Curing the divorce hangover

A "divorce hangover" is the unfinished emotional experience of a divorce. This hangover can be healed: divorce doesn't have to be a permanent state of being, a condition that keeps you trapped in chronic pain or numbness. It's the end of one phase of your life, and regardless of whether it was by choice or not, it can be the beginning of a happier, more satisfying one.

By Anne Newton Walther
Updated: March 20, 2017
Divorce Recovery

Divorce is a profound, life-changing experience. It's painful, it's confusing, and it turns your world upside down. But at some point, it should be over.

If it's not -- if the pain, anger, resentment, depression, or emotional confusion seem to go on forever -- then you're in the clutches of a divorce hangover. A hangover is an ongoing connection with your ex-spouse or former life that keeps you agitated or depressed, unhappy, and stuck in the past.

You deserve to come to peace with your divorce so that you can begin a new and richer life. To do that, you must first understand the divorce hangover.

Pain That Won't Stop

Jan thought her divorce was over when the judge's gavel swung down and the decree was final, but months later she was still crying herself to sleep.

She thought the pain and frustration would end when she received the financial settlement, but she still caught herself lashing out for no apparent reason at the children and strangers. There were days when her emotions, her finances, and her life seemed completely out of control.

Later, she thought the anger and resentment would finally end when she moved to a new city...when she began seeing someone and remarried...when her ex-husband, Tom, remarried and had a child.

But the knot in her stomach still hasn't gone away, even after eight years. She still finds herself replaying the marriage and divorce over and over in her mind, and often feels angry, depressed, or victimized when she thinks about Tom. Sometimes it doesn't take much to set her off -- a wedding invitation, parents' night at the kids' school, a Fourth of July picnic, anything that reminds her of all that she has lost.

For Jan, the emotional loose ends and unresolved bad feelings have become a habit. Ever since the divorce, she feels as if she's living at only half-speed, or underwater. Her feelings about Tom and the divorce still control her life. So much of her attention and energy are focused on the past -- which she can do nothing to change -- that she sees even her new marriage to John through the filter of this "failure."

Jan's "hangover" has little to do with external events like signing the final papers or starting to see other people. Rather, it is an internal state of mind that she carries with her everywhere as a shield against the loss, change, pain, and devastation of her divorce -- and the fear that something even worse could happen in the future. This shield, which is keeping her from moving forward with her life, is a divorce hangover. And Jan is not alone.

Hangover scenarios

Does any of these situations sound familiar?

  • Seven years after the divorce, Fran calls her ex-husband's new wife, Isabella, and shrieks into the phone, "Give me my husband, you bitch!" Robert, now Isabella's husband, passively sits by, refusing to get an unlisted phone number, thereby causing a rift in his present marriage.
  • George has been divorced for three years and is happily remarried, but he continues to pay for his first wife's subscription to TV Guide.
  • Stacy continues to drive the old Mustang that she and Rick shared when they were married, even though she can afford a new car. Each time it breaks down, she calls Rick immediately, convinced that he is the only one who can fix it.
  • Jennifer, 10, tells her mother "all kinds of things" after weekends with her father, particularly about his "rotten new girlfriend." She will do anything to keep her divorced parents "together," even if their only connection is arguing on the phone.
  • Two years after his divorce, Ed is still living in the same small apartment, complaining about the unfair financial settlement. He bitterly claims he doesn't have enough money to date and spends his energy bad-mouthing his ex to anyone who'll listen.
  • Allen's ex-wife, Judy, has been living with her boyfriend ever since their divorce four years ago, but he still thinks she will one day come back to him.
  • Mary "accidentally" packs dirty clothes for the children's weekends with Dan, remembering how much he always hated to do the laundry.
  • Bart is convinced that the only reason his ex-wife isn't marrying her "live-in" is that it would end his alimony payments to her.

While the legal process of divorce is fairly simple -- one entity is divided into two separate entities -- the emotional experience of divorce can be complex and devastating. When a divorce does not promote healing and lay the past to rest, you feel the pain and paralysis of a divorce hangover. Divorce hangover is the unfinished emotional experience of the divorce.

When you have a divorce hangover, life is a battlefield, and unfortunately, you and the people in your life are often the worst casualties. Anger, resentment, bitterness, depression, and frustration can also cause physical illness if you keep them around for long periods of time. Ultimately, you only hurt yourself with vengeful or bitter thoughts and actions.

Recognize your Hangover

Recognizing your hangover is the first step towards healing the pain. You're in the grip of the divorce hangover if:

  • You still have strong emotional ties to your ex-spouse. These ties may be negative -- a confusing, chaotic storm of anger, depression, bitterness, fear, resentment, guilt, blame, anxiety, or frustration -- but they still keep you connected. You get upset when you think of your ex-spouse or hear his or her name, even bursting into tears if something reminds you of that person. You think about what you could do to get back at the other person, or what you could do to get him or her back.
  • Your energy is galvanized by these feelings; sometimes, they're the only things that get you going or keep you going.
  • You feel victimized by your ex-spouse, the lawyers, or the divorce in general. You want your ex-spouse to be punished, to suffer for all he or she has done to you...or you just want to crawl under a rock, letting the world go on without you.
  • You think obsessively about your ex-spouse. You wonder who he or she is seeing; what sex is like with that new partner; how your ex-spouse looks now; what he or she would think of the person you're seeing; what it would be like if you got back together; and whether there was something you could have done to avoid the divorce -- or you look back in anger, preoccupied with what your ex-spouse did to you or what you're going to do to him or her.
  • You see him or her more often than necessary. You could have called a plumber to fix the faucet, a decorator to arrange the living room furniture, your mother for a recipe, or a financial advisor about buying this or that stock -- but you didn't. Instead, you called your ex-spouse. You could have handled that matter with the kids or the finances over the phone, but instead you met for cocktails.
  • The past seems more real to you than the present.
  • You still feel as if your life is on hold.

These feelings can be conscious or unconscious, explosive or subtle. If they focus your attention and energy on the past, or if they make you angry, anxious, depressed, or wistful about what might have been, then they are not healthy. As long as you are still emotionally engaged and entangled with your ex-spouse in these ways, you can't live in the present or move forward into the future.

The divorce hangover doesn't discriminate. It can affect anyone, regardless of sex, social or financial status, or even who initiated the divorce. And it doesn't matter how long ago your divorce happened. If you still think about it or about your ex-spouse in emotionally charged ways, if your fists clench or your body tightens when you hear his or her name, if that former life is as real to you as your present life, then it's time to stop and take stock of where you are.

Healing your hangover

Everyone experiencing divorce is held in a maze of devastating emotions. The one that seems to be the most shattering and the hardest to endure is loneliness. The fear of being alone has held many in intolerable marriages.

Friends and clients alike speak of the loneliness of divorce and afterward. "I have been divorced for 15 years," one said. "The pain is as sharp and exhausting today as it was the moment the whole thing began. Maybe even more so." In order to escape, anything is preferable -- running to relationships, bad or good; alcohol; drugs; work -- to numb the pain.

You can cure your divorce hangover. It may take some patience and attention, but the most important ingredient is your own desire to be free of the hangover.

STEP 1: Move from feeling to thinking

The emotional tailspin of a divorce hangover is fueled by feelings of anger, depression, confusion, and loss of control. It's a vicious circle. As long as you are in an emotional tailspin, you are motivated by fear -- and fear feeds the tailspin. Before you can do anything else, you have to stop that downward spiral.

It's hard even to do grocery shopping or walk across the street when you're in an emotional tailspin. You're at the end of your rope. One more question from the kids, one more bill in the mail, one more harsh word from your boss, one more "chance meeting" with your ex-spouse's new partner, and you're going to lose it.

Tailspins don't stop by themselves; you have to pull yourself out of them. At some point, you have to reach out and consciously begin to manage your emotions. This will become easier to do as you begin to understand how the hangover starts, what keeps it in place, what yours looks like, what it's protecting you from, and how you can release it.

The minute you start to consider those answers, you begin a mental process that pulls you out of the emotional freefall. At this point, you start to take charge.

Moving from feelings to rational thinking is the way to stop the emotional tailspin. If you can think about something, you can put it outside of yourself. You may still have some of those feelings, but they don't have you.

Step 1 Exercises

  1. At the time of the divorce, which feelings hit you the hardest? Rank the following: anger, depression, anxiety, tiredness, fear, loss, helplessness, aloneness, bitterness, vindictiveness, feeling exploited, others.
  2. What are your feelings now?
  3. What caused and continues to cause these feelings?
  4. What can you do about each of these feelings?

STEP 2: Answer the key questions

If you're in the process of a divorce now, these questions will be the basis for all your other decisions and help you avoid a hangover. If you're healing a hangover, they will help you clarify what really happened in your marriage and divorce, why it happened, how your hangover developed, and what you can do about it now.

Here are the key questions:

  1. Was your divorce inevitable?
  2. What was the cause of your divorce?
  3. What were your expectations going into the marriage?
  4. How long did you want it to take to get the divorce?
  5. What was your first priority in the divorce?
  6. What was the greatest benefit to you?

As you answer these questions, you'll begin to see exactly how your hangover took shape.

1. Was your divorce inevitable?

This is the first question you should ask; not asking it is a primary cause of the confusion surrounding divorce. If your divorce was inevitable, then at least you know that you're in the right place. You can put to rest forever all the doubts, worries, fears, and second-guessing about whether you did the right thing. You did! There was never really an alternative.

This seems like an obvious question, but I know some very bright men and women who never asked it and spent the next 20 years wondering:

  • "If I'd given in on that one issue, would we still be together?"
  • "If he'd just stopped drinking, would the kids have had a father over those important years?"
  • "Maybe if we'd seen a therapist, or if I'd just overlooked those two affairs...we might be happy today."

This kind of backward, "coulda, woulda, shoulda" thinking keeps you trapped in the past. It can also keep you trapped in the present when it's time to move on. In deciding whether or not to stay in a relationship, I've heard equally bright men and women say things like:

  • "He just drinks because he doesn't know what it is to be really loved. I'll show him, and then things will be better."
  • "I'm sure once we're married awhile, she'll change her mind and want to have kids."
  • "If I'm patient with him, he'll open up to me emotionally."

These people were all walking into a trap, the false hope that maybe the other person would change. None of us would be divorced if it were possible to change other people into who we think they should be. Thinking that the other person will change is like dropping a pencil and expecting it to fall up instead of down. Things just don't work that way. Rather than thinking about how things might have worked out, the question to ask is: "If the other person had never changed -- and if I had never changed -- would I still have wanted to stay in that relationship?"

As you were then, and as the other person was then, would it have worked? Answering this question eliminates all the false hopes, the self-delusions, and the "what if's."

Notice that the question is not "Did you want your divorce?" but "Was your divorce inevitable?" You know the answer. Face it head on. If the other person wanted to leave, and especially if there was a third party involved, it probably was inevitable. If your ex-spouse was involved in something you couldn't live with -- alcoholism, compulsive spending, etc. -- you may not have wanted the divorce, but it may have been the only real choice between two evils.

The inevitability of the divorce is your take-off point, the basic piece of information to which you can always return when you feel yourself waffling. Eventually you must come to feel there was nothing you could have done then, and there is nothing you can do now to bring that marriage back. You must believe that any effort in that direction is a waste of time. Then you'll see that the only direction to look now is ahead.

2. What was the cause of your divorce?

Some of the most common reasons people give for divorce are drug or alcohol abuse, sexual differences or preferences, infidelity, physical violence, difficulties with the balance of power, money problems, children, and in-laws.

But other, more subtle reasons have surfaced only in the past 30 years or so, as personal growth and fulfilling relationships have become more important in our culture. Today, we are less willing to tolerate stagnant or psychologically destructive marriages.

You may wake up one morning and realize that there is nothing there. You may feel you are in a cage and the walls are closing in. This situation can be psychologically punishing, and in many ways as damaging as being physically abused, even if it appears that the other person isn't doing any intentional or tangible harm.

We are much more alert and sensitive to these kinds of issues today than we used to be. Before the revelations and revolutions of the 1960s, people were more inclined to stay married and turn to affairs, drugs or alcohol, prolonged absences, or whatever they could find to dull the pain of a marriage that wasn't working. Today we deal with the issue more directly, and sometimes that involves ending the relationship.

Having differences doesn't have to be a recipe for disaster. They can be worked out and this process can actually strengthen and enrich a relationship. But often when we feel that our needs aren't being met, or that our desires aren't being recognized and appreciated, we have a tendency to withdraw from the relationship, to stop loving or expressing our love as much. That makes the other person withdraw, and can eventually create hurts that are hard to mend.

3. What were your expectations going into the marriage?

We all grew up hearing about Cinderella and Prince Charming and may unconsciously hold these stories as life truths. Whether or not we are aware of it, some part of us may still believe that good, passive, beautiful girls get magical help to find eternal love with rich, handsome princes -- or that brave, dashing boys who persevere always find gorgeous, angelic girls who become perfect, devoted wives.

Sometimes our expectations about marriage aren't much more realistic.

Many women think, "I'm going to open up this strong, silent husband of mine. With me, his feelings will come bubbling to the surface and he will be saved." This expectation is rarely realized. A common male fantasy is finding not only a replacement for mother, but someone who is also a fantastic lover. Other common expectations are:

  • "He'll provide me with financial security forever; I'll never have to think about money again."
  • "She'll be the perfect wife who makes a beautiful home, anticipates my every need, and has a delicious dinner on the table each night. Our life at home will be perfectly harmonious, filled with lovely things and happy, beautiful children."
  • "He will bring excitement and adventure to my life; I'll never be bored with him around."
  • "Sex will be absolutely fantastic all the time."
  • "Finally, someone who appreciates me enough to make my life easy and give me all the strokes I deserve."

Knowing what your expectations were gives you a deeper understanding of why the marriage didn't work, and where your resentments may lie.

4. How long did you want it to take to get the divorce?

If you wanted to get it over as quickly as possible and then found yourself in the midst of a long, drawn-out procedure, you probably felt frustrated and thwarted. Resentment or anger at the slowness of your ex, the lawyers, or the court may be part of your divorce hangover.

On the other hand, you may have wanted to drag the process out, hoping that you might get a more favorable settlement, make the other person suffer, or perhaps even get back together. If it went very quickly, you may still feel frustrated or upset. (If you hoped the divorce would be long and painful, you may want to examine your motives.)

If you're in the process of a divorce now, tell the truth about how long you want it to take. If you realize that you want to draw it out, ask yourself why. If you want to complete it as soon as you can, talk to all the parties concerned and if possible agree on some dates. Be prepared to make some adjustment if your pace is very different. You'll come out ahead in the long run.

5. What was your first priority in the divorce?

Your first priority may have been getting out of the marriage as quickly as possible, the well-being of the children, having the divorce be amicable, getting a good financial settlement, freedom, or whatever was important to you at that time.

Or, you may not have set any priorities at all and simply "winged it," handling issues as they arose.

If you knew what your first priority was and you stuck to it, you're less likely to have a divorce hangover. If you didn't have a specific priority to guide your steps, or if it was thwarted, the results may have been brutal. You may have residual anger about things not working out the way you wanted them to, or not getting what you wanted out of the divorce.

If you're involved in a divorce now, I can't emphasize enough the value of setting your first priority for moving through this process. Your priority determines the answers to almost all the other questions that arise. It gives you a long-term goal and keeps you on track.

You'll want other things from the divorce and it's important to rank these lesser priorities, but there will be one thing you want above all else and that thing must be your focus.

6. What was the greatest benefit to you?

You probably weren't thinking along these lines during the divorce itself, but by now you may have some perspective. You may be aware of some good things that have happened in your life as a result of the divorce, some benefits you've accrued by taking that step. Among the benefits that people often mention are:

  • Increased sense of power and independence.
  • Freedom to explore other relationships.
  • Relationships with children that have become deeper through the adversity.
  • Career changes that were difficult at the time, but have turned out to be beneficial.
  • More flexibility to grow in individual ways.
  • Lost 20 pounds.

No matter how difficult your divorce or severe your divorce hangover, it's likely that something positive came out of the experience.

Step 2 Exercises

  1. Answer each cornerstone question according to your reality at the time of the divorce, and then according to your present reality.
  2. Make note of your feelings regarding these questions (helplessness, confusion, anger, loss of control, etc.). These are the trigger points of your hangover.

STEP 3: Count your losses

Divorce is devastating. It ranks as the #2 life crisis after the death of a spouse. Although divorced people experience enormous loss, they don't get the support that society extends to people whose spouses have died.

The divorce hangover begins in response to the staggering losses and changes of divorce, and the fear of even greater losses to come. It's important to understand exactly what you have lost. Remember, after divorce, loss and change occur for everyone -- whether male or female, and regardless of who initiated the breakup or how amicable the proceedings may have seemed.

What you lose

Divorce affects every area of your life: relationships, finances, physical surroundings, personal identity, home, health, family, and social situation. The losses strike at the very core of who you are, how you see yourself, and how others see you, and they seem to go on forever.

Everyone experiences his or her own specific, individual losses; here are some of the most common ones:

  • Loss of the relationship. No matter how bad it was, no matter who initiated the divorce, the loss is painful to both parties.
  • Loss of your expectations for the future. You may have had a "happily ever after" dream -- a beautiful home, perfect children, a devoted spouse. It doesn't matter if your fantasy was unrealistic; if you had the dream, it's easy to feel betrayed by fate, by your ex-spouse, and even by yourself. Perhaps your hopes for the marriage were more realistic: companionship, sex, financial security, someone to keep house for you, someone with whom to share holidays, camping trips, and even the late news. Even if your expectations were absolutely reasonable, it didn't work out that way and you have experienced a devastating loss.
  • Loss of financial structure and security. For some people, this means reestablishing credit, or a change in lifestyle. But for others, the economic loss can be devastating and become a matter of sheer survival.
  • Loss of the children, or at least daily contact with the children. You may not get to kiss them goodnight every night. You may feel you have to work harder to make things perfect when you do see them. You miss out on the natural flow, the give-and-take that happens when families live together. Even if the children live with you, you must deal with loss when they go off for weekends, vacations, or holidays with the other parent.
  • Loss of self-esteem and self-confidence. In our society, divorce is often mistakenly perceived as a failure, or even a sin. No one feels good about not making another person happy or not being able to make a relationship work. For many people, marriage is a way to define who they are and to feel like able, upright, lovable people with a place in their community. Divorce takes away that structure. Very few people have a strong enough sense of their intrinsic self-worth to say, "I'm still okay, I'm still me."
  • Loss of sex with that person. Sexuality is a large part of who we are. If sex was an important part of the marriage, or a part that escaped unscathed when the rest of the relationship fell apart, then this is a tremendous loss. If sex was only a habit, or part of a destructive power struggle, there was some payoff in that for you, and you've lost whatever the payoff was.
  • Loss of someone with whom to share familiar daily routines, burdens, and experiences. After my divorce, I realized that it was always my turn to change light bulbs. Gardening had been my joy, but it became a chore when there was no one to help. There is no one with whom to share decisions, help with the kids if you're sick, or talk about the day. You lose your date for social events, someone with whom to go places, eat dinner, and share a bed.
  • Loss of friends. Some people may have seen you as part of a couple and are not interested in you as a single friend. You may even seem threatening to married friends.
  • Loss of approval. As many divorces as there are and as much as attitudes have changed, a social stigma still exists. It doesn't matter that in your efforts to grow, you simply discovered that you were in the wrong soil and were willing to go through the trauma of pulling yourself up and putting down roots in another, more nurturing place. Divorce is still against the social rules and, in a sense, you become an outlaw. It looks as if you can't stick to your commitments, as if you have been a bad spouse and maybe even a bad parent.
  • Loss of identity as part of a couple. You are no longer Mr. and Mrs., Sally and Bill. You are just Sally, or just Bill. In places where the world moves two-by-two, this can be particularly painful.
  • Loss of order, permanence, and predictability. Your world becomes ambiguous, unclear, uncertain, and you reflect these qualities. You don't think you can count on anything and feel out of control.
  • Loss of possessions. Old photos, the rowing machine, the blender, the house, the end table, the dog. Often the monetary value has nothing to do with the depth of the loss.
  • Loss of "home." Even if you get the house, it's not the same home without the other person. This can be an especially difficult loss for men, who are not as likely to be "nesters" and to create another "home" wherever they are.
  • Loss of power. In some social environments, there is also a loss of power or status in not being part of a married couple. Invitations may not be extended because you are single or because your spouse is the preferred guest.
  • Loss of family -- not just loss of being a family yourselves, but loss of the in-laws. Many people have strong attachments to their partners' families. These relationships suffer in a divorce, and are sometimes destroyed entirely.
  • Loss of traditional holidays. Whether or not you have the kids, and regardless of how you celebrate or don't celebrate holidays, you have lost the way it used to be.

Everything changes

All of these losses have corresponding and equally devastating changes. The blank spot on a wall where a picture used to hang can be a daily, or hourly, reminder of the way things used to be. Changes in your schedule, a change in your name, changes in the way bills are paid -- even these kinds of relatively minor alterations can be enormously upsetting. The larger changes can be devastating: a move to a new house or city, life without the children, massive financial upheaval, etc.

Not all the changes around divorce are negative, but all of them are hard. Human beings have a natural resistance to change. We almost always prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar, even if the familiar isn't so great. A new job can be difficult and uncomfortable for the first few weeks, even if it's a big promotion. A new house can seem strange, even if we needed and wanted to make the change.

It's natural to feel disoriented, out of control, helpless, angry, or guilty in the midst of change. This is a time of grasping at straws. Your instinct is to try and get everything back the way it was as quickly as possible. When you can't do this, when the losses and changes won't go away, the frustration and pain are almost unbearable. Your very survival seems threatened, and this calls up a natural, primitive instinct to protect yourself. It feels as if the world has been turned upside down, and it has.

Taking stock

In order to face your losses, you have to know exactly what they are. I asked Stan in a counseling session to make a list of how his life had been before the divorce and how it was now, after the divorce. His "Before" list included "house, yard, neighbors." His "After" list read, "apartment in concrete complex, no yard, loss of financial equity and security."

Then I asked him to make lists of how he felt before and after the divorce. The "Before" list was upbeat and optimistic: "self-confident, secure, emotionally supported, good sense of humor, future bright, part of family and social group, intelligent, alert, strong." The "After" list was a stark contrast: "scared, a failure, angry, hopeless, anxious, uncertain, bitter, alone, confused, unequipped to cope, helpless."

Very few people have an accurate idea of what their losses and changes actually are until they sit down and start making lists.

Step 3 Exercises

  1. Make a list in a workbook of all the losses discussed in this article.
  2. Highlight the ones that have affected you most.
  3. For each loss, describe what you felt.
  4. List the changes caused by your divorce and your emotional response to each one.
  5. What were you most afraid would happen as a result of the divorce?
  6. Which of these fears were eliminated in the divorce settlement? Which are still present?
  7. How would you describe yourself and your life before the divorce?
  8. How would you describe yourself now?

Take the first step

By deciding to heal your divorce hangover, you'll make a courageous commitment to yourself and your future. That's the first step -- and the most important one. The healing process can be a springboard to a whole new way of relating to yourself, to other people, and to life. Your success will give you the skills and confidence to handle anything that comes up. Some of the steps will be easy for you, and some will be more difficult and require more attention. Stay flexible, and stay vigilant.


This article has been edited and excerpted from Divorce Hangover: A Successful Strategy to End the Emotional Aftermath of Divorce by Anne Newton Walther, M.S. (Tapestries Publishing, 2001). As an outgrowth of her counseling practice, Walther identified the "divorce hangover" syndrome and developed a strategy for ending it. This book will enable you to put down your emotional baggage and move into new, healthy relationships -- with yourself and others.

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June 13, 2006

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