Divorce, Depression and Dads
Mental Health: Fathers Facing Divorce Often Find it Hard to Get Help
For many men, going through a divorce feels like a failure, and that perception often leads some of them down the long, windy road to depression.
“The loss of an important relationship like a marriage can be very difficult for anyone, but it appears that men are more likely to get depressed, whereas women suffer more financial hardship initially,” says Daniel Buccino, an assistant professor in
Johns Hopkins’ Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science. “Such substantial loss can trigger a depressive episode in vulnerable individuals, or depressive symptoms could have exacerbated the marital dissolution, which then get worse when the marriage is over.”
According to a 2007 study from Statistics Canada, men appear to fare worse emotionally than women do following a divorce. The study found that men who had divorced or separated were six times more likely to report some depression compared with men who stay married. The study showed that the loss of custody and parental responsibilities were the most stressful changes for men. “Men’s social lives largely revolve around their spouses and family, and when that is disrupted, it can leave men more isolated and prone to depression,” says Buccino.
This was certainly true for Dave Taylor, a separated father of three who is in the midst of a divorce after 12 years of marriage. Taylor admits that it would have been very easy for him to fall into a depression had he not taken steps towards prevention.
“I definitely could have perceived this has an, ‘I have failed,'” Taylor says. “I could spend all of my time looking back and second guessing things. After a separation, it seems like all of the past comes into question. So many hurtful things come out.” But rather than let those thoughts get the best of him, Taylor chose to fight back. “I would like to use this as an opportunity to become the best me I can be,” he says.
GETTING SOCIAL FOR SELF-ESTEEM
For Taylor, getting out and getting social has been a boost to his self-esteem as well as an opportunity for his children to see him as an individual. “One of the challenges we had as a family was that we often changed our plans around our kids plans,” says Taylor, who had a Super bowl party a couple weeks ago. The children wanted to come, but Taylor was firm in his resolution to keep it an adults only party. “It is a real blessing for them to see that their parents are real adults who need to have adult lives.”
The custody arrangement Taylor and his wife have arranged is unique. Their three children, who range in age from four to 12, spend nights separately with their parents so that each child gets some time alone, something that was missing in their lives pre-separation. “My kids really love the one-on-one time with each of us,” says Taylor.
And while it remains to be seen whether this arrangement is set in stone, for now, it is working. Since Taylor does have at least one child six nights out of the week, the arrangement does have one drawback in that it does not allow much time for dating. But that is ok with Taylor, at least for now. “I am in no rush to move on with things,” he says. “My attention is really on myself and my kids.”
According to Buccino, Taylor is doing the right thing for everyone. “Thinking about the best long-term interests of the children rather than the short-term needs of the father will be an effective strategy for fathers to stay connected with their children,” he says. “I have seen many men behave less than admirably after a divorce because of what they perceive to be unfair custody arrangements. Often, these custody disputes are continuations of the toxic dynamics that may have doomed the marriage in the first place, and are signs of men’s continued efforts to want to control the situation entirely.”
One of the most important things for men to do following a divorce is to relinquish the idea of control, says Debbie Mandel, a stress management therapist and author of Turn on Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body Mind and Soul. Mandel also advocates heavily for exercise and eating right, both things that Taylor has been focused on doing. “Men often do not have the resources that women do for talking and getting their emotions out,” she says. “So the best thing for men is to exercise to alleviate anxiety.”
For Taylor, this has certainly been the case. “I was a slug most of my life until about four months ago,” says Taylor with a laugh. It was his impending divorce that finally motivated him from the couch and into the gym, where he know heads at least four days a week. For many men, exercise is something they can quantify. “If one week they could do six reps and the next they can do 10, they are improving,” says Mandel. And even that little improvement might make a world of difference to their self-esteem.
FOR THE HEALTH OF IT
Mandel also says that eating better is a key component of avoiding depression. She encourages complex carbohydrates to boost serotonin levels, a hormone often at low levels in people who are depressed. “It is very important that men who were in marriages learn to take care of themselves,” she says. She encourages the men who have been in her divorce groups to learn to cook and make different, healthy dishes. “It could be a way for them to discover a new skill,” she says.
And for many men, the opportunity to cook for themselves allows for many new experiences. “I have seen men say, ‘Now I can finally eat what I like,'” Mandel says. “Besides a great way to meet new women is to go to the supermarket and buy fruits and vegetables,” says Mandel with a laugh. And while many of her suggestions for getting over the depression hurdle volunteering, taking new classes, trying yoga, might lead to meeting women, Mandel stresses the importance of meeting new friends, as opposed to potential love interests, at least in the initial months following a divorce. “Men need to get acquainted with the guy they were,” Mandel says. “You have to validate yourself first or you will just repeat mistakes.”
After a divorce, few things are more important than male bonding. “There is a camaraderie among my male friends that has helped alleviate some potential depression,” says Taylor, adding, “even the football buddies that seem only interested in sports may have stories or a sympathetic ear when a buddy needs it.” Mandel agrees. “This is the time to come back to the pack,” she says. “Maybe the wife had been making all the social plans for years, but now men can make their own plans and do what they want to do.”
For Taylor, talking about his separation opened the door to conversations he had never had. He learned of friends’ divorces and their struggles, stories he had never heard before his own challenges made him talk. “I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to find a guy who has been through the same process and just talk.”
He would encourage all men going through a divorce to do the following: exercise, get a therapist and get out and socialize. While he admits it can be hard for some men to talk to a professional, for him it was ideal. “He is just someone who will listen and give me a reality check when my thoughts start to spin,” Taylor says. “There is a lot of support if you just open your eyes and reach your hand out.”
For Taylor, the most important thing has been to remain a role model for his children, something he feels he does by showing them how much his life has improved. “Life is about the dips as well as the highs,” Taylor says. “These are important things for them to understand.” And the experts agree. “Fathers want to show their children that they are resilient,” Mandel says. “But it is OK to be a little unhappy, too.Everyone has obstacles, but it is how you deal with them that shows your children how to be strong.”
About the author: Sasha Brown-Worsham is a freelance writer in Boston, Mass. who has written for the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Technology Review, Babble.com and many other publications.