A friend’s father recently died. He was in his 80s and had become quite dependent in the last few years. Though incredibly sad to lose her father, my friend was also relieved that the burden of responsibility she’d carried round for so long had been lifted. Yet she was surprised to find how much she missed the often irksome visits to and many-times-a-day phone calls from her father. They had left an unexpected hole in her life, she said.
My friend’s experience is not unlike that of clients who finally summon the courage to divorce a controlling partner. Along with the flood of relief they feel at being free from someone who was so dominant, they also discover that they miss them. They had become so used to dealing with their partner’s needs – at the expense of their own – that they feel lost.
The initial euphoria is often replaced with a blanket of misery and depression as clients struggle to resurrect their sense of self. One client who recently went through the divorce process told me: ‘It wasn’t until I’d walked away from the marriage that I realised how much of my life my husband had controlled – what I cooked, what I wore, what friends I had, how often I went out and where. Once I was on my own, I realised I didn’t know what to do – because I’d forgotten who the real me was. Although I’d been desperately unhappy in the marriage, I went through a period of wishing I was still with my husband. It’s sounds a bit of a cliché, but I felt like a rudderless ship and I wanted the captain to get back on board and take control.’
Happily, this client was wise enough to seek professional counselling and was able to make sense of these feelings.
As divorce lawyers, we see many clients who come out of a long-term relationship where their partner was the dominant force. Those clients don’t realise just how much their life had been completely taken over. And this is why they unexpectedly find themselves suffering the kind of feelings experienced by the bereaved. They feel the loss of a huge presence and their life has a gaping hole in it.
When giving divorce advice, we always urge clients in this situation to seek help to better understand the complexity of their emotions. Only if they can really understand why they feel so bereft when they’ve finally achieved what they’ve wanted for so long can they begin to rebuild their lives.
Learning to be ‘me’ again when your character has been moulded by someone else over many years is a very difficult task, and is not something that will happen overnight. It takes time to learn that it’s okay to do what you want to do; to have your own opinions and preferences; to not have to hide in someone else’s shadow but to stand tall on your own.
But it can be done. And when those yawning holes have finally closed over, you will appreciate like never before just how wonderful it is to be able to be yourself.
- Next week: How public acknowledgement of an abusive relationship can give you the permission you need to walk away