In the beginning, there is disbelief and fear. Questions such as, “What am I going to do?”; “How will I live on my own?”; and “How can I sleep without holding someone?” come spilling forth. The caller continues to speak, but I am not expected to answer. So I listen.
There’s not much about divorce, particularly in the early stages, that feels as if it makes much sense. Divorce (or the end of any romantic relationship) can be crazy-making. It isn’t only about dividing your real and personal property and determining how debts of the marriage are going to be paid. And it’s not just about where the children will live, on which days they will be with which parent, or the innumerable other decisions that you will have to make about parenting. The “stuff” of divorce is more than all that, and even more than resolving the bigger financial matters of child and spousal support or alimony.
Divorce is also about shattered dreams and other losses you never thought you’d experience. It consists of all of your very powerful emotions that inevitably come into play at this very vulnerable time in your life.
The good news is that the actual experience of divorce and non-marital breakups is not as devastating as people think it will be. This is so because of a psychological phenomenon, referred to as “impact bias” by social psychologists Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling On Happiness) and Timothy Wilson in their article, “Affective Forecasting,” which they have described as “the tendency to overstate the enduring impact that future events will have on our emotional reactions.”
Why does this occur? Don’t we know ourselves well enough from prior experiences to predict how we will feel when an important relationship ends? Gilbert, Wilson, and other researchers have identified some reasons that may explain people’s forecasting errors. The two major reasons are:
- Failing to consider the ameliorating affect of our psychological immune system: When we try to imagine our emotional response to a negative event in the future, we neglect to consider how our psychological immune system, without our awareness, will help us make sense of it, so that our emotional response is lessened. Some common examples are thoughts such as, “I never really loved him”, “We weren’t getting along anyway”, and “I would not have been able to go back to school; it’s all for the best.”
- Overlooking intervening events, or focalism: When we imagine how a future painful event will emotionally impact us, we tend to neglect to consider the buffering effect of more positive events, such as the birth of a grandchild or the support we might receive from close relatives and friends, that may take place at or around the same time.
Whatever the implications may be with respect to the findings of social psychologists Wilson, Gilbert, and others in this area of affective forecasting, we can agree that there is good news: We are resilient creatures with a great capacity for enjoying our lives even after a tragedy befalls us.
Watch for future posts on how impact bias may affect decision-making in mediation.
Hat tip to Jena Pincott, who posted “Why Breaking Up Is Easier Than You Think” here.