Must Divorced Fathers Become Second Class Citizens?
It was the last straw. The Millers (details have been changed) had invited Greg’s ex-wife Susan to their annual barbecue with the kids, and hadn’t even taken the time to explain to Greg why he’d been overlooked. It really hurt, especially because he had spent hours last summer helping the Millers set up their outdoor furniture and for the last three years had coached their youngest son in soccer.
Greg had elected not to tell their friends (and some family members) the details of the breakup and how much Susan’s indiscretions had hurt him. But by taking the high road, and keeping the details private, he was well aware there were those who assumed he had been the one who wanted the separation, when in fact, it was Susan who had surprised him with legal papers.
Greg understood that it would only be natural for their friends to be supportive of Susan. And he certainly wanted to know that things were okay for her and their children. But it floored him that some of their closest friends found it necessary to take sides.
Everyone seemed to rally around Susan and didn’t seem to realize how much Greg had been hurting. He would never get over the humiliation of walking to the back of the crowded auditorium, when seats had been saved for his family, but no one had thought of him.
He missed waking up to his children and the family routines he had cherished. He missed the familiarity of the home he’d shared with Susan the last fifteen years. He didn’t think he’d ever get used to his condo, or coming home to an empty house. He counted the minutes to the alternate weekends when his kids came. And, ironically, he also counted the minutes until they went home, because they always seemed to negatively compare his home to their mother’s. He wondered if he would ever be able to feel normal and move on from the pain.
As we all know, there are rarely winners when it comes to divorce. Each family member is impacted dramatically. And, of course, the extended family and friends are put in the unenviable position of trying to be supportive, as they grapple with their own feelings about the breakup. It’s not uncommon to focus our attention on the challenges women face as they start over and tend to the emotional needs of their children. And of course, we know this support will be invaluable. Many newly divorced women have been devastated emotionally and financially, and will surely appreciate sensitivity and compassion from those around them.
It’s important, though, to remember that many of today’s divorces have been initiated by women. Even if both parties have seen it coming for some time, and the announcement comes as no surprise, many husbands may still feel as if they’ve been blindsided. Their pride, self-esteems and bank accounts may have been seriously depleted, and they’re hurting badly. So, let’s not be too quick to assume they’re heartless cads whose selfishness and immaturity are solely to blame. And, while we’re on the subject, if we seek to enter the blame game, we may take on a polarized, critical stance, and participate in an ugly spiral that escalates a tense situation even further.
After a divorce, egos may be bruised and the parties may be hyper-sensitive to the judgments of those around them. The divorced family may assume they’ve been the subject of prurient gossip on the soccer field or at dinner parties, and may worry that every aspect of their lives has been scrutinized.
Men starting over may be very frightened by the enormous responsibility of maintaining two households at a time when they’re feeling inadequate and insecure. Knowing that we all need to grieve a major loss in a very personal way should remind us to assume that newly divorced men are hurting also and could benefit from our warmth and camaraderie. They may not have a solid support system readily in place.
The newly divorced man has usually lost the structure and comfort of his home and daily routines, and may have been accustomed to his ex-wife handling responsibilities that are now on his very full plate. He may miss the special moments of spontaneously snuggling with his children or being privy to their daily confidences. The limited visits with his children may feel forced or awkward, and over time, the comfort and closeness they once felt may have become strained. Hopefully, as the children mature and gain insight, a closer bond can be re-established.
There may be an assumption that he’s living the “life of Reilly” with his newly freed-up schedule — and that it’s no trouble at all to segue quickly to an active, satisfying social life. Don’t we all say: “It’s so much easier for a man. Everyone has a number to give him.” Obviously, this is not always the case. But even if the newly separated man has opportunities, it does not mean he isn’t dealing with loneliness or his self-esteem hasn’t taken a huge hit.
Most women have developed a support network and are more comfortable reaching out for what they need. Men were more often socialized to keep sad feelings to themselves; they don’t want to be perceived as wimps or whiners. So, they present a stiff upper lip and suffer silently. Assume they may be struggling more than they let on. No doubt, he’d be so appreciative if you took the time to call him or invite him over (with or without the children) for a casual catch up. Don’t press him to talk if he’s reticent. His pride may have suffered a great deal. He’ll open up if, and when, he feels safe to share.
As the newly divorced man faces the challenges of the next chapter, there will obviously be some tense moments and pitfalls, but if he is receptive, there are possibilities for tremendous growth and personal satisfaction.
by Linda Lipshutz