THE BLOG
05/04/2011 11:32 am ET Updated Jul 04, 2011

Why is Divorce so Terrifying for Women?

Have you ever wondered why it's always women who bring the tribe together for holiday dinners? Why we're the ones who keep in touch with the in-laws? Would you have guessed that it's related to the reasons why it's easy for men to leave their children to go off to work while we women agonize over it? And to why we hang on to abusive marriages even when the abuse becomes dangerous?

According to Patricia Wall, a teacher of self-mastery in Ottawa, Canada, it all goes back to prehistory. Wall presents a compelling analysis of the tribal basis of marriage and divorce. Back when we lived in caves, women owned the fire. We were the ones who remained in the cave, kept the fire going, took care of the children, cooked the food, kept the tribe together. The male role was to hunt, provide food, and protect the tribe from predators. Men earned their way into the fire by doing a good job of feeding us and keeping us safe.

Our primal role as women is to have a happy, safe family. When our marriages break up, we women judge ourselves harshly, no matter who left, because no matter how liberated and sophisticated we are, we're stuck with those primal instincts.

"No matter what the reason for the divorce, your tribe is broken; your subconscious tells you that you've failed," Wall explained. "Your primary family tribe had rules and your subconscious wants you to obey those rules because in the cave disobeying the rules was a matter of life and death. Back then if you weren't part of the tribe you were on your own, cast out of the cave, which meant certain death at the mercy of predators or the elements with no male protection." Not only have you failed, but you actually might die because of that failure. No wonder divorce is so scary.

I experienced an aha moment when Wall mentioned the connection between divorce and fear of death. When my husband left, I actually felt as though I wasn't going to survive; the separation might kill me. Even though I'd gone through painful breakups with boyfriends before I got married, this terror was a new experience for me. However, I've since heard the same exact sentiment from many divorcées. The image of being cast out of that warm, cozy, safe cave resonated with me as it might with many of you. Paradoxically, marriage, even if it's abusive and actually dangerous, can feel like a safe place. The big, wide world, even though it's much safer, emotionally and physically, can seem scary as all hell.

We women feel this way no matter how successful or accomplished we are in our own lives, no matter how much money we have, and no matter how much we recognize the necessity for the divorce. Today I look back at that feeling of fear for my survival and know how absurd it was, but it was only too real at the time.

The feeling of failure can be even worse than the fear of being alone. We women take responsibility for marriage, for keeping the tribe together, and if it falls apart, no matter the reason, we feel it's our fault.