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Why Divorced People Turn to Bad Habits To Cope

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Right or wrong, many divorced people tend to blame their ex for all that's gone wrong, and focus on how their ex has hurt them. Sometimes, however, the most damaging things that happen to us post-divorce have nothing to do with the ex at all -- we do it to ourselves.

We self-medicate.

People going through a divorce look for ways to soothe themselves, says Mark Banschick, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist and author of "The Intelligent Divorce" book series. Instead of taking care of themselves -- with things like yoga or meditation, going to therapy or relying on their friends or faith -- they often regress and "behave in immature ways," he says.

Anything can become a crutch, not just booze and drugs. Food, cigarettes, caffeine, sex -- all are attractive stress relievers, and divorce is stressful, even amicable divorces. So it's not unusual for former smokers or light drinkers to return to their bad habits, amp them up or start new ones. And that, say experts, is a dangerous path to take.

There are almost twice as many smokers among the divorced and separated, and smoking leads to all sorts of health issues such as cancer and emphysema. Same with lack of sleep -- divorced and separated adults get less sleep than married couples, and about 250,000 traffic accidents a year are sleep related, 1,500 fatal, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Divorced and separated women tend to be fatter, too; the joke is that women tend to rely on two guys -- Ben and Jerry -- to get them through a crisis. But obesity is no joke -- it can lead to numerous health problems, including diabetes. And although divorced men tend to have poorer diets than divorced women, they pay more attention to their bodies and stay fit.

And while no one has statistics on how many divorced people embrace their new-found freedom by having multiple one-night stands and hook-ups or become serial daters, sex with someone new can be pretty exciting and many divorced men and women -- especially if their sex life was ho-hum during marriage -- are eager to rediscover their sexual selves post-divorce. If they're older and perhaps not as aware of safe-sex practices, however, they have a greater risk of getting an STD and HIV; about 15 percent of all new HIV cases are occurring among those over 50, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But of all the crutches divorced people rely on, booze may be No. 1 -- not only as a way to cope but because so much post-divorce socializing and dating happens over drinks, and not just Starbucks.

Divorced and separated men and women drink more than married couples, recent studies indicate. They also tend to be more depressed, and many depressed people turn to alcohol to feel better. And because divorced men tend to engage in high-risk behaviors like drinking, smoking and sexual promiscuity, they have a much greater risk of death -- 10 times more -- than married men the same age. Stressed men are more likely to turn to substance abuse and other destructive coping methods, says University of Denver psychologist Howard Markman, author of "Fighting for Your Marriage." Others jump too quickly into new relationships, "relationships that are usually doomed," notes ABC News' 20/20 correspondent Bill Ritter in a segment he did on "Men After Divorce: In Touch With Feelings."

If people want to self-destruct after divorce, well, fine -- we're all free to do that. The big problem, of course, is if you're a parent. And there's just no way that a parent's bad habits can be beneficial for his or her kids.

Many newly divorced people "become like teenagers in heat, which would be OK if it didn't distract them so much from their kids," Banschick says. "At the very moment that you're functioning at a lower level is the exact moment you have to step up and not hurt your children, and people do that all the time."

For Banschick, the problem is when people cross what he considers the sacred boundary between childhood and adulthood, and thrust their kids into a world they're not ready for. If you're telling your children not to mention to Mommy how much you're drinking, asking them to make you a sandwich because you're too stoned to do it yourself, confiding in them how sad you are because of the divorce, or involving them in your exciting new love life by introducing them to a parade of new lovers -- or neglecting them because of it -- you've crossed the line. "It's overwhelming for them," he says. Subjecting them to secondhand smoke isn't too great, either. In fact, a smoking parent may lose custody of his or her kids.

Kids "need a lot of reassurance from your behavior, more than your words, that they're going to be OK," he says, especially in the first year of a divorce. Behaving more immature than your kids' teenage baby-sitter probably isn't the way to do that.