When Will the Pain from My Divorce End?

Dr. Olson,

I’ve been divorced now for three years. When will the pain end?


Dear Eddie,

Thirty-five years after my divorce, my ex-wife and I plan to babysit our grandkids while their parents are vacationing. Some of our friends (and our kids’ friends) find this a little weird.

First of all, I take no particular credit for our rapprochement. My ex deserves much of the credit. But divorce doesn’t have to be acrimonious, at least not forever. But I have discovered several truths along the way.

Difference in timing: In most cases, the person coming out has been thinking about it for a long time. Often the spouse finds their life suddenly upended. Often the gay spouse wants the world to celebrate and support their decision, but the spouse isn’t there yet and perhaps never will be.

Anger: Anger is a universal experience in divorce. I also believe it is essential because it helps people reaffirm their decision. Anger is also energizing and helps avoid passive acceptance and depression. This emotion is painful but necessary.

Empathy: One of the most critical elements in reaching rapprochement is developing empathy, putting each partner in the shoes of the other. If the gay spouse can communicate their experience about the pain they went through, that helps. But listening to the spouse’s pain is also essential. Hopefully, they will come to understand your pain too.

Trust: Once there has been a breach of trust, it takes a long time to recover. Trust is reestablished not by promising to be trustworthy but through trustworthy behavior.

Forgiveness: Forgiveness is a gift you give someone who doesn’t deserve it. You can’t make anyone forgive you, but you can learn to forgive the other even if they don’t forgive you.

I believe every divorce has two sides. The gay spouse often experiences most of the blame because they are seen as the disrupting agent. Here is where sharing our stories is important. Others need to understand that our decision was not impulsive but involved hidden pain and careful consideration of the impacts on people we love and why we chose to act as we have.

Finding oneself: Our motivation in coming out is to expose a side of ourselves we have carefully hidden. For spouses to recover, they must seek to find an identity beyond the marriage. Those spouses who cling to the identity of the betrayed spouse of a gay husband suffer the most. Some cling to that identity because they believe it shifts the power and support to them—perhaps especially in their relationship with their children. They may even resent that their gay spouse isn’t suffering similarly.

Some spouses claim to have “chronic posttraumatic stress,” a mental health condition that develops following a traumatic event characterized by intrusive thoughts about the incident, recurrent distress or anxiety, flashbacks, and avoidance of similar situations. Medications and cognitive-behavioral therapy are the evidence-based treatments.

Some things lie beyond our control, and we must accept that. But we can take some steps:

  1. Accept that anger is valid and avoid using our children to express it.
  2. Find empathy and compassion for the challenges our ex-spouses experience, and tell them about it.
  3. Always behave in a trustworthy manner toward them.
  4. Forgive the spouse for their role in your decision to divorce; set yourself free.

You may have been the provider and protector during your marriage, but that role is no longer yours. If your spouse needs mental health care, she must seek that care on her own. She will become stronger for it.

Loren Olson