Reclaiming Pieces of the Self After a Divorce: #1

By Maria Alba-Fisch

When people divorce, they not only need to assemble a new life, they also 
need to conduct their life without an immediate partner. Though the 
spouse who did not initiate the divorce feels this with a shock, the initiator 
of the divorce faces the same personal task, even if that feeling is delayed 
by the expectation that the divorce offers a new direction. To create this 
new future, each person needs to reclaim the pieces of themselves that they 
had lost touch with during the marriage.

It Is Natural in Marriage to Lend and Borrow Aspects of Who You Are

When couples create a shared life, spouses, naturally, not only develop 
shared interests, we also create a ‘couple consciousness’. This ‘couple 
consciousness’ is filled with particular memories and words that evoke 
unique meanings. In addition, members of a couple, naturally, both lend 
and borrow skills and abilities. Some of these skills and abilities are pieces 
of each person’s identity. Reclaiming those pieces is essential to moving 
into a life separated from their spouse.

This lending and borrowing ranges from the distribution of chores (you do 
the laundry, and I do the cooking) to social behavior (you are the one who 
arranges our social life and I deal with the bank manager) to personal 
qualities ( you are better at organizing and I am better at creating fun 
times). Even when it seems that you do all the work and your spouse just 
glides through, they have done something – they are good at making 
pancakes or doing sports or making kids laugh. This ‘something’ is their 
particular contribution.

Often, this distribution of qualities and activities builds on individual 
strengths. When spouses are pretty well matched on a particular quality, 
couples, still, tend to identify one person as being the ‘specialist’ in that 
particular quality because there is a lot to do in a household and marriage. 
For example, when one member of the couple is a bit more organized than 
the other, that person frequently becomes, for this couple, the organized 

When one person is really much better at something, this distribution can 
become exaggerated. The other person, then, is allowed by the distribution 
of labor to bypass developing that particular quality or ability, letting it fall 
by the wayside of a busy life. At very concrete levels, one person ‘gives that 
activity over’ to their spouse, entrusting their spouse with that ‘job’, feeling 
at ease leaning on their spouse’s expertise. At the more personal level of 
identity and stylistic qualities, similarly, a person may under use a quality 
that seems to be their spouse’s strength If one person tends to be the more 
patient of the two, that person deals with situations that require patience 
and both feel that the job is well done. In doing so, the less patient spouse 
does not exercise their own ability to be patient and rarely gets to 
experience and see themselves as patient.

When couples have children, and when marriages endure for a long time, 
the lending and borrowing tend to increase and to settle into fixed ways of 
managing life. As this happens, each member of a couple naturally forms 
aspects of their identity around the new roles they have been playing 
within the couple.

It is also true that people, sometimes, select spouses for particular qualities 
they lack. So, if one person is a dreamer, they may pick a spouse that is 
pragmatic and organized. The pragmatic spouse can enjoy the dreamer 
because the dreamer comes up with great ideas about how to spend the 
weekend. The result can be that the dreamer never quite develops their 
pragmatic side, and the pragmatic one never develops the dreamer inside.

This Distribution of Qualities Can Lead to Identity Modifications

When qualities of the self are divided in this way, over time, each can lose 
touch with the qualities they once had, or might have wanted to have, but 
turned over to their spouse. At some point, through many, many 
interpersonal interactions, this leads towards a modification of how a 
person sees themselves. The example above may help us clarify this point. 
If one spouse has always been the more organized, that spouse is likely to 
administrate certain domains in the household. The less organized spouse 
may no longer experiences themselves as organized in those domains. 
Eventually, the less organized spouse has less and less experience with 
themselves as organized and feels more and more inexperienced. I am 
calling this dimension of the self an ‘identity fragment’. This ‘identity 
fragment’ gets solidified by many interactions. The less organized spouse, 
now, out of practice, may make errors thereby transforming “I think she is 
better at…” to “I am not able to…”. If the less organized does have to 
organize something for the family, they will, likely, be anxious and uneasy, 
further reinforcing this ‘identity fragment’. If there are children, the 
children will easily learn to see each parent with the identity fragments 
they have shaped with each other. Most kids know which parent to ask 
about any given topic.

Even if one spouse had helped the other learn a new strength within the 
marriage, the one who developed a new strength may be afraid that they 
cannot really do this on their own. So, if travel began, for one spouse, only 
in the marriage, that person may feel that they do not know where to begin 
planning a trip. It is as if they borrowed this during the marriage and feel 
like they don’t really have the capacity in their own self. Good trip 
planning is not fully integrated into their individual identity.

Divorce Requires that We Reclaim the Forgotten Pieces of Ourselves

When a marriage is dissolved, people, first, need to absorb the fact that 
they have relied on their spouses for certain functions. Each spouse may 
resent their spouse for having certain strengths and for disenabling them 
from developing them. For example, I often hear “She never made room for 
me with the children.” or “He never explained the money to me.”. This 
anger, though understandable, can side track the person into blaming, as if 
the spouse continues to hold the rights to that area of functioning. 
Reclaiming their energy from the anger and facing their own anxiety and 
inexperience will direct them towards defining and reshaping who they 
want to be for their future.

Each divorcing person needs to observe what they had given over to their 
spouse and identify the qualities they want to claim or reclaim for 
themselves. Some are obvious. Each spouse will need to handle their own 
checkbook. Some are more complex but, still, skill based. So, if your 
spouse made a great pot roast or barbecue, you may need to learn how to 
do that. Some are far more subtle and personal. If your spouse was always 
forceful, the one who made things happen, you may need to figure out 
what you can do to make things happen in your own way. If your spouse 
was always the one who smoothed the way, you may want to learn how to 
do that. Your spouse may have been the expert in this area, and you may 
feel unpracticed and afraid that you cannot do it, but you may have 
”forgotten” that you could do this, once, or that, at least, you wanted to 
learn how.

During, and shortly after, divorce, people become flooded with many new 
tasks because they need to shape a whole new future for themselves: find a 
home, help their kids, reorganize money, re-shape their relationships with 
friends, family and the community. They also need to shape who they will 
be so that they can feel like a whole person again. In the midst of so many 
reality tasks, this may seem like a luxury, but it is more basic than 
luxurious. It is a new foundation for the self and the future.

Reclaiming portions or developing underdeveloped portions of the self 
requires real psychological work. Some people begin this before they get 
divorced. They have changed and know they can be different and are 
eager to get out into a future where they can actually be the new way they 
want to be. Some have to undertake this even during the shock of a divorce 
they may not want. This is a scary undertaking. The most important first 
step is to realize that this fear is a natural result of disrupting a long 
standing shared life, but that the fear is not a fact. Rather, most abilities 
can be learned; while work is required, it is not impossible. For a more 
specific guide to this process, see the companion article: Reclaiming 
Aspects of the Self after Divorce Part Two: A Roadmap

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