The Taconic Counseling Group

Maria Alba-Fisch, Ph.D.

Reclaiming Pieces of the Self After a Divorce: Part One

When people divorce, they not only need to assemble a new life, they also need to conduct their life without an immediate partner.  Though the spouse who did not initiate the divorce feels this with a shock, the initiator of the divorce faces the same personal task, even if that feeling is delayed by the expectation that the divorce offers a new direction. To create this new future, each person needs to reclaim the pieces of themselves that they had lost touch with during the marriage.  

It is Natural in Marriage to Lend and Borrow Aspects of Who you are.

When couples create a shared life, spouses, naturally, not only develop shared interests, we also create a 'couple consciousness'. This 'couple consciousness' is filled with particular memories and words that evoke unique meanings. In addition, members of a couple, naturally, both lend and borrow skills and abilities. Some of these skills and abilities are pieces of each person's identity.  Reclaiming those pieces is essential to moving into a life separated from their spouse.

This lending and borrowing ranges from the distribution of chores (you do the laundry, and I do the cooking) to social behavior (you are the one who arranges our social life and I deal with the bank manager) to personal qualities ( you are better at organizing and I am better at creating fun times).   Even when it seems that you do all the work and your spouse just glides through, they have done something – they are good at making pancakes or doing sports or making kids laugh. This 'something' is their particular contribution.

Often, this distribution of qualities and activities builds on individual strengths. When spouses are pretty well matched on a particular quality, couples, still, tend to identify one person as being the 'specialist' in that particular quality because there is a lot to do in a household and marriage.  For example, when one member of the couple is a bit more organized than the other, that person frequently becomes, for this couple, the organized one.

When one person is really much better at something, this distribution can become exaggerated.  The other person, then, is allowed by the distribution of labor to bypass developing that particular quality or ability, letting it fall by the wayside of a busy life. At very concrete levels, one person 'gives that activity over' to their spouse, entrusting their spouse with that 'job', feeling at ease leaning on their spouse's expertise. At the more personal level of identity and stylistic qualities, similarly, a person may under use a quality that seems to be their spouse's strength  If one person tends to be the more patient of the two, that person deals with situations that require patience and both feel that the job is well done.  In doing so, the less patient spouse does not exercise their own ability to be patient and rarely gets to experience and see themselves as patient. 

When couples have children, and when marriages endure for a long time, the lending and borrowing tend to increase and to settle into fixed ways of managing life.  As this happens, each member of a couple naturally forms aspects of their identity around the new roles they have been playing within the couple.

It is also true that people, sometimes, select spouses for particular qualities they lack. So, if one person is a dreamer, they may pick a spouse that is pragmatic and organized.  The pragmatic spouse can enjoy the dreamer because the dreamer comes up with great ideas about how to spend the weekend.  The result can be that the dreamer never quite develops their pragmatic side, and the pragmatic one never develops the dreamer inside.

This Distribution of Qualities can Lead to Identity Modifications

When qualities of the self are divided in this way, over time, each can lose touch with the qualities they once had, or might have wanted to have, but turned over to their spouse.  At some point, through many, many interpersonal interactions, this leads towards a modification of how a person sees themselves.  The example above may help us clarify this point. If one spouse has always been the more organized, that spouse is likely to administrate certain domains in the household. The less organized spouse may no longer experiences themselves as organized in those domains. Eventually, the less organized spouse has less and less experience with themselves as organized and feels more and more inexperienced.  I am calling this dimension of the self an 'identity fragment'. This 'identity fragment' gets solidified by many interactions.  The less organized spouse, now, out of practice, may make errors thereby transforming "I think she is better at…"  to  "I am not able to...".  If the less organized does have to organize something for the family, they will, likely, be anxious and uneasy, further reinforcing this 'identity fragment'.  If there are children, the children will easily learn to see each parent with the identity fragments they have shaped with each other. Most kids know which parent to ask about any given topic.

Even if one spouse had helped the other learn a new strength within the marriage, the one who developed a new strength may be afraid that they cannot really do this on their own.  So, if travel began, for one spouse, only in the marriage, that person may feel that they do not know where to begin planning a trip.  It is as if they borrowed this during the marriage and feel like they don't really have the capacity in their own self. Good trip planning is not fully integrated into their individual identity.

Divorce Requires that We Reclaim the Forgotten Pieces of Ourselves

When a marriage is dissolved, people, first, need to absorb the fact that they have relied on their spouses for certain functions.  Each spouse may resent their spouse for having certain strengths and for disenabling them from developing them. For example, I often hear "She never made room for me with the children." or "He never explained the money to me.".  This anger, though understandable, can side track the person into blaming, as if the spouse continues to hold the rights to that area of functioning.  Reclaiming their energy from the anger and facing their own anxiety and inexperience will direct them towards defining and reshaping who they want to be for their future.

Each divorcing person needs to observe what they had given over to their spouse and identify the qualities they want to claim or reclaim for themselves.  Some are obvious.  Each spouse will need to handle their own checkbook.  Some are more complex but, still, skill based.  So, if your spouse made a great pot roast or barbecue, you may need to learn how to do that.  Some are far more subtle and personal. If your spouse was always forceful, the one who made things happen, you may need to figure out what you can do to make things happen in your own way.  If your spouse was always the one who smoothed the way, you may want to learn how to do that. Your spouse may have been the expert in this area, and you may feel unpracticed and afraid that you cannot do it, but you may have "forgotten" that you could do this, once, or that, at least, you wanted to learn how. 

 During, and shortly after, divorce, people become flooded with many new tasks because they need to shape a whole new future for themselves: find a home, help their kids, reorganize money, re-shape their relationships with friends, family and the community.  They also need to shape who they will be so that they can feel like a whole person again.  In the midst of so many reality tasks, this may seem like a luxury, but it is more basic than luxurious. It is a new foundation for the self and the future.

Reclaiming portions or developing underdeveloped portions of the self requires real psychological work. Some people begin this before they get divorced.  They have changed and know they can be different and are eager to get out into a future where they can actually be the new way they want to be. Some have to undertake this even during the shock of a divorce they may not want. This is a scary undertaking.  The most important first step is to realize that this fear is a natural result of disrupting a long standing shared life, but that the fear is not a fact.  Rather, most abilities can be learned; while work is required, it is not impossible. For a more specific guide to this process, see the companion article:  Reclaiming  Aspects of the Self after Divorce Part Two: A Roadmap