Don’t get involved with someone who is separated. Make sure they are divorced. This is a controversial view in the ‘All is Fair in Love and War’ mature-aged dating game.
However when you pounce on an ‘ex’ who is still reeling from a fresh break-up, you are asking for trouble. Staying clear until a marriage is legally done and dusted, is the only way to avoid heartache all round.
As for the separated partner, give yourself time to consider reconciling or, if there’s no hope, work through your grief and reach emotional closure before getting involved in a new relationship.
In these times of disposable relationships, there is a common belief that the minute you break up you are instantly free to start another intimate relationship. It is a shallow code of conduct exploited by predatory opportunists who pounce on the fragile casualty still reeling from a fresh separation.
What is the right way to break-up? How long should you wait before getting involved with someone else? What are the issues and consequences to consider?
The objective facts are your partner has left you, she is gone, you’re on your own and you’re free to do what you like. You’ve probably been fighting and miserable for months leading up to the bust-up and she assailed you with a barrage of cruel insults. She screamed that she was leaving in a fit of despair over seemingly unsolvable problems. She flounces off, spitting the word ‘separation’ and callously started calculating the assets. So doesn’t this mean it’s over and final?
Well that might be the surface layer of your predicament but there are three other deeper layers to explore.
If you have been married or in a committed relationship for a long time the emotional bond or attachment between you runs deep. Even if you’ve been in conflict, you are still deeply attached and most likely still love each other. It can take years to break the bond and become detached and reach a state of indifference towards your ex-partner.
There are six stages you need to go through to heal from a break-up: Shock, Hope, Anger, Despair, Indifference and finally Growth. It is a long and harrowing journey, as any divorcee will tell you.
If your partner does not take time to process the loss but jumps into an intimate involvement with someone else straight away, you will be shocked to discover that the emotional pain is excruciating, traumatic and heart-breaking; every bit as devastating as an affair. While you are still emotionally bonded, the heart and mind perceives the new involvement as a betrayal and violation, no matter what the objective facts and your official status of ‘separated’.
Breaking up a marriage is no trivial event. It is a shattering loss and tragedy for the couple and children, not matter what their age; youngsters, teenagers or grown-up. If you are to separate, it is wise and responsible to experience your grief, which includes a gamut of emotions such as anger, guilt and sorrow before ‘moving on’. You have to rant and rave and let the tears flow and do some serious soul-searching and explore faults in yourself and the marriage that led to the break-up. To feel your buried pain leads to an experience of empathy for those you’ve hurt, which brings on remorse and a cry for forgiveness and commitment to reform. This is how people heal and grow. This process takes at least two years and requires the help of a support group and a trustworthy counsellor.
Some couples separate and become ‘estranged’. They go their own ways, move away and lose track of each other. They sever the emotional ties and even though they haven’t gone through the formality of legal divorce, they are emotionally divorced and will be unaffected by their ex-partner’s new involvement. But for most couples, the contact with each other continues on a daily basis because of their ties through their children; making it is so much harder to reach emotional closure.
It seems obvious to anyone who understands the impact of loss and grief that breaking up a marriage and family is a horrendous wrench. So why would anyone choose to get involved with someone else immediately they separate?
It is called ‘acting out’. Rather than having the courage to feel the emotional pain, many people repress, deny or avoid the explosion of overwhelming feelings inside by taking action. It is a coping strategy but one that is destined to lead to more damage.
What is going on when someone acts out? If you are the one who has been left, you suffer the agonising injury of rejection and abandonment, like a stab to the heart that is intensified by evoking memories of childhood rejection. The pain can be almost unbearable. The first reaction is shock, which makes you unable to think clearly. The rejected partner will latch onto someone who ‘wants’ them seeking comfort from the blow of being unwanted by their partner.
The rejected partner is also seething with rage and an impulse to retaliate and hit back after being hurt and humiliated. He wants to prove he won’t be controlled by his absent wife and becomes like a defiant, rebellious adolescent, hell bent on revenge. The victim becomes the perpetrator.
His emotional needs are raw. He rushes to find a substitute for sex and his male need for admiration. He wants to be reassured that he’s still attractive and is susceptible to flattery; a sitting duck for a manipulative female who plays to his weakness. He wants to be wanted and, if he is co-dependent and lost without his wife, he needs female direction. Without a strong moral code, he will succumb to any offer when another woman’s availability collides with his vulnerability.
One confused husband explained: “My wife didn’t want me. She took off. She’d been putting me down and criticising me for a long time. I suppose I was flattered that a woman found me attractive.”
When someone experiences a trauma, they can become psychologically unhealthy and regress into being self-centred, childish, driven by needs and repressed pain and capable of harming others. They lack empathy and compassion for people they hurt, see others as objects to meet their needs, cannot see another person’s agenda and they are incapable of considering consequences. People in the grip of acting out in a rebound relationship are usually in this low-level state.
As in an affair, this type of infatuation is not real love. The attraction is temporary and based on the fantasy that you have found an ‘ideal partner’ who can meet all the needs that your ex-partner failed to meet. But it is fake and deluded as each person stages a brilliant performance turning on their romantic charms. The attraction is not based on knowing a complete person with all their faults. Middle-aged ‘singles’ are desperate to impress for the narcissistic satisfaction of a conquest that proves they can still attract someone. Demonising both ex-partners heightens the appeal of the new lover. They sympathise with each other, bask in bitterness and blame of their ex-partners and enable each other in denial of their own flaws that contributed to their marriage failure.
‘Sexual passion’ is also temporary and phoney based on the thrill of illicit sex, the novelty of someone different and desperately trying to prove your prowess. The fantasy image of your new catch and an inner cauldron of rage, anxiety and shame fuel the intensity.
Once the sexual involvement has started it is difficult for the entrapped man to extricate himself. He is driven by a belief he won’t get back with his wife and will never have to report his guilty secrets. He is out to prove that his ex-wife or the concerns of his children, family and friends won’t control him. He becomes hooked on the sordid rendezvous’ and takes the free sex while he can get it, without considering the future. And he will be increasingly pressured by the Other Woman to continue the relationship and make a commitment. She has entered a vicious contest with the ex-wife and is out to win.
The wife doing the leaving is also in an unreal state, hyped on self-righteous anger and psychologically unstable. She is likely to act out rather than process her loss and face the magnitude of her actions. She will be driven to hit back at her husband for all the wrong he did her and at the same time desperate to find someone new. If she acts out sexually she will make reconciliation extremely difficult.
Why would a woman get involved with a husband who has just separated? A woman who gets involved with a man fresh from a marriage break-up is exploiting and taking advantage of the couple’s crisis and his vulnerability.
Often the divorcee in her forties is panicking about her age and fading looks and in a frantic rush to trap a new partner for herself and new Dad for her kids. In the highly competitive second-time-round singles’ market, she is willing to try all the tricks in the female handbook of male manipulation. Driven by desperation, she is likely to resort to using sex to get leverage over a new man. If he is just separated she will ruthlessly exploit the opportunity.
I know of one woman who was so calculating she make reconnaissance visits to the couple, who were good friends, knowing they were having problems and even set up meetings with the husband on the pretext of business. She waited until the couple split, then within two weeks of the wife leaving, invited the husband for dinner and laid her trap. She swooped like a vulture and yet she defended her actions claiming he was free and available.
The predatory woman jumps into sex immediately believing she will obligate the shell-shocked guy into a committed relationship. She also schemes that her intrusion will hurt and outrage the ex-wife and ensure she doesn’t take her husband back. It’s her attempt to put a final nail in the coffin of their marriage. However often this strategy backfires because the wife experiences a painful wake-up call and realises how much she loves and wants her husband and his fling becomes a catalyst for their reconciliation.
The second layer to consider is allowing time for the possibility of getting back together. Because divorce is such a tragedy, if you are caught up in the turmoil of separation, allow time to work through the tangle of emotions, get help and do some soul-searching and growing. Give yourself time to miss each other and realise what you’re at risk of losing.
Why would one partner leave? It is common for someone to hit a point of their psychological development when they assert their independence and freedom. This is called the ‘separation’ stage or individuation stage of development, which first happens when the toddler ventures out from the safety of mum to explore the big, wide world. It happens again when the teenager separates from mother to form his or her own identity as a young adult.
If this ‘separation stage’ does not happen, an adult can stay in a state of enmeshment with their mother and project this dependency onto their partner. If an adult has never properly developed as an individual, there’s a strong impulse to break free. This can hit in your 30s or 40s and your unsuspecting partner can be on the receiving end of your delayed attempt to grow up and psychologically leave your mother! It is common for men to feel smothered and controlled by their wives when they haven’t fully psychologically separated from Mother. And sadly, they think that leaving their wife is the answer when really they need to do some psychological work in maturing.
Sometimes the wife or husband is acting out being a five-year-old throwing a tantrum, packing their suitcase and running away from home to get mum and dad’s attention! Or they are an over-grown adolescent in a middle-aged body leaving home for the first time. Sad but true.
A marriage bust-up can also signal another type of psychological baggage. You can be struck with the compulsion to repeat parental patterns. When your child reaches the same age you were when your parents split up, a husband or wife will often follow the template laid down in the recesses of their brain and set about leaving their own marriage. Only by becoming aware of these unconscious issues and processing the repressed pain, will you avoid repeating your parents’ destructive patterns.
Separation can represent the culmination of underlying problems in a marriage. The impasse over an on-going conflict: over where to live, career moves, one partners’ upsetting or abusive behaviour and refusal to change, parenting styles, sexual problems or financial worries. The specific issue is usually symptomatic of an inability to solve problems and reach decisions together; an inequality in the power dynamic with one partner dominant and the other submissive. It might be a passive husband who can not assert himself and show leadership or a passive wife who is unable to set boundaries with a domineering mate.
Another chronic problem is a fabric of dishonesty, secrecy and leading disconnected lives without openness, transparency and trust. When two people drift apart and do not air their complaints, they can turn to outsiders and start plotting escapism, instead of dealing with problems.
One partner can leave as a result of festering old wounds, past disappointments or past infidelities that have never been treated and healed. Only forgiveness can free you from the chronic ache of old injuries. Letting go of bitterness takes conscious effort. If betrayals are stockpiled over the years they become like toxic waste that eventually erupts.
A failed marriage is always the result of emotional needs going unmet for a long time. Acclaimed marital therapist, Dr Willard Harley outlines 10 core emotional needs of the husband and wife: sexual fulfilment, affection, honesty and openness, conversation, recreational companionship, an attractive spouse, admiration, domestic support, financial support and family commitment.
Clearly separation indicates something is wrong with the marriage or with the inner world of one partner or both. Separation does not have to be a disaster. It can be a catalyst and opportunity for healing. Marriages can recover and thrive.
It is important for friends and family to encourage a separated husband and wife to take time to come to their senses and commit to reconciliation and do the necessary work on themselves and their marriage to heal old wounds, learn new skills and fall in love again.
MORALITY AND ETHICS
The Christian view holds that having sex with someone else while married is adultery. There is a reason why adultery is considered a cardinal sin and prohibited in the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments and why Jesus was so strong in condemning adultery. Jesus considered sex within marriage a sacred act and knew that adultery caused immense pain. He warned people against causing each other such heartbreak. Jesus was first and foremost full of compassion for human suffering.
Television psychologist, Dr Phil is also in agreement with this moral stance. He started emphatically when confronting a woman in a relationship with a ‘separated’ husband that a man must be divorced before you enter a relationship. He maintains that it is wrong to become involved with someone who is separated. The marriage must be legally over and the divorce final before someone becomes available.
Such strict morality is not about preventing your fun. It is based on protecting all parties from pain; ex-partners, yourself, the new partner and your children and her children. If you rush in, you might enjoy immediate gratification and sooth your bruised ego but at a huge cost of becoming trapped in a new relationship you didn’t rationally choose. If you dump the rebound woman when the novelty wears off and her flaws inevitably start to show you will suffer lasting guilt and regret. Meantime two sets of children and ex-partners also suffer from the hasty involvement.
Sex is not as flippant as our culture would have us believe. Sex creates a bond of intimacy that once experienced is painful to break. To have a casual fling then discard the Other Woman to return to your wife is deeply damaging for her. It will take a long time for her to recover from being used as a bit player in another couple’s drama.
Why should you protect an ex-partner from pain, if she has king hit you by leaving?
Human nature has a strong urge to retaliate when hurt; to get revenge out of vindictiveness. To retaliate against your wife with sexual betrayal, even stooping to having another woman in your marital bed, amounts to abject cruelty, a shattering sledgehammer blow. I spoke to a wife who described her husband’s act as like having her heart smashed into a thousand pieces. Another wife said: “I know I did the wrong thing by leaving but I wasn’t prepared for his instant involvement. It’s like he took a knife and gutted me. We got back together but it took ages to recover from the sense of violation, the blow to my confidence as a woman, the insecurity. It was hard to believe he could be so cruel to someone he loved.”
It is up to you to be the bigger and better person even when you are treated badly and not simply treat your partner badly back. This is the true measure of character. Not striking back out of animal instincts or giving tit for tat out of childish reactivity is to behave from intelligent adult ethics. Have the courage to experience your pain and take positive steps to reconcile rather than act out.
Behaving with ethics and integrity is to honour and respect your marriage and the years you have shared, in the same way you would honour your wife’s memory if she died. Your partner might be hurting you by leaving but she has also loved you and cared for you, shared your life, dreams and struggles and raised your children and deserves a second chance.
If attempts to reconcile fail and you end up divorcing, the mature and moral man wants to see his ex-wife set up in a practical sense, having sorted out houses, material possessions and finances and he ensures that both of you and the children are secure and stable before starting a new life. This is the decent way to behave.
During separation and after divorce, allow ample time for soul searching, grieving and achieving emotional closure. Remember the process takes at least two years. For some it takes many years. Once you have worked through a healing process, then you are ready to start dating in the old-fashioned way. Go out and meet new people but get to know someone’s character before jumping into bed and committing to a new relationship. Maybe when you’ve done the hard yards, you can find love that is real and honourable with someone else and not based on compounding the trauma of break-up.