Recovering from any major loss requires a mourning period, and divorce is no exception. Grieving a divorce is an intensely personal process and is different for everyone depending on unique situational and personal factors. A healthy mourning process is typically thought to include recognizing and verbalizing the meaning of a loss and its associated feelings. However, men deal with relationships and stress differently than women, and often are not as verbally expressive. Should men really be expected to mourn in the same way as women? The answer appears to be no according to Dr. Nehami Baum’s 2003 article, "The Male Way of Mourning Divorce: When, What and How. " In fact, Dr. Baum found that men generally appear to mourn the end of a marriage quite differently than women. Here’s what her research tells us about men and the post-divorce grieving process.
1. Men typically start mourning a divorce later than women.
Men tend to start the grieving process later than women, sometimes even after a physical separation has taken place. This might reflect the fact that women are more likely to initiate the divorce process, giving them a head start on processing the emotions associated with it. Men also tend to recognize that a marriage is in trouble later than women, and they might prefer to wait until after they, or their wife, has actually moved out to address the emotional reality of divorce.
2. Men might not feel that their ex-wife is the greatest loss during a divorce.
For a divorced father, losing his family life (owning a home, having a set routine, a sense of identity and security) and daily interaction with the kids can feel like greater losses than the relationship with his wife. Men might need to deal with the anger and other powerful emotions that often accompany a loss of custody before they can mourn a spouse. They also might need to address the immediate task of adjusting to a very different lifestyle first. Some men never grieve the loss of a spouse directly; expressing it via the feelings of loss they have toward their children instead.
3. Men often convey feelings via actions, not words.
Divorce often represents the loss of the one person a man feels comfortable verbalizing his emotions to. This may contribute to the fact that during a divorce men are less likely to seek emotional support from family members or a mental health professional, and are more likely than women to act on their feelings about divorce instead of verbalizing them. For example, loneliness may be expressed by increased social activity and avoiding an empty apartment at the end of the day. Other common external expressions of grief include working too much, having casual sexual relationships and even developing physical ailments. In the United States, societal expectations that men will quietly “tough it out” might also contribute to the tendency for men to express emotions non-verbally. Men, if you find yourself developing strange physical symptoms or acting in a way that is unusual for you, stop and ask yourself, “is it possible that this is how I’m grieving?” Get professional help if you start expressing your grief through drug use or drinking.
Having a delayed, less-direct means of expressing emotion does not equate to a lack of mourning. Though men seem to convey their feelings differently than women, they still need to process painful emotions in order to heal, grow, and move on after a divorce. While it may feel like going-against-the-cultural-grain for a man, seeking professional help can ease the grieving process and provide a confidential setting.
Dr. Tom Rogat earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in clinical psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology. He lives in Cleveland where he is a clinical psychologist in private practice. Dr. Rogat can be reached at www.drtomrogat.com