IS DIVORCE (SOMETIMES) ABUSE?
I would suggest reading my previous post, regarding Posttraumatic Relationship Disorder (PTRD) before reading this post. It points out how a person can be traumatized by the ending of a relationship, which then sets the stage for considering whether or not divorce can be a form of abuse.
Before going any further, please understand that the views expressed in this blog entry, and in my blog, in general, are my views, and my opinions, and as such, not necessarily reflective of mainstream thought in psychology, or mainstream thought, in general. Also, I admit to choosing a somewhat provocative title, deliberately, because I would like to, well, provoke thought. I understand there are other viewpoints, and I welcome you to express those.
In considering the question, I think it is first important to consider what we define as abuse. When you type in the word "abuse" in Google, Merriam-Webster does not have a definition of abuse that accounts for emotional or psychological abuse. However, Wikipedia does have such a definition. According to Wikipedia, Psychological abuse (also referred to as psychological violence, emotional abuse or mental abuse) is a form of abuse, characterized by a person subjecting, or exposing, another person to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Based on this definition, it does not seem a stretch to conclude that divorce can, at least in some situations, be a form of psychological abuse, because it often results in psychological trauma, such as anxiety, or chronic depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (or what has been referred to as Posttraumatic Relationship Disorder). The reason that I say that it is "at least in some situations," is that there are times when it is quite clear to anyone who analyzes the situation that a divorce was the proper approach to the situation, because the other person in the relationship was a victim of terroristic behavior (i.e. physical abuse, sexual abuse, significant emotional abuse, etc). However, there are other times when it is not so clear, and in such cases, I believe it is fair game to consider the possibility that the person doing the divorce is being psychologically or emotionally abusive.
I think, before going any further, it is important to reflect on our current definition of psychological abuse. It used to be that the definition was very narrow...perhaps it was only used in situations in which the victim was subjected to extreme emotional stress, such as perhaps that which might occur in a torture situation, or in an extreme interrogation session, etc. However, as we, as a society, have explored this topic more, we have come up with a broader, and more inclusive definition of psychological abuse. Now, it can be considered psychological abuse if a parent neglects their child, for instance neglecting to act when their child is being bullied in school, or neglecting to act when their child is being put under emotional stress by the other parent, or by another person, etc. And, it is considered emotionally or psychologically abusive to call someone a bad name, or to tease them mercilessly, or to bully them verbally. Racism, or other types of 'isms' can also be forms of psychological abuse. If you agree with that, then it seems that we now consider it psychological abuse if we behave in a manner that causes the other to experience unnecessary or extreme emotional pain. And, in your personal life, I am sure you can probably come up with other examples of what you would consider psychological or emotional abuse. Or, perhaps you can think of a situation in our society, or somewhere in the world, where there is psychological or emotional abuse that has not been identified as of yet, or even that which has already been identified, but which was not mentioned here.
If one accepts that psychological abuse can come in various forms, and that it should be considered a possibility when the effect of the action of one person is that the other person is traumatized, then one may also want to consider that divorce can be, at least in some situations, a form of psychological abuse.
In many of the cases that I've come across, one of the people in the relationship does not want the divorce, while the other does. We, as a society, have come to a point that divorce is an accepted part of a relationship; the legal system supports divorce, there is not a lot of resistance, on a society level, to divorce, and it is considered to be an acceptable solution to difficulties in a marriage. No-one has to get approval for a divorce; one can get one even if the other person does not want it, and it is actually considered rather inappropriate or even sadistic to require a person to remain in a marriage if they want a divorce. So, from a societal point of view, nothing is stopping someone from getting a divorce. The sentiment is, I believe, that if it feels as if that is the right thing to do, then so be it.
However, what of the person who does not want the divorce? What do we think, or feel, for that person? Do we tell ourselves 'Well, they probably deserved it' and write it off in that manner? Or, do we say, of the person who initiated the divorce, 'Good for them for not staying in a bad situation?' Or, do we feel sadness for them, or does our heart go out for them? Perhaps we make our decision about how to feel based on the information we have about the divorce. If it sounds as if the person who did not want the divorce was a nasty person, then perhaps we feel no empathy for them, and decide they got what they deserved. If it sounds as if the person who initiated the divorce was a victim, we may cheer for them and feel the other person was just getting their karma. There are probably many ways in which we justify divorces, or absolve the person who initiated the divorce of any responsibility. And, as I am sure some of you will argue, there are times when that is completely appropriate, and where there should be sympathy for the 'victim' and no sympathy for the 'perpetrator.' However, in some of the other situations, is it fair to perhaps see the person who initiates the divorce as being the perpetrator, and the other person as being the victim? And, in those cases, does it make sense that the person may develop Posttraumatic Relationship Disorder?
Some people use leaving, or ending a relationship, as a form of retaliation. This seems to be an incontrovertible thought, in this writers' opinion, though certainly I am willing to entertain alternate viewpoints. In my opinion, there are some who will 'punish' the other person for whatever slights or transgressions they have committed by withdrawing from the relationship. And, in some instances, they do so by beginning another relationship while still in the marriage, and use their dissatisfaction with their mate as the justification for doing so; in other words, they let themselves off the hook for behavior that traumatizes the other, because they feel the other 'deserved' it. However, cut the picture in half, and look only at how the 'leaver' is behaving towards their mate, and what do you see? Cruel, uncaring, traumatizing behavior. So, does the end justify the means?
I believe, in the final analysis, that anytime we get to a point, as a society, that we can brush aside trauma as being 'deserved' or 'expected' or necessary, then we become a bit more calloused, and a bit more cruel, and a bit more like those who we do not want to be like. And, while one may tell oneself that it is ok for them to be that way, because of the circumstances, it is still cruelty, and it is still traumatizing.
One of the reasons it seems that this is a valid point of view is that the aftermath seems to be consistent with trauma. In all too many cases, after a divorce, there is a protracted war of tit for tat. One person fires the first shot, and the other returns fire, and this continues, back and forth, back and forth, sometimes for years. The former couple uses the children, money, or property to harm the other, in this perpetual game of attack and retaliation. And, if one traces the conflict back to its roots, at least in some instances, it starts with one of the people in the relationship feeling as if they have been harmed, and then justifying retaliation as the appropriate reaction to being harmed. But in the process, what terrible things each person can do: I have seen cases where the children are used as weapons to get at the other, perhaps by not letting the other see their kids, or perhaps by poisoning the children's thinking about the other, or perhaps by attempting to use custody limitations as a form of retaliation. I have seen couples work hard to assassinate the character of the other, and who have done dastardly deeds in the name of being a victim. I have seen couples who abuse the court system, with attacks and retaliation occurring between lawyers, over and over and over. It seems clear to me, then, that there is deep hurt, and one person or both giving themselves permission to be cruel or terrible to the other, based on how they feel they were a victim. So, it seems that if someone is convinced they are a victim of the other, such as if they have Posttraumatic Relationship Disorder, they do not feel any guilt for engaging in cruel, retaliatory behavior that they would otherwise find to be very wrong.
The solution? That is not so easy. We live in a country where free will is valued above most other things. No-one should be forced, in my opinion, to remain in a situation they want desperately to escape. However, I do believe we should raise our children to think in conciliatory ways, and we should teach them how to express themselves, set limits, and how to take care of themselves in a relationship, so that hopefully they do not reach a point that they feel they are a victim, or do not get to a point that they are a victim. And, we should encourage them to think with caution when they begin to describe themselves as a victim, because there are situations in which it takes two to tango, and they should be aware of their side of the dance. And, we should encourage our children not to go from feeling a victim, to giving themselves permission to be cruel, without at least some thought, and without at least some consideration of alternative approaches. And, for ourselves, I think it is wise to attempt to devise methods of coping that do not involve cruelty, and that do not traumatize others, regardless of our justification. And, when possible, we should make amends, with amends being more than just lip service to an ideal. And, we would be wise to remember the saying that is popular in 12-Step programs: Wherever you go, there you are.