THE BLOG

Are You Legally Divorced but Psychologically Married?

03/12/2013 12:17 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2013

When people decide to divorce, it is quite common that one or both spouses experience and express an intense desire to have nothing to do with one another. As a therapy client once put it:

I can't stand the sight of him. Or the smell of him. I would rather eat glass than have to sit across from him in a restaurant and watch him eat another dinner roll!

And yet, ironically, one of the most common themes that surfaces over time is a genuine difficulty moving on. One of the most common divorce related phenomenons involves couples who decide to end their marriage in the legal sense, but remain each other's most significant other for months or even years.

As a therapist, I hear a lot about how hard it can be to truly, psychologically divorce. Many divorced parents take weekly family outings with their children and their ex. For some divorced couples, their ex remains the very first person they call with good news or bad. For many couples, this arrangement makes co-parenting easier and they frequently say it works for them. However, if you dig a little deeper, the challenge is that this arrangement holds them back in other areas of their lives. For example, a client explained recently:

Rob never cooked when we were married, so when he is trying to put together a meal for the kids and calls with questions, I am happy to talk him through it. After all, it's wonderful that he's there for the kids in this way and branching out into things he never bothered with when we were married. Still, when we get off the phone I usually break down. I feel like I should be there with them, and we should be a family. Rob is clear that he is not attracted to me anymore, but as I lose weight and get in shape, I keep hoping that his feelings will change.

Similarly, a client speaks of the challenges associated with dating someone who can't seem to emotionally divorce:

I'm in love with Cheryl, and I want to be with her. But at the Thanksgiving program at her kids' school, she stared at her ex-husband the entire time. He's remarried with a new baby and she can't keep her eyes of off them. Then she asks if I would mind if just the two of them took their kids to lunch. I said okay but I don't know if I can keep doing this. I can accept that her kids are a priority, but I can't accept that her ex-husband is still so high on her totem pole.

And another client wrote to me in an e-mail:

I need to find a new "emergency contact" to write down on medical forms. I still put my wife... oops, ex!

If the scenarios above sound familiar, it is quite possible that you are divorced on paper, but still emotionally married. If so, consider the following:

This may reflect that you never wanted your marriage to end. Most divorces are not a mutual decision. If you did not want it to end and your partner broke it off, consider that it is never optimal to direct emotional or romantic energy toward an unavailable partner. Instead of torturing yourself by over-focusing on your ex, feel good about your ability to commit to a relationship and start seeking one with an available and therefore suitable partner.

This may, instead, reflect that you did want the relationship to end, but you are conflicted about this decision. If so, seek professional help to see if your marriage can be reconciled. If you do not want to explore this possibility, keep in mind that your ex likely did not want the marriage to end, and you are sending mixed messages by continuing to make him or her your number one emotional priority. Consider that you are essentially pouring salt on his or her wounds each and every time you indulge yourself by reaching out.

If you have children, keep in mind that your ability to get along and make shared parenting decisions is a strength that will reduce anxiety for your kids and serve them well. However, if you remain each other's number one for years to come and continue to be legally divorced but psychologically married, this is incredibly confusing for children. It is quite likely that they will have a much harder time understanding and accepting your divorce. They will also be vulnerable to following in your footsteps by choosing romantic partners who are not truly available to them.

If you are seriously struggling to move on, it might help to meet with a therapist who specializes in divorce. If you are opposed to therapy, watch the film Celeste and Jesse Forever, which details the marriage and divorce of a couple who are legally divorced and emotionally married. As art reflects life, it might help you move on once and for all.