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Separation Counseling: Brief Interventions for Divorcing Couples
10 CEUs Separation Counseling: Brief Interventions for Divorcing Couples

Section 2 (Web #16)
Helping Divorced Men to Mourn Their Losses - Part I

Question 16 | Test | Table of Contents | Couples CEU Courses
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As is well known, men are much less prone than women to seek psychological help. Writers who write about the emotional difficulties arising after the death of a loved one, the difficulties and uprooting caused by immigration, and the travails of illness consistently observe that women are far more prone to seek professional help than men. The same gender difference is found among those seeking help with the pain and distress arising from separation and divorce. Here, too, men are considerably less prone to seek professional help than women. Men's reluctance to seek help, in divorce as in other matters, may be understood in light of their socialization and the societal expectations of them. The "men-must-be strong" ethos teaches that men who seek help are weak, vulnerable, and incompetent. Men are expected to act as support-givers for their family, which creates role conflict for men who seek support and expose their vulnerabilities. The expectations that men be "rational" and the interdiction on emotional expression by men leave many men fearful of being overwhelmed by intense emotions, a fear which probably also contributes to men's reluctance to seek psychological help. As Myers, who studied men in the divorce process, points out, male sex role socialization has been directed to self-sufficiency, independent problem-solving, and inhibition of feelings, and has not prepared men to elicit help and support and to do the emotional groundwork for separation.

More surprising is the fact that little if any emotional help is offered to divorcing and divorced men. Lehr and MacMillan, who studied divorced men who did seek help, quote numerous men complaining that their previous inquiries about professional services were met with telephone statements to the effect that the agencies "don't deal with men" and "don't work with men." To be sure, considerable professional help is available to divorced men. But this help tends to be directed towards divorced fathers and to focus on helping and encouraging them to fulfill their post-divorce role as non-custodial parents.

Most of these interventions are psycho-educational, with an emphasis on children's reactions to separation and divorce, parenting issues unique to non-custodial divorced fathers, and the importance of an ongoing relationship between the divorced parents. Sessions are also devoted to such functional matters as active listening, negotiation, planning, and problem solving. Behind this approach is the dual conviction that a good father-child relationship after divorce is crucial both to the children's psychological development and to the fathers' own post-divorce adjustment.

The psycho-education approach, with its focus on enhancing post-divorce paternal competency, certainly has its merits. It does not, however, adequately address the major emotional issue of divorce: the need for the divorced individual to adjust to the dissolution of the marriage and the many losses the dissolution entails. This need has been recognized in divorced fathers. Indeed, several clinicians argue the importance of emotional counseling for men, which will allow them to mourn their losses, enhance their willingness and ability to express their emotions, and give them the opportunity to accept responsibility for their marital breakup and their subsequent relationships. These calls are the exception, however.

Several reasons may be proposed for why clinicians, who provide extensive emotional counseling for divorcing and divorced women, offer relatively little emotional counseling for divorcing and divorced men--even when these men do come for help. One reason, which is suggested by findings in the areas of grief counseling for deceased children and the counseling of immigrants, is that clinicians may perceive men to benefit less than women from emotional intervention. Another reason may be that, as Myers has pointed out, many counselors are unable to look beyond the rage that divorced men often present and its behavioral manifestations. A third, and key reason, in my view, lies in the failure of clinicians to recognize the full extent of men's losses in divorce.

Men's Losses in Divorce
Clinicians, like the society in which they operate, rarely recognize the full extent of men's losses in divorce. This failure of recognition may stem from the a number of widespread perceptions, supported by research, that family is less central to men's lives than to women's, even where the woman pursues a career; that men tend to be more "separate" from or less "connected" to their families than women; and that family is more integral to the self-identity of women than of men.

These perceptions may issue in two, often unstated, assumptions. One is that men are less emotionally involved in the conjugal relationship than women, and so lose less than their wives when it is sundered. This assumption is related to, and may seem to gain a certain credibility from, frequent observations in the marriage literature that women generally seek greater intimacy in the marital relationship than men, while men place greater emphasis on autonomy or on the structure that marriage provides. An expression of this view may be found in Gray and Merrick's explanation of why, in their opinion, men find it easier to deal with the legal issues of divorce than women:

Even when they consider themselves to have initiated the divorce, women experience marriage as a relationship of attachment. The emotional-psychological process of divorce is equated with a rupture in the attachment. The rupture of attachment is profound for women, who value relatedness over autonomy of self. In divorce the loss they experience most intensely is loss of the relationship. By contrast, the loss in divorce for many men is the loss of the institution of marriage. When men talk about their satisfaction in marriage, they often speak in terms of the comfort of roles and the status of married life. (p. 245).

If divorce is not seen as a "rupture of attachment" for men, then they have little cause to grieve and scholars have little to write about men's grieving for their ex-wives.  The other assumption is that men do not lose all that much when they become noncustodial fathers, since they are nearly always the secondary parent in any case. While a great deal is written about changes in men's paternal role with divorce, when their children are usually placed in the custody of their mother and the men become out-of-house fathers, only a few writers speak of the emotional loss that this entails.

Neither of these assumptions is correct. As many scholars point out, the marital relationship is more likely to be the sole source of emotional sustenance for men than for women, and men are much more prone than women to direct their emotional needs for connection and intimacy almost exclusively to their partners. In divorce, men are thus more likely than women to lose their only confidant and source of intimacy. Indeed, studies on bereavement have long come to the recognition that the emotional bond between a man and his wife is strong and important.

With regard to men's parental role, the fact that the father is not usually the primary caretaker and is usually less involved with the children than the mother does not mitigate the enormous pain of his loss of custody. The non-custodial father's relationship with his children is greatly circumscribed in time and place, and lacks the easy naturalness of living under the same roof. The non-custodial father also loses many of the secondary benefits of living with children, which include structure, an anchorage of attachment, company and meaning, access to other adults, including neighbors, kin and friends, and the psychological and behavioral advantages of being responsible for others, as well as the affirmation of the parental aspect of one's identity that comes from living with children on a daily basis. Indeed, findings indicate that men adjust better after divorce if they continue their relationship with their children.

The research on divorced non-custodial fathers reports considerable mental anguish on their part. Studies consistently report strong feelings of loss, grief, sadness, loneliness, rootlessness and being shut out, as well as a general sense of inadequacy and incompetence and feelings of devaluation as parents. As Arendell describes it "Men are the unrecognized emotional victims of divorce" (p. 580). Full recognition of men's losses in divorce is both an essential prerequisite to offering divorced men the emotional help they need and a spur to doing so.
- Baum, Nehami, American Journal of Psychotherapy, 00029564, 2004, Vol. 58, Issue 2.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
O'Hara, K. L., Sandler, I. N., Wolchik, S. A., Tein, J.-Y., & Rhodes, C. A. (2019). Parenting time, parenting quality, interparental conflict, and mental health problems of children in high-conflict divorce. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(6), 690–703. 

Øverup, C. S., Ciprić, A., Gad Kjeld, S., Strizzi, J. M., Sander, S., Lange, T., & Hald, G. M. (2020). Cooperation after divorce: A randomized controlled trial of an online divorce intervention on hostility. Psychology of Violence.Advance online publication. 

van Scheppingen, M. A., & Leopold, T. (2020). Trajectories of life satisfaction before, upon, and after divorce: Evidence from a new matching approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(6), 1444–1458.


Why do may clinicians, like the society in which they operate, rarely recognize the full extent of men's losses in divorce? To select and enter your answer, go to the Test.

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