Few women realise the absolute hell men endure when they divorce. I have walked this road with some of them and believe me, it is ugly. It reminds me of the aftermath of a battlefield. Women see their heroes going off to war in their shining armour, full of bravado. Women do not walk the aftermath of a battlefield. It is carnage. Men put up a brave face when they divorce.
For a week or so they have a sense of bravado, realising that freedom is a viable reality sometime in the future, but soon enough they retreat into their caves. As a therapist I have been privileged to be allowed into this man-cave. Initially just as the silent witness to their pain, and then slowly, gently to remind them of the lost hero inside them and to guide them to find it.
I have seen men remain in marriages with women who will just never ever be happy no matter his effort. Men stay, because it is the right thing to do. He suffers in silence, he pays his dues and he does not cheat on her. He stays despite her total narcissistic, deep seated, sullen unhappiness. He stays because good men do. Then one day, he says: “Enough.”
Cave mode, phase one: He walks out of the marriage, straight into the cave. No matter how much of a calculating, manipulating, scheming shrew she was, he blames himself for failing. For not trying harder to meet her standards, no matter that she kept moving the goal posts. He blames himself for leaving and walking out and being the anti-hero. He paid her a generous settlement, he gave her a house, he pays maintenance and yet he stills feels like a failure.
For three months he can’t even lift his head and look people in the eye. These men seek therapy and just sit and sob. They excuse themselves from work because they can’t cry in front of their colleagues or personnel and they sit on the couch and they just cry and cry and cry. They feel embarrassed, but they also feel safe with a therapist. Then they mumble a thank you, and they snatch their keys and they go home and take a sleeping pill. Two days later they are back on the couch and they sob. Because they failed. As providers. It was just too hard. Like a field nurse in a war zone, the therapist sees them emotionally naked, stripped of their hero armour, vulnerable and bleeding. Part of the healing process is for the man to admit that he is bleeding and to cry, because it hurts.
Phase two: Then they get angry. They need to re-establish themselves as men who are not ruled and controlled by women. This is when they fire their secretaries, cut their adult daughters’ allowances and some may go on the rebound and seek hard core sex. Contrary to popular myth, most of them don’t seek hard core sex, because their libido’s are depleted and they know it will only exacerbate the anti-hero feeling. They know indiscriminate hard core sex will actually make them feel worse. However some do go out with the boys and for some reason the boys think it is a good idea to get the men drunk and then they may allow themselves to be seduced by a woman who throws herself at them. They usually feel ashamed once they sober up and will avoid her at all costs.
(Pity the poor woman who thinks a man in this state is a good catch and that he will stay with her.)
Phase three: Then he retreats deeper into the cave for he has disappointed himself again. He is a bad man, he thinks. Disappointment and guilt are bedfellows, remember. The continuous calls and SMSes and whats-apps from his ex-wife, hell-bent on revenge, just confirm his disappointment in himself. He may be drinking too much, or sleeping too much and missing work, which exacerbates his low self-esteem. So there he sits in his cave. Smelly, consuming copious amounts of alcohol laced with self pity, which erupts into a physical and emotional hangover, feeling at his lowest ebb.
Then one day, just like at the end of his marriage, he says : “Enough.” He gets up, stretches, takes a shower and walks to the edge of the cave. There is a world out there and he actually misses being a part of it.
Phase four: He exits the cave and he gets active again. This could be about a year after the divorce, or later.
At this stage he avoids all women and fraternises with men. Suddenly he attends gym, and enters an iron man competition. He needs the testosterone to restore his depleted male reserve. Male bonding makes him a man among men once again. Then he may date here and there. Not because he is actively seeking female company, but usually because his friends’ girlfriends or wives set him up. He agrees to the date because maybe he could score sex. He would prefer just the sex with no emotional ties and the sooner the woman shows any emotion or any expectation of long term possibilities, makes any demands, tells him what to do or expects him to report to her – he is off like a lightning bolt. He seldom progresses beyond a second or third date. He becomes one of those guys who doesn’t call. This makes him feel bad. Coming up with excuses or avoiding her calls, also makes him feel bad. This triggers the anti-hero button. So he stops dating.
During this phase men begin working very hard again. Work makes men feel good about themselves. It is an action. He feels competent. Like the proverbial Phoenix, his self-confidence is slowly rising, but it is fragile.