No matter who pulls the plug, divorce sucks.
It does get better, and eventually, you get to a new normal — but the process sucks. I know this because our two-physician marriage ended 15 years ago when our daughters were six and seven years old.
Divorce can be especially hard on physicians, and during these COVID times, additional challenges have surfaced for many divorced physicians. Some on the frontlines have been unable to see their children as often due to self-imposed isolation measures or, in some cases, imposed by their exes who have joint custody. For some, seeing the many COVID-related deaths in the hospitals has highlighted their aloneness and brought their own mortality into sharp focus.
Below are ten reasons why I think divorce is especially hard on physicians.
1. We feel like failures. As physicians, we like to ace everything that we do. We study hard, work hard, and strive for excellence in everything we do. When divorce happens, we feel like mega-failures — and it sucks.
2. We feel guilty. We feel like we’ve let a lot of people down. If we have children, we may feel like we ruined them permanently. We know that divorce is an adverse childhood event (ACE) with long term implications. We know the unflattering statistics about children of divorce. Cognitively, we know you can’t apply statistics to an individual. But emotionally, we imagine the worst outcomes for our children.
3. Time away from the children. Not infrequently, physicians may not be the primary residential parents in joint custody agreements. When they are, hectic work schedules make it hard to be a room parent or attend school field trips, and this adds to #2. For those who choose to cut back on work for family time, it often comes with a change to a career trajectory.
4. Loss of control. The divorce process is, at best, controlled chaos. With so many variables at play, many times we feel “not in control. We do not do well with unpredictable outcomes despite our best input.
5. Sense of isolation. Sometimes our spouses were one of the few people who “got us.” Our crazy hours, weird inside jokes, oddities and all. Physicians who were part of a physician couple may feel like no one will ever understand them.
6. Hard to make new friends. When the divorce happens, our small friendship circles (rigors of med school and training) get smaller as people take sides, and we lose friends. Our schedules also make it harder to socialize on the playground or schedule adult dates.
7. The superhero complex stops us from asking for help. We are the ones fixing everything. We try to do it all, cope with the divorce and all the emotional stuff that comes with it while at work, putting our best foot forward every day.
8. We don’t take the time or space to grieve the end of the marriage. We are unable to or choose not to take the time to process the divorce and all the emotions that come with that. We don’t get to wallow. We are used to our personal issues taking a back seat.
9. We feel like we shouldn’t complain. We are in the top 5 percent of earners and have job security. We don’t get to complain because others have it worse.
10. Our finances take a huge hit. Divorce will derail your best laid financial plans even when you’re part of a dual-income couple. If you are the sole earner, asset division and hefty spousal support really puts a gash in your reserves. This makes some physicians jaded and wary of partnering up again.
What can you do if you’re going through a divorce to make the process less sucky?
1. Accept that divorce happens. Your marriage failed, but you are not a failure. If you accept that divorce happens in up to 40 percent of first marriages, then you learn from the process, heal and move on in a positive manner. Growing from the process and getting better, not bitter.
2. Take the time and space to mourn the loss of your marriage. Taking that time off could be time off from work, reduced work hours, extended vacation time. Don’t bury yourself in work to distract and numb your pain. Use your vacation days, sick days to preserve your physical, mental, and emotional health. Find support groups in person or virtual to process your emotions. Engage in therapy.
3. Ask for help and accept help if offered. This is not time to be a superhero. Take the cape down and get the help you need. Help with your physical health, your mental health, your emotional health, your spiritual health, your financial health. Use the resources you have within your family, network, and those resources that are available to you through your job insurance. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness, an awareness of your limitations as a mere mortal.
4. Take time to work on yourself. Really pay attention to your emotions, triggers, coping strategies, actions. Apply the intentionality of preparing for the MCAT, USMLE, board exams, etc. This time, the subject matter is you. Knowing yourself allows you to better define your expectations and boundaries in your future relationships.
5. Pay it forward. When you get to a good place and have embraced self-care, help someone going through the process. We can help other physicians going through a divorce. We get them, we know the struggles and understand the added challenges of going through a divorce while striving to be a super-physician.
You are an amazing physician dedicated to helping people live their best lives. Take care of yourself. You deserve the best life has to offer.
Toyin M. Falusi is an infectious disease physician.
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