PTSD After Divorce

This is one of those links that I’ve pondered in the past but it has really come to a head in the past few days. First, Paulette posted the following review of my book:

Lisa Arends does an effective job in writing about the aftermath, the fallout, of a life-changing shock, on the abrupt desolation of her marriage. The read is a well done walk through all the PTSD and repeating changes that occur, which is depicted in a letter written to her by her exited husband, the commentary on the letter under the umbrella of the devastating changes she experienced, emotionally, physically and logistically are a walk through the fact that PTSD is not just relegated to victims of war, but to any life encounter that uproots your very existence in a shocking manner. She’s a likeable author, an engaging woman, that you take to and feel for, because she portrays the story, the horror she lived, with veracity and integrity, to allow the facts to unfold on the page even if they point a finger back to her (ie: a text from her spouse to his mother-in-law, Lisa’s mother). Devastation upon devastation unravels and what we hold onto dearly is lost, not just in the relationship but also in the family built around it, fury and otherwise. Arends navigates through this debacle with grace and humility, filled with emotions that are painted with strokes that are sure to offer others in similar situations some reflections and ground; she labels as “Lessons” chapter after chapter, ultimately culminating in what she has learned, valuable life lessons, applicable to anyone. But, this is not just a self-help work, or a read for someone in a similar situation, it’s a compelling story of the frailty and misconceptions we all live with, the thin line of trust & betrayal, confidence and fright, love and rejection, all the things that make the paradoxes of life and keep a balance, hopefully the balance stays in some semblance of equilibrium. In Arends case she tilts off the scale and by the Grace of her very nature, the love of her family, and whatever else strength she draws from she journeys through to meet what is most precious to all of us, connecting and opening to trust (applause to Tiger, no spoilers) despite all temptations not to, and in doing so, learning the ultimate, that love does conquer and cannot be soiled by another’s shadow cast upon our soul.

In the book, I never name PTSD. I only describe the events and my reactions. Yet, here was a third party who deemed that to be an accurate label.

Then, yesterday, a post from Out of the Chrysalis (Does PTSD After Divorce Exist? You Better Believe It)  showed up in my inbox. I totally related to her description of her experience.

And I do believe it. PTSD happens when your mind cannot process the extent of the trauma. It’s like a short circuit in your nervous system, where you have trouble distinguishing between real and perceived threats. We tend to think of PTSD as occurring only in life-threatening situations, but it occur anytime there is an acute or prolonged trauma. Not all divorces lead to PTSD, but if it is sudden or abusive, the trauma can be severe and sudden enough to lead to PTSD-like symptoms.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the following are the symptoms of PTSD:

Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:

  • Flashbacks, or reliving the traumatic event for minutes or even days at a time
  • Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event

Symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing may include:

  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Memory problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships

Symptoms of anxiety and increased emotional arousal may include:

  • Irritability or anger
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Being easily startled or frightened
  • Hearing or seeing things that aren’t there

From Mayoclinic.com.

After I received the text that ended my marriage, I experienced many of these symptoms. I had the flashbacks and the dreams. I had trouble thinking and remembering. I couldn’t sleep and I frightened easily. But, most of all I trembled constantly, my autonomic nervous system was on high alert, waiting for the next assault.

At first, the triggers were everywhere. Driving along the road that passed by my old house felt like traversing a field with buried landmines. I fully expected an explosion at any moment. I responded as though every mention of his name was literally a threat to my life. At any moment, I could be catapulted back to instant where I received the text. It was as though the phone was always in my hand.

My psychiatrist that I saw that first year stopped short of a full PTSD diagnosis, but she mentioned the disorder and selected medications that are used to treat it. I honestly don’t think I would have made it through without the medications. They allowed me to sleep and eat – two things I could not yet accomplish on my own.

Over time, the triggers decreased. I learned how to sleep and eat without assistance. I stopped the medications and was able to use meditation and exercise to reduce any symptoms. I can still feel the shadows of the trauma when I feel like I’m being abandoned again but, for the most part, my mind and body no longer confuse real and perceived threats.

After my divorce, I learned that most people assumed that depression would be the disorder de jour after a break up. They expected me to be sad and withdrawn. Instead, I was hyperalert,  shaking and always on the lookout for the next blow. It’s important to realize that all divorces are not the same and we all respond differently. There is no ‘right’ way to be after a divorce. The labels can be helpful but even they only tell part of the story. Be gentle and understanding with yourself and others. Seek the help you need and know that it does get better.

I wrote more about PTSD after divorce on The Huffington Post.

Are you struggling to find your center again after divorce? My complete, 12-part coaching course can help you leave the trauma behind and find your way back to happy. Learn more!

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69 thoughts on “PTSD After Divorce

  1. I absolutely agree with this. I was not fortunate enough to be able to get help when everything in my life fell apart. I did get referred to a therapist via my GP,when he realized how close to clinical depression I was coming, but due to waiting lists etc. I didn’t actually get my first appointment until about four months after events. By this time, I had thought I was doing OK and I would rather give my allotted time to someone who needed it more. I realize now of course that I’m still healing, and I still get the symptoms described above – flashbacks? check. Dreams? check. Innumerable triggers that can set off reminiscences? Check. It can still be so very hard getting through each day. But your last line, about things getting better… I think they do. But I also think I made the mistake in believing I was more OK than I was Than I am. Great post. Great blog.

    1. “But I also think I made the mistake in believing I was more OK than I was Than I am.” I’m guilty of that one as well. I think we so desperately want to be healed that we can pretend we are before its time. There is a bit of “fake it til you make it,” but it’s also important to recognize when there is still work to be done.

      And, yes, it does get better:)

      Thanks!

  2. Thank you for the mention in this post! It’s comforting to know we are not alone in this and that there are people who can share stories like ours in the hopes that we all continue to heal. Blessings to you!

  3. I went through very similar effects from my 20 year marriage/ divorce… It took several years, a lot if inner reflection and yes… Meds to get over the hump and into a healing phase. I’m glad people are beginning to realize that these feelings are real and help may be needed. Great book review!

  4. 6 months post-split. An abrupt end, much like yours. The shock has worn off, but the trembling and shaking continue, especially in anxiety provoking situations. It is so freaking embarrassing. I’m on meds for it, but a move and a new job are in the very near future. How do you deal with it?

    1. It takes time. Be patient with yourself; you can’t force the shaking to stop. I found the following helpful: exercise, yoga, meditation and writing. I learned how to separate my thoughts and feelings from my body’s reactions. Basically, I realized that my body was lying and that I was not in any true danger. I did the move and new job one year in. It actually wasn’t too bad, I think because I couldn’t wind up much tighter than I already was.

      You’ll be okay. The shaking will subside and you’ll be able to breathe again.

  5. i have experienced PTSD-like symptoms over the past couple of years — relating to the end of my marriage, and then recently in the past few months, relating to the sudden death of my mom, and three months later, the sudden death of my older sister. my doc is treating me for depression and emotional pain, but the emotional shock and memory loss and fear that i am experiencing is not depression.

    your blog post is helpful — i plan on discussing with my doc when i see him this week.

    1. I am so sorry to hear of your losses. I had PTSD-like symptoms as a teenager when I lost 13 friends in a three year period. As the losses piled up, I was not able to process the grief normally anymore. No matter how strong we are, we need help when things get too overwhelming. I hope you can get the help you need. Hugs;)

  6. Wow! I have a lot of those symptoms, too. My therapist diagnosed me with situational depression, but I’m going to ask him about PTSD, too. I exercise 5 days/week, including yoga, and I know it’s helped stabilize me and forced me to concentrate on the act of breathing. In the week after D-day, I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath.

    1. I didn’t take a full breath until 4 months after. Isn’t it wild how much the breath parallels our mind? That’s awesome with the exercise and the yoga. Keep it up – they are healthy and effective ways of coping with the stress.

    2. We do have situational depression, we just don’t know when it will rear its ugly head. As your therapist about EMDR, it is a wonderful treatment, a lot of work. My therapist used it, and he is a specialist on trauma teams for disasters,and the veterans coming home from war. He has used it for rape victims, accident victims and even me, who went into a spiral downward when I saw a bottle of asian sauce in the fridge….the last thing he used to make dinner before he walked out. The greatest thing is knowing that we all will survive and we wax and wane with our emotions. I treated with some Cymbalta for a few years ( I am a nurse practioner) and then I was able to wean off of it. The drugs helped ease the pain a bit, still had to do the work. I also thank God everyday for my dog, he needed me and I had to get up. He is now a therapy dog and we go places to help others, the way he helps me everyday. Do you want him to come visit you? Good luck and check out the EMDR.

  7. That is too ironic that I post a new blog today, refer to PTSD as a large part of my experience after my seperation, and then I find your blog above. I know, without a doubt, that I suffered from PTSD immediatly following my seperation and for the months after. I would simply feel as if I had been taken by aliens and dropped onto an other planet. I constantly had these butterfly nervous sensations in my belly and like you, I was always on guard, terrified of the next round of debilitating trauma. I couldn’t eat, I lost 48 pds in three months, I couldn’t sleep, and I lived on auto pilot.

    I started my blog, like you, with the hopes of sharing my story to helping others who are experiencing seperation and divorce. My main goal is to let them know they have not gone crazy, there are others out there that are experiencing the same emotions and that they will survive. Honestly, writing my story for the world to read has been much more difficult than I had imagined, it is taking a lot longer than I thought and it is offering more healing to me than I ever expected.

    Thank you for remaining strong and though your situation was a few years ago, continuing to support all of us who are moving through this process.

    1. How funny – you must have been writing this while I was reading your post:)

      I think there is a lot of healing to be found in writing and sharing our stories – not just of the end of a marriage but also in the life that can follow.

  8. Well, this explains a lot for me. The sudden anxiety attacks after certain triggers, the panic, the aftermath…I’m so glad I got out of the marriage, but I wish I’d known this bit of information about PSTD before now. I’ve been battling it all alone.

      1. And you would not believe how many times this week the issue of PSTD as the result of divorce has come up in meetings. (I often deal with clientele who are in this category or whose children at times are in this category.)

      1. separation is its own agony…don’t know if you’ve heard it, but I did…Jan. bf actual filing the words “I’m not going to divorce you right now.” go ahead and put the knife in and twist it…for awhile. some things not to do…no relationships, keep the friends you have and stay in contact with your spiritual sources. I did this and it allowed me not just to GO thru but to GROW thru and see the person I had married for who she really was. There is no anger or resentment today but forgiveness…it did take some time and some days felt like years. I also had to see it was not a rejection of me so much as the illusion of what someone wanted in marriage…a fairy tale, living happily ever after and when that bubble burst, there was nothing for that person to continue. very shallow and sad for this and that I didn’t address it and live in reality. It’s been 16 months since the divorce was final-she filed not me-and I have not ventured out into the dating world and really don’t want to anytime soon.

      2. I didn’t go through that period if the unknown and the in-between. It sounds like a rough place to be. I’m so happy to hear you found a perspective to help you through that time and let you move forward.

  9. How long did it take for the PTSD type feelings to subside? I’ve had a counselor mention this as a possibility. Just when I think I’m doing okay, XH decides to start making major life changes and initiated a custody dispute.

    1. It varies. For me, the generalized PTSD feelings faded around a year, but it would flare situationally for about three years. Like you, I would think I was okay and then something would happen that would send me backwards. I did find that it became easier each time that happened to “reset” to normal. In a strange way, I think those facing those triggers can be good for healing. It’s basically exposure therapy where you face your fears and are forced to realize that you’re still standing. When the worst fears aren’t born out, they eventually begin to diminish.

      Of course, in the meantime, it sucks. Thinking of you in this latest round. It won’t last forever.

  10. Oh bless you for saying “there is no ‘right’ way to be after divorce”. I’ve often attributed my divorce symptoms to PTSD– and I always felt like nobody “got it”. Especially when I started falling in love again. My sister was recently diagnosed with a severe auto-immune disorder and has the same set of issues. Not to trivialize combat PTSD, but simply to say that it is another iteration of the enigma.

    1. “another iteration of the enigma” Love it!

      I just submitted a piece for Huff Post on PTSD after divorce after the response on this one. I’m really curious to see how people react to the idea…

      Sorry to hear about your sister. She’s lucky to have you around since you understand some of her feelings.

  11. This is reassuring to hear that I’m not going crazy! I wrote about feeling like I have PTSD after finding out that my husband of 15 years has been having an affair for a year and a half and that he was divorcing me. It knocked me off kilter so badly I thought I was going crazy. I was never one to define myself by having a man in my life and never dreamed about having a fancy wedding. But when I realized my husband was walking away from everything we had built together I couldn’t process it. http://dowehavetotellthekids.blogspot.com/2013/04/post-traumatic-stress.html

  12. For quite sometime I have pondered if it was all completely natural for people to go through the motions of separation and divorce uneffected emotionally. I sought out divorce from my husband of 3 good years after he became a much different man than the one I married, we have two beautiful children together but because I became.
    financially in ruin once we split they’re being taken care of by their paternal grandparents, a wound that is deep. I often wondered why I suffer from bad dreams, shakey memory, and flash backs that send my heart and head into a whirlwind of guilt and sick emotion.
    I go back and forth trying to decide if I truly love my ex or if I truly miss him or if I just miss who we were together. I find myself second guessing because I developed a relationship with another man during my separation, when things looked grim and it was so i

    1. The end of any marriage is traumatic. It’s a death that doesn’t end that is complicated by custody and financial issues. I think it is completely natural to have trouble adjusting. Please don’t hesitate to get the help you need. Hugs.

  13. Panic attacks and shock and flash backs, yep it was the same for me. Three years on I still get the odd wobble. I did meet a lovely guy on my journey with combat PTSD it was the same but different. My symptoms weren’t trivial but his were more violent, although we both had physical stress, his were a reaction to physical and emotional shock.

  14. I am a little late here. LInk from another site and saw this topic. If you are all still interested in PTS and PTSD I recommend this book:
    Your Sexually Addictied Spouse/How partners can cope and heal, by Barbara Steffens, Ph.D, LPCC and Marsha Means, MA.

    Many programs that treat the partners of sex addicts are 12 step programs modeled after AlAnon or COSA. They treat the partner as a co-addict and enabler which in some cases is true, but the authors believe that the behaviors exhibited by partner of sex addicts are also symptoms of post traumatic stress and require a different treatment than that offered in traditional 12-step programs.

    While reading through it, I found much of their presentation and process to be applicable to partners of non-addicted spouses who are cheaters, but not sex addicts. Indeed, much of what they wrote seemed to have application in many relational trauma instances which was my area of interest when I began reading the book. I highly recommend it to this blog author and all who have commented on this post.

    It seem you all may be correct in assuming you may be suffering from PTS or PTSD. Even if that is not personally the case, you will find much of interest concerning affairs and it is not at all written like a text of medical white paper. I stumbled across it on my local library shelf.

  15. I am so glad that I found this post. I am definitely dealing with some of those symptoms; I know it gets better and it has a bit but I’m still waiting for this “fog to lift”, so to speak. Thanks for posting this!

  16. Yes. Yes. Yes….I whole heartedly believe that I have PTSD from this trauma. It is still not over with. Many selfish actions on his part that have scarred me forever. The doc gave me new med while I wean off my old ones. I hope he enjoys his vacation to Florida with his girlfriend this week while his wife deals with the kids, house, work, broken dryer and PTSD. Have some fun in the sun for Me!

  17. I want to thank you for this post (though this is really, really late!). I have been aware of this issue since my ex “asked me to leave” four years ago so that she could “work out out her issues” from her first affair, which led immediately to her second. She married that one.

    I was in such trauma that I didn’t protect myself legally or emotionally very well, including seeking therapy. I had just relocated to NYC for her job when the affairs began, and was unemployed. I had no financial or legal protection and really couldn’t afford any.

    Although my triggers have reduced considerably without a lot of therapy (none in 3.5 years), the one last thing that is a trigger- pictures of her or her affair partners on social and regular media-is a nagging problem, given that we are all in the same profession. I have rebuilt my life with the help of family and friends, though.

    We all get better, with help.

  18. What a great article, and I am so glad that someone is shining a light on how emotionally devastating a divorce can be. PTSD is real, I suffered it once from my vocation, and then again after the break-up. My psychologist used EMDR both times and I found it incredibly effective. I think anyone suffering significant trauma needs to be exposed to EMDR.

  19. Hi!
    Found your blog through Out of the Chrysalis blog. Thanks for reinforcing what I already felt – and knew after looking up the symptoms of PTSD. That was how I found Kimberly’s blog in the first place. Feeling I was having PTSD symptoms and looking for someone to help.
    I am now almost 4 years post separation and almost 3 years post divorce from a 40 year marriage. I am doing much better but still will have bouts of PTSD. I have discovered that NOW – the bouts usually coincide with a particular event. The anniversary of the Divorce – anniversary of him telling me he had been unfaithful and wanted out – knowing he will be in the area visiting my (I used to say our but have gotten much better about saying my) Children. I moved 6 hrs from where I had lived for 23 years – leaving friends and the place I felt very at home – to be close to my children. Very glad I made the decision to do so.
    Last year – as my Grandson’s 2nd birthday approached I began to have the symptoms again. I was quite certain he would be attending the party for my Grandson and I felt I could not be around him after his actions at my Grandson’s 1st birthday party. I had insisted he be invited as this was our first Grandson. I told my Daughter I could handle being around him. That I could be cordial. It was difficult but I was doing well. Then – as the party was about to end – he had to act like a jerk.
    I did not want to put my Daughter in a difficult position of choosing between having me there or her Father – so I waited until she said something about him coming. I then told her that I would not be able to attend because I could not be around him right now. She was upset and said – I can’t uninvite him. I said – I do not expect you to do that. The reason I did not say anything before now was that this is MY PROBLEM. You shouldn’t be put in the middle and made to choose. I live close so I can spend special time with “F” either before or after. He is only 2 and will not realize I am not there. I just don’t want to make things harder for me or to possibly say something to spoil the day.
    This was a difficult decision. However – after I told her – I actually had a relief in the symptoms. Knowing I did not have to try to control my PTSD symptoms in the presence of a bunch of people helped me to feel much less stress.
    Thank you for your blog and for all the people who have commented. It is always helpful to know you are not alone – and – you are NOT CRAZY!!
    Blessings,
    Phyllis

  20. 25 year great, loving marriage until now. In the 10 months since discovering my wife’s affair –with a woman– just after I lost my job, I have gone from months of insomnia and morning anxiety to having to get a minimum wage job; while there at times wanting to just lay down on the floor of the store and never getting up. Had a heart attack 5 months into separation and after being served papers. The trauma is indeed physical, and the anxiety is triggered a lot by chemicals released by the stress. It seems that the mornings are the worst for anxiety. Having lost living with my daughter, and losing my home has been really, really hard as well–devastating. The betrayal has affected the way I look at the future: no idea how I can trust again. In my 50’s in good shape but I really don’t care about anything. I feel like a blanket has been thrown over my mind and body – no energy or mental power. About to move into a rented bedroom with strangers as that is all I can afford on my wages. I don’t want to live a life like this but I have to think about my daughter. I’m better than I was 10 months ago, but still shocked, hurt, and not myself.

    1. I am so sorry for your losses. This is a good place to land and may become your soft place to fall. It really does help to know that you and your feelings are not alone. Lisa is amazingly candid and helpful as are those who share.

      1. Thank you for your kind note. I’m trying everyday to deal with the pain of it all. The divorce is final in 3 weeks and I move out then. Things are coming to a head so I’m feeling a bit more anxiety. There is no happiness to be seen for a while. I feel destroyed, but I have to keep going for my daughter.

    2. I am so sorry to hear of your situation. The trauma certainly is physical. And the fallout is completely overwhelming. I found it easier to work on the physical sources of anxiety first through mediation, exercise and yoga. It was easier and felt more doable than tackling the emotional aspects. And once the physical symptoms were managed, the mind was easier to train.

      It will take time. You’re better now than ten months ago. And in another ten months, you will be better than today.

      Thinking of you.

      1. Thank you very much for your kindness. I ask myself why I’m so devastated and not healing quicker, but my Mother said it’s also because I’ve lost everything (marriage, family, home, job, trust, etc..) and having to start over. The deep love for my wife I’ve felt for 25 years just can’t be turned off quickly. There’s a lot of fear and sadness in my life right now. Just trying to deal with it and survive.

      2. Thank you. Your blog has allowed me to share my feelings, which I’ve just now been sharing outside of therapy. I’ve been keeping my catching her cheating and her sexuality from our teenage daughter; she thinks we just suddenly stopped wanting to be married. I want my daughter to find her own way concerning sex and to protect her until she is old enough to understand the complex situation. It is a freaking nightmare.

  21. I never thought to look for a list of PTSD symptoms. The 15 that you have listed I have experienced 13 of them. I’m sad and happy at the same time right now! Sad because of what she put me thru and how black and white it is because I see it in…black and white. I’m also happy, though, because I have found the plan to figure this out.

    It’s been a long journey being sad. It’s time to go back. It’s going to be a long journey to return to happiness. I hope I make it.

  22. Pingback: PTSD | casca946

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