The Leaver and the Left

Lee Borden, an Alabama lawyer and commentator about family law and divorce, identifies what he calls the “three divorces” nesting within a marital breakup. They are the legal divorce, the social divorce and the emotional divorce. The legal divorce is usually the last one, where lawyers and spouses cut up the goods and decide who gets what. The social divorce happens when the spouses tell friends and family that they are parting ways. These two can be the least difficult, particularly if and when the spouses have divorced emotionally.

The emotional divorce is by far the toughest of the three divorces. This is the process by which each spouse comes to grips with the marital  separation and “begins to see himself or herself as a person separate and distinct from the other spouse.” For most married people, the emotional divorce is an ordeal of pain and suffering. Unlike the legal divorce and the social divorce, the spouses deal with their emotional divorce on radically different schedules.

Generally, divorces involve a “leaver” – the person who wants to split up – and a “leavee” or the “left” – the person who wants the marriage to stay intact. The one who is leaving carries the burden of guilt for destroying the marriage, and the one who is left suffers from shattered self-esteem and can carry a great deal of anger and hurt.

Studies show that the leaver generally recovers more quickly from the divorce. The leavee often tries to hang onto the relationship longer and retains his or her anger longer. This tremendous emotional imbalance makes it difficult for couples to talk amicably and sets the stage for adversarial legal battles.

The person initiating the divorce should not expect the other spouse to understand or agree. The leaver must be patient with the hurt and anger of the person left, who needs time to catch up emotionally and assimilate the decision. He or she must realize that this is not a sudden decision on the other spouse’s part. Often, long months or years of unhappiness lead up to this moment. The person left can seldom change the other person’s mind but must accept the decision.

Typically, the leaver’s emotional divorce has been under way for months, often years. The leaver has already grieved over the marriage, and he or she now it needs to end. His or her emotional divorce is more or less complete by the time the couple physically separate. That is not necessarily the case with the spouse who is left, who is often blindsided by the whole divorce.

Often the person left refused or failed to recognize signals that the other spouse was drawing away. In any event, one person cannot keep a marriage together; it takes two. Trying to hang on only prolongs the agony.

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