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Divorce can take a devastating toll on male clients. How can counselors help?

Heather Rudow October 30, 2013

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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Going through a divorce is a difficult process for all parties involved, but according to a recent study, it might take a greater emotional and mental toll on men than previously thought. According to the case study, found in the Journal of Men’s Health, divorced men were shown to have higher rates of mortality, substance abuse and depression—and less social support to fall back on than women.

But what can counselors do for male clients who may have trouble expressing the true depth of the pain from their divorce? Brian Canfield, past-president of the American Counseling Association and the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, talked to Counseling Today about why understanding and supporting the needs of couples is more critical now than ever for counselors. 

What are your thoughts on the study?

 I found the study interesting in that it provided support for what many have recognized anecdotally regarding the impact of divorce upon many men. However, I would be cautious in generalizing the conclusions to all men.  Statistical data applies to aggregates and not individuals, so the findings may or may not be applicable to a particular man going through a divorce.

Have you noticed a gender bias when it comes to coping with divorce?

In my practice I have noticed that women tend to express emotions of “sadness,” while men tend to be more likely to express feelings of  “anger.”  However, I’ve observed a range of emotions among both men and women. So while there may be some differences, I suspect the emotional response range among groups of men and groups of women is broader than any mean difference between gender groups.

  What coping mechanisms have you suggested for male clients going through a divorce?

I support my clients in recognizing that divorce is a transitional period. The typical narrative is one of “loss” and “failure.”  I encourage clients to use the divorce experience to learn what they wish to have different in the future, particularly in relationships. Though things will be different after divorce, depending upon the client’s willingness to learn from the experience, things can and will be better in the future.

 Have you found that male clients going through a divorce are less ready to talk about how they’re feeling?
I find that most men have no difficulty in expressing feelings associated with “anger.”  However, that is only part of the emotional spectrum and often there are some underlying feelings with which men are less comfortable. I encourage men to recognize that feelings and expressions of “anger” sometimes serve a temporary useful purpose in masking underlying uncomfortable feelings of  “guilt,” “sadness” and “loss.”  This realization is often a useful step for men in recognizing and accepting their role in the failure of their marriage.

Do you believe that it has gotten easier or worse for men going through or coping with a divorce? Why?

Divorce remains a very difficult experience for all concerned. However, increased access to qualified counselors with specialized skills for helping couples, families, and individuals dealing with the impact of divorce is a vast improvement over past decades.  Help is available, provided a person in need seeks help.

How can counselors help a male client going through a divorce?

As counselors, we can help our clients by providing a supportive, caring, non-judgmental, genuine and safe environment for the client to explore their feelings, behaviors, and life-choice options. Working in a collaborative partnership with the client as a caring and objective professional with no personal agenda is the best way to support a client in their efforts to bring about desired changes.

What signs should counselors be on the look out for in male divorced clients?

Always assess for symptoms of depression and address ways the client can better attend to their physical and emotional needs (e.g. diet, exercise, etc.)  Although only about 10 percent of clients with symptoms of depression have suicidal thoughts, when depressed symptoms are evident always assess for suicidal ideation and follow appropriate protocols to safeguard the client as may be warranted. In my experience, this is rare – but essential.

 Additional thoughts:

 For the vast majority of people, marriage is difficult.  Since approximately 45 percent of marriages end in divorce, it is often helpful for clients to reconsider basic assumptions and expectations about marriage and divorce. I regularly see “reasonable” and “sane” people struggling to change an unhappy marriage. Many of us recognize that the institution of marriage is essential to a stable society. As such, the role of counselors in better understanding and supporting the needs of individuals and couples is more critical than ever.

 Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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