic event may not be so for someone else. In this sense, traumatic experiences are subjective and can be very intimate and personal.
If an experience becomes a traumatic event for you, you may develop signs of trauma or a mental health condition. These effects are what most people call trauma.
Under the NIH definition, divorce could be considered a traumatic event. But, based on the DSM-5-TR, divorce doesn’t meet the medical criteria.
It’s possible that, for some people, a divorce can become a traumatic experience if it causes significant distress and shock. But, this may be more related to the circumstances around the divorce than the act of getting divorced itself.
A divorce can become a traumatic incident for the adults separating if, what leads up to it and what follows afterward, is significantly painful. Infidelity, domestic violence, emotional abandonment, and verbal abuse, for instance, could lead to trauma.
A divorce can also lead to trauma when it leads to a deep sense of loss or grief, says Luis D. L. Ramirez II, a psychologist and clinical director of the Children’s Center of the Antelope Valley in Lancaster, California.
But, mental health professionals don’t typically consider divorce itself as a traumatic event for adults.
On the other hand, divorce has been
“Divorce can cause trauma because it can make the child feel a deep sense of loss as well as grief. This can be exacerbated by fighting between parents,” Ramirez says.
If a child witnessed a significant incident of violence or verbal abuse between the parents, or has been constantly exposed to those, they may have an increased chance of experiencing a trauma response.
How a child, or an adult, reacts to a potentially traumatic event may depend on many factors including social support, emotional resources available, and tools to cope.
Can divorce traumatize adult children? The research on how divorce may affect adult children is limited.
Trauma response can be acute or chronic.
If divorce has been a traumatic event for you, trauma symptoms may start emerging immediately or after a few weeks or months. You may also experience these symptoms in the years after your divorce or the divorce of your own parents.
If the circumstances of the divorce have involved a series of multiple traumatic events, like neglect and violence, it’s possible that some people may develop symptoms of complex trauma.
Signs of trauma in children may include:
- developmental regression
- weight changes
- separation anxiety
- changes in sleep patterns
- emotional outbursts without any apparent reason
- changes in academic performance
- social withdrawal
- sudden changes in behavior
Signs and symptoms of trauma in adults may include:
- symptoms of personality disorders
- insecure attachment styles
- symptoms of persistent depression
- emotional outbursts or adult temper tantrums
- persistent nightmares or flashbacks
- tendency to regress or get stuck at the age of trauma
- symptoms of anxiety
- symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- avoidant behaviors
- isolation from loved ones
Grief is an emotional response to a significant loss. It may appear with emotions like sadness, hopelessness, and anger. But it tends to resolve on its own after some time unless it develops into prolonged grief disorder.
Trauma more often requires professional support to resolve. It may also have a greater and lasting impact on how you see yourself, others, and the world in general.
“Divorce is a highly emotional experience and it resembles more of a loss versus a trauma. When individuals go through a divorce they are essentially going through a grieving experience,” says Jackson.
Only a licensed mental health professional may be able to offer you an accurate diagnosis and work with you on a healing plan.
Trauma and grief can both be managed and overcome. You’re not alone and support is available.
According to the clinical definition of trauma, divorce isn’t considered a traumatic event in itself. However, what may not be traumatic for you may be so for someone else.
If an event, like divorce, is experienced as a significantly shocking, overwhelming, life threatening, or painful incident, it could become a traumatic event and lead to trauma response.
If you or your child are experiencing trauma symptoms related to divorce or related events, consider seeking the help of a licensed mental health professional.