Getting Through an Emotional Divorce Once the Legal Dust Has Settled

The walk-away spouse vs the left-behind spouse

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Emotional divorce is a psychological mechanism some spouses use when they feel the marriage has become a threat to their well-being. When you divorce yourself emotionally from your spouse, you have separated your emotions from the marriage. For some spouses, this happens before the divorce. For others, it doesn’t happen until after the divorce process.

What Is Emotional Divorce?

Emotional divorce is a psychological mechanism some spouses use when they feel the marriage has become a threat to their well-being. When divorced emotionally from a spouse, one has separated their emotions from the marriage.

Most divorces are one-sided. Very rarely will a couple sit down and come to the decision to divorce together. Normally the spouse who has already separated themselves emotionally from the marriage requests a divorce. That spouse has gone through an "emotional divorce" and now plans to be legally divorced from their spouse. 

The 'Walk-away' vs. 'Left-behind' Spouse

Some spouses struggle for years with feelings of emotional distance before they realize that divorce is the solution. These spouses are commonly referred to as a “walk-away spouse.” A walk-away spouse may become emotionally detached for a variety of reasons. Most commonly detaching emotionally from the marriage and spouse is a mentally assertive way of allowing the spouse to maintain boundaries when they feel they are being hurt or the marriage has become unsafe for them. 

Emotionally divorcing a spouse helps a person maintain a sense of psychological integrity if faced with what they feel is an emotionally demanding situation. Basically, emotional divorce comes before legal divorce for some because they’ve felt the need to withdraw and protect themselves from problems in the marriage. 

The spouse who is left to deal with their emotions after the legal divorce is commonly referred to as the “left-behind spouse.” No matter which role you find yourself playing, you have to come to grips with the end of your marriage and begin to view yourself as a separate individual and no longer a husband or wife. 

Characteristics of a Walk-Away Spouse

  • Uncommunicative after spending years trying to communicate frustrations
  • Cold and distant; finally given up, no longer interested in working on the marriage
  • Spends large amounts of time away from home to escape an unhappy marriage
  • Irritable and impatient; resents spouse's attempts to save the marriage
  • Wants the divorce process to move along quickly

Characteristics of a Left Behind Spouse

  • Shock; had no idea there were problems in the marriage
  • Looking for ways to save the marriage
  • Becomes clingy, often begging and pleading for another chance
  • Exhibits bizarre behavior such as stalking and harassing
  • Feelings of anxiety and fear about the future and being single again
  • Tries anything to delay the divorce process and cling to their marriage and spouse

Exerting Control Over Your Emotions

The basic instinct of a left-behind spouse is to control the situation. They failed to see the warning signs, and don’t know how to respond effectively. As a result, they respond in ways that pushed the walk-away spouse further away emotionally. 

The left-behind spouse wants to do or say something that will draw their spouse back to the marriage emotionally. Due to the fear and emotional pain that comes along with losing someone they love, the left-behind spouse often causes conflict during the divorce process that is unnecessary.

It is important to understand that a spouse who has already divorced themselves from the marriage is not an evil person. They are not carrying around an agenda of hurt and pain; rather, they're are looking for an escape from a situation that is causing them hurt and pain. This may cause them to respond to their spouse's shock and pain in what appears to be a cold and calculating manner. 

The desires and needs of a left-behind spouse can’t be controlled by irrational, bizarre behavior. The best thing they can do is come to terms with the fact that they only have control over their own emotions. Focusing on controlling their emotions will help them move smoothly through the process of emotionally detaching from their spouse. In turn, they will find it easier to find their way through​ the legal process of divorce.

Article Sources
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  1. Ubaidi BA. The Psychological and Emotional Stages of Divorce. J Fam Med Dis Prev. 2017;3(3). doi:10.23937/2469-5793/151006

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