It is a rare person who isn’t stricken by grief, fear, and bewilderment when first learning of his or her imminent divorce. Who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the earth’s sudden shift on its axis, a jolting of reality that is best explained by the word, “surreal?” It isn’t only about dividing your real and personal property and determining how debts of the marriage are going to be paid. It’s not just about figuring out where the children will live, how you will be able to care for them as a single parent, or the innumerable other uncertainties that you suddenly have to contend with. One moment you were feeling whole, content, and confident about your place in the universe. You knew who you were, felt part of a tribe, and had a fairly good notion of where you were going. In a moment, all of this was gone.
While it probably is unimaginable to you that life will bring you joy again, perhaps you will take comfort in knowing that, if you’re like most people in your situation, your ability to accurately gauge how you will feel once you are on your own or single-parenting, is a bit out-of-whack. Curiously, however, it’s not only those who experience life-changing events who suck at anticipating their emotional responses to something that will (or may) occur in the future. None of us are particularly good at this!
In their article, “Affective Forecasting,” social psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson discuss the underlying causes of this psychological phenomenon. According to Gilbert and Wilson, “the tendency to overestimate the enduring impact that future events will have on our emotional reactions” known as “impact bias” has a number of causes. Among these, the authors explain, is our failure to consider the ameliorating impact of our psychological immune system when we are imagining how we will respond to a future negative event. Our psychological immune system, without our awareness, helps us make sense of negative events 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 anyway; it’s all for the best.”
Another reason why we tend to be faulty predictors of our future emotional well-being is related to the problem of focalism. When we imagine how a future painful event will emotionally impact us, we tend to focus on the event itself and therefore don’t consider how more positive events in our lives, such as the birth of a grandchild or support from close friends and relatives, will buffer the pain we are anticipating.
What does all this mean? It means that as difficult as life can be, we don’t necessarily crumble to pieces when the difficult, terrible things happen in our lives. Just as life marches on, more likely than not we will pick ourselves up and move on, too. We will do this because, after all, we are resilient creatures with a great capacity for enjoying our lives even after a tragedy befalls us.
Hat tip to Jena Pincott, who posted “Why Breaking Up Is Easier Than You Think” here.