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

Section 3 (Web #17)
Helping Divorced Men to Mourn Their Losses - Part II

Question 17 | Test | Table of Contents | Couples CEU Courses
Counselor CEUs, Psychologist CEs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

Male Patterns in Mourning the Losses of Divorce
Although a fair body of theoretical and clinical literature exists on mourning the losses of divorce, the process has been viewed largely as a 'human phenomenology' that men and women experience in similar ways. Hence, very little has been published to date on therapy with divorced men. The three main publications of which this author is aware are Dreyfus' 1979 paper, "Counseling the Divorced Father," Jacobs' 1983 paper, "Treatment of Divorcing Fathers: Social and Psychotherapeutic Considerations," and Myers' book Men and Divorce, published in 1989. Dreyfus lists and elaborates on men's many losses in divorce. He focuses his study on men's dependency needs and the patient-therapist relationship and says very little about how the therapist can help the divorced man to work through his losses. Jacobs summarizes the psychotherapeutic issues most frequently encountered in his crisis treatment of divorcing fathers, but focuses on problems of fatherhood. Though he observes that men find it difficult to cope with the emotions that arise from divorce, he says little about how to help them work through their grief and loss. Myers draws upon his rich experience as a psychiatrist working with men in divorce to discuss a range of themes relevant to treatment. But while he names grief as one of these themes and enumerates men's losses, he spends only about a page and a half on the "grief process," with little mention of how men in particular undergo this process or how to help them (pp. 242-244).

This paucity of writing on helping men to work through the losses of divorce contrasts with the fair body of literature that exists on helping men to mourn the death of their loved ones. The very limited attention is striking because of the recognized importance of mourning the losses inherent in divorce. Mourning these losses is considered essential to the completion of the psychological separation that is so important to the divorced individual's functioning and emotional adjustment. Moreover, the failure to complete such mourning has been seen as contributing to ongoing spousal conflict during and after the divorce process, as well as to the disengagement of some divorced fathers from their children.

Under the assumption that there are clinicians who would like to offer their male patients emotional help with the losses of divorce or to incorporate such help into their psycho-educational programs, the remainder of this paper offers practical suggestions for emotional counseling of divorced men.

The basic premise of counseling divorced men is that men mourn differently from women. As recognized by the literature on bereavement, they are less inclined than women to share their feelings and to display their grief verbally or through emotional demonstration, and more inclined to act it out. Such differences have led scholars to conclude that clinicians treating bereaved men must take men's way of mourning into account. The same applies to counseling divorced men.

As discussed at length in a previous paper, men and women differ in the timing of the mourning process, in who and what they mourn, and in how they mourn.

When: The beginning of mourning in divorce is difficult to pinpoint because the dissolution of the marital relationship is an ongoing process which usually begins well before any physical separation or legal action takes place, and thus itself lacks a clear beginning. Nonetheless, empirical studies show that men usually come to experience the stress of marital breakdown later in the dissolution process than women do. In particular, findings showing that men experience their highest levels of distress and concomitant symptoms after the decision to divorce and the actual separation, while women tend to experience peak stress while the couple are only talking about divorce and before they have separated suggest that men may begin the mourning process later than women. While stress is not necessarily a marker of mourning, the various cognitive, somatic, affective and behavioral symptoms named in the literature appear to be a correlate of the cognitive recognition of the loss of the marriage--the "reality phase," when denying that something is radically wrong with the marital relationship is no longer possible. This phase, it may be suggested, which men reach later than women, must come before mourning can begin.

What: Qualitative and clinical studies suggest that divorced fathers tend to mourn the loss of their ex-wives considerably less than they mourn the loss of their children and of their home, family life and routine. Jacobs, based on his clinical experience with divorced fathers, states that some men never mourn the loss of their spouse, but concentrate exclusively on mourning changes in their relationship with their children. Riessman, based on interview data of divorced men and women, reports that men tend to mourn the absence of their children and family, rather than the loss of their spouse, while women are more prone to mourn the loss of the marital relationship. Gray and Merrick present clinical evidence to this effect. Myers indicates that some men go so far as to deny missing persons they lost in the divorce, whether their children or their wife, but talk about missing things that are symbolic of family, such as their workshop, coming home to an evening meal, or pulling into the driveway and feeling proud of owning a beautiful home.

How: Findings also suggest that men mourn differently from women. The literature indicates that most divorced men respond to their loss by increased activity, especially by throwing themselves into their work, hobbies or social life, and by somatization, and/or self-medication with alcohol and drugs; and that they are much more likely than women to quickly replace the marital partner with other sexual partners. Moreover, while divorcing and newly divorced women score high on indices of depression, divorcing and newly divorced men score low.

The fact that men mourn the losses of divorce differently than women means that clinicians cannot properly proceed as they would with women clients and, for optimal results, must take men's particular ways of mourning into consideration. The remainder of this paper offers practical suggestions for how to tailor their counseling to men's distinct needs.

When and How to Offer Help
Because men seek little help in general and with divorce in particular means that help must be offered to them. There must be some reaching out to them by professionals in public and voluntary agencies. The reaching out should be done bearing in mind the importance of proper timing and the perceptions and feelings that may deter men from seeking help.

It is important to time the offer of help to when men will be most likely to accept it or, conversely, least likely to reject it. This means that efforts should be made to time the offer to the stage in the divorce process when men begin to sense what they have lost with the breakup of their marriage. Prior to that, there tends to be a period of denial, when men who initiate the divorce tend to feel primarily relief at ending an unsatisfactory relationship, while men who do not want the divorce may still hope that they can avert it. Neither is likely to seek help.

It is obvious that different men become aware of their losses in divorce at different times, so the timing of the offer of help can only be approximate. Nonetheless, since, as noted above, men begin to sense their losses in divorce relatively late in the process, generally only after the actual separation, offers of emotional help should probably be directed to men who have already separated from their wives, rather than those who have not, and be repeated for some time after the legal divorce.

With respect to how help should be offered, two suggestions may be made. One is that help should be offered in a manner that circumvents the association men may make between help seeking and weakness or ineptness and, conversely, enhances the man's self-perception of doing right by his family. This approach is implicit in the psycho-educational programs that are offered to help men improve their post-divorce fathering. Here the suggestion is that emotional help too should be presented to "divorced fathers" rather than to "divorced men." This framing would allow divorced fathers to seek help without feeling they are doing so only for themselves or because they cannot cope and would make their help seeking a positive, ego-enhancing act on behalf of themselves and their children both. It may also bolster their ability to expose their grief and to experience the pain, sadness, and other unpleasant and "unmasculine" emotions that are likely to arise in the course of their treatment.

The other suggestion is that the offers should be made incrementally, so as to enable the men to retain a sense of control. Control is a particularly sensitive issue in divorce therapy because divorce so often throws the individual into situations over which he or she has little control. Moreover, while persons' need for control varies with their personality, indications are that men tend to feel a greater need for control than women. To maximize the man's control, initial contact might be better by telephone than in person. A meeting might be suggested without requiring an immediate response, and the therapist, would ask if it's all right to phone again at a later date. Where the man hesitates or refuses, he might be offered a trial meeting, at any point in the future, with no obligation to continue.

The Therapeutic Process
The major task in divorce therapy is to help the individual to mourn the losses inherent in divorce. This is particularly important not only because of the intrinsic difficulties of the mourning process, but also because, in contrast to mourning loss through bereavement, there are no recognized rites or rituals to mourn a divorce. In addition, for men there is little social recognition of the grief resulting from divorce and little societal support for working-through process.

The clinician must thus provide the recognition and support that are not provided by the society. Most men who seek therapy following divorce ask for help with functional problems: sexual problems, problems in forming a new relationship, problems in parenting and, in a relatively few cases, somatic problems. Few come saying that they want help in mourning their losses or even in dealing with the confusion of emotions that is generally uncovered in the course of the therapy. Many, even after the denial phase, will tell that, aside from the presenting problem, everything is just fine.

The clinician's first job is to help their male patients to recognize their losses and to acknowledge them as losses. Clinicians may suggest that their male patients talk about their marital home and ask about things that they miss from their married life. Relatively few men will readily talk about the good things in their marriage or tell what they miss. Clinicians should not be surprised by assertions that nothing was good and there is nothing to miss or by their patients' need to dwell on the problems and unhappiness that led to their divorce and to allocate blame. Clinicians should not be deterred, however, from gently pressing the issue and returning to it after room has been made for the men to work through their negative feelings, when they feel more comfortable in the therapeutic relationship, and when they are better able to confront their losses. In the process, clinicians need not, and probably should not, be over zealous to attach the word "loss" to the things that the patient identifies, since this may be threatening. It is enough that the patient identify things he regrets no longer having.

Nor should clinicians be surprised if their male patients find it considerably easier to speak of the loss of their pre-divorce family life and relationship with their children than the loss of their wives. It is important for clinicians to be aware that, as noted above, most divorced men do not overtly express grief about losing their ex-wives. At the same time, it is also important that clinicians realize that the absence of overt expression does not necessarily mean an absence of grief for the loss of the ex-wives. What it does mean is that before helping their male patients to work through the loss of their ex-wife, they must first help their clients to work through the losses that are more obvious to them.

For mourning to occur, the cognitive identification of the losses of divorce must become an emotional realization, with the man experiencing the sadness and pain attendant on his losses. In most cases, this experience will be blocked by a wall of anger. Anger is a dominant emotion in divorce, among men and women both, sometimes lasting for years after the legal dismantling of the marriage. Its social acceptability for men makes it the first response of many men to all sorts of stressful situations. In addition, anger may be easier for men to express and cope with than grief and sorrow, and also serve as a defense against these emotions. However, therapists should not be misled by the expressions of anger, sometimes very intense, usually supported with a plethora of concrete grievances, into thinking that the man does not feel grief.

Before helping the male patient to work through the underlying grief, the therapist must let him know that it is alright to feel and express anger. With this, though, the therapist should lead the men to connect with the underlying sorrow and loss. For many men, this connection can come only after the therapist confirms that they have cause for grief and lets them know that it is alright to grieve--that grieving is not unmanly. Statements such as "When people lose things, it arouses a lot of feelings" and "Some people think that grieving is weak and unmanly" may be helpful. Simply verbalizing the possibility of an emotional response gives permission for it, and may leave room for patients to later acknowledge their grief.

With assistance from the therapist, some men will be able to acknowledge and express their grief openly. Therapists can help such men by putting into words the inchoate feelings that they may have but cannot sort out or articulate. For men who are wary of expressing their sadness, the therapist may help by asking them to describe their grief without using the word feeling, for example by asking, "How is it for you?" Men who respond to such questions with an account or demonstration of their sadness benefit from the prompting, and may need it. Other men, as writers on bereavement note, will be able to cry or break down only when they are alone. Such men may prefer to mourn their losses in private, and therapists should respect this preference.

The goal, however, need not be to get men to express their grief in words, tears, or in some other direct way. As Carverhill points out in connection with bereavement, the expectation that they do so is based on a female model of mourning. Instead, therapists should recognize that, as noted above, many divorced men act out their grief recognize their frenetic hyperactivity, self-medication, and somatization, where these occur, as indirect expressions of grief and sorrow. The therapist's task is to help men who act out their grief to connect their behaviors to the underlying feelings.

Termination of Treatment
As has been repeatedly noted, treatment termination is both a difficult and a highly significant phase of the therapeutic process, which may impact on the ability of the patient to maintain the changes attained in the course of the therapy. It is a particularly critical and sensitive phase of divorce therapy, because, like the divorce itself, the end of treatment involves the loss of an important relationship. The separation from the therapist may thus reactivate the feelings inherent in the divorce. Moreover, the work on loss that figured as the key theme of the therapy will have sensitized the patient to the loss inherent in treatment termination.

Attaining proper closure is thus particularly important in divorce therapy. Where the patient decides to cease treatment on his own, the therapist should make every effort to persuade him to return for at least one more session, possibly several, to express his feelings and thoughts about the therapy. Though not every patient will be amenable to persuasion, the therapist should, as far as possible, try to prevent too abrupt a bolting. When the decision to terminate is the therapist's, whether alone or shared with the patient, care should be taken to leave enough time for the feelings that arise at termination, and especially feelings associated with loss, to emerge and for the patient to be able to express them. Clinicians would do well to take into account that some of their male patients may return to former patterns of denial and that they need encouragement to express their feelings about the impending separation. Clinicians should also take into account the possibility that issues that were thought to have been resolved will suddenly re-arise with the termination and that the patient should be offered the opportunity to work on them.

Like other dynamic therapy, therapy that focuses on helping divorced men to mourn their losses is aimed, first and foremost, at improving the patient's quality of life and emotional well being. Its benefits, however, go beyond the individual. The man's relationship with his family, with both his children and his ex-wife, does not end with the divorce. A man who has mourned his losses, and who is thus worked through the anger and pain that they bring, is in a better position to forge a cooperative co-parenting relationship with his ex-wife. He is also more likely to be an empathic father, who is able to understand and feel for the difficulties his children experience, both in general and in the divorce process, in particular. He may also serve them as a model for coping with the difficulties and complexities of life after divorce.
- Baum, Nehami, American Journal of Psychotherapy, 00029564, 2004, Vol. 58, Issue 2.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Chen, S.-Y., Roller, K., & Kottman, T. (2021). Adlerian family play therapy: Healing the attachment trauma of divorce. International Journal of Play Therapy, 30(1), 28–39.

Clyde, T. L., Wikle, J. S., Hawkins, A. J., & James, S. L. (2020). The effects of premarital education promotion policies on U.S. divorce rates. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 26(1), 105–120.

Weiss, B., Lavner, J. A., & Miller, J. D. (2018). Self- and partner-reported psychopathic traits’ relations with couples’ communication, marital satisfaction trajectories, and divorce in a longitudinal sample. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 9(3), 239–249.


What are two suggestions Baum made with respect to how help should be offered? To select and enter your answer, go to the Test.

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