No longer a wife, and now a single woman, finding a new personal identity is a challenge women face after divorce. They must learn to shed their “wifestyle” and learn who they are without it, according to mental health experts.
Women can find power in the label of “wife,” according to Susan Shapiro Barash, a gender expert who teaches in special programs at Sarah Lawrence College. “Being a wife is truly an imprimatur in our society,” Barash said, “something men react to, and women identify with.”
Barash, who is the author of several books, including "Women of Divorce: Mothers, Daughters, Stepmothers – The New Triangle", "Second Wives: The Pitfalls and Rewards of Marrying Widowers and Divorced Men," and "The New Wife: The Evolving Role of the American Wife," said that the identity change is more of a women’s issue. She said men do have adjustments to make, but they don’t have as much difficulty making them as women do.
“It’s not to say that they don’t suffer or feel the sense of loss, they just deal with is very differently,” Barash said. “Women have a much longer internalized time fame in which they are in pain, and the adjustment is slower.”
Barash said that until recently, a good number of women felt they were missing out if they weren’t married. “Being a wife, almost as little as 40 years ago, was almost a position of authority in a patriarchal culture,” Barash said.
But times have changed, she said. No longer does a woman need to feel stigmatized or marginalized because she has lost the wife label and has become single. The gender roles that were traditionally assigned to men and women – men as bread-winners and women as support systems – are no longer as relevant, Barash said. Women have their own earning power, and they are taking more control of their lives because of that, she said.
“It’s a very complex new identity. But the good news is that our culture is much more open to divorce. Much more accustomed to it, for each year that passes,” Barash said. That is not to say that the transition from wife to single woman is an easy one, Barash said. “For so long you have been part of a couple... and being single is a different life,” Barash said. “Waking up divorced, even if you want this divorce, it is a huge adjustment, and a difficult road to hoe.”
Difficulty will arise as others respond to the change, too, Brash said. She said that, surprisingly, some women will still be dropped from their social networks because they are no longer married. She said that brings the opportunity to evaluate friendships and decide which are true. But the key to the adjustment from wife to single woman comes from being ready for the journey, she said. “The best way is to have full recognition of the amount of psychic and emotional energy you need to make the adjustment,” Barash said. DIFFICULT TRANSITION
Society values marriage and married women, said BJ Gallagher, the author of "Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Other Women." Therefore, it is difficult for women to release the moniker of wife and the status that comes with it, she said. The identity of wife is one who is fulfilling a biological destiny, she said.
“In our culture, and most others, men are valued for what they do for a living, while women are valued for who they are married to,” said Gallagher, who is also the author of "Yes Lives in the Land of No," www.yeslivesinthelandofno.com
. The wife’s identity becomes entangled with her husband’s career, she said. And when the marriage ends, many women lose that sense of identity, along with their standard of living.
Friends may also disappear, Gallagher said, because they are uncomfortable being around a single unattached female. They may also fear that they will experience the same fate, and they don’t want to be near the divorced couple. “So a newly divorced woman faces a lot of losses -- income, status, friends, and a sense of security and belonging. It's a tough transition for almost all women,” Gallagher said.