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Breakups may hit men harder

By SARAH HAMPSON     
Wednesday, May 23, 2007 – Print Edition, Page L1

The image of men as suck-it-up survivors of emotional trauma just took another knock.

A new Statistics Canada study on marital breakdown, released yesterday, shows that men are more likely than women to suffer from depression in the two years following the end of a marriage or common-law relationship.

The study, based on data from the National Population Health Survey (NPHS), which collects information about the health of Canadians, showed that while both men and women suffer a period of depression more often than people who remain with their spouses, men who have been divorced or separated fare worse than women in similar circumstances.

Newly single men, aged 20 to 64, were six times more likely to report an episode of the blues than men who stayed married.

By comparison, women who had undergone a marital breakdown were only 3.5 times more likely to report feelings of despair than their counterparts who remained in marriages.

Interestingly, the study found that the breakup itself caused depression.

Other factors often associated with the trauma of divorce - such as loss of shared income, social support or the number of children in the household - did not alone account for the feelings of despair.

Men feel loss, just as women do, but their problem, according to psychotherapists and marriage counsellors, is that they don't know how to process the emotion.

Rather than talk about their feelings, they sink into a funk.

"It's still true that men are raised to be proud of their introversion, and they're socialized to keep it together, but that formula doesn't work any more," says Deborah Mecklinger, a Toronto lawyer and social worker who runs a marriage and divorce therapy practice called Walk the Talk Coaching.

"They reach out less than women do," she says. "Women engage in discussion with their girlfriends. They seek out therapists more than men do. But men are far more isolated."

People grieve by discussing their feelings, says Debra Rodrigues, a registered social worker with Peel Counselling and Consulting who works with couples undergoing divorce and separation. "Crying is so taboo for men. But they need to grieve the loss of a marriage. It's right up there with death. And they need time to realign. They need to move on. But part of moving on is grieving, and grieving is talking about responsibility for what went wrong."

The process often takes two years, most therapists note. But according to the Statscan study, most people who experienced depression in the post-relationship realignment phase didn't feel free of it until four years after the split.

If men don't seek professional help, they are often pushed into it. One therapist tells the story of a male client who came to talk to her after his divorce lawyer recommended he see a professional to help him with his feelings of sadness.

"His lawyer was mopping him off the floor," she says.

The man, who is 44 and had been married for 14 years, was so depressed he had to take a leave of absence from work. "He was apologizing for crying in my office," the therapist adds.

Harvey Steinberg, a Toronto therapist, runs support groups for divorced men. "I walk into these groups, and initially the men are silent. ... But by the end, it's all I can do to get them to stop. They take a tremendous amount of comfort in knowing they are not alone and that what they are feeling is normal."

The cause of the sadness is that "men are raised to be fixers," Mr. Steinberg says. "They feel that if they are competent partners or spouses, then they should be able to fix things, to make things better. Assuming that they weren't the ones to pull the trigger [of divorce], they feel helpless and they often blame themselves."

But even when men are the initiators of divorce, some therapists feel that men are unprepared and often naive about what to expect in the aftermath.

"Marriage is a structure that sets up a lot of power and privilege for men," says Ms. Mecklinger. "There's a lot they get out of it, and a lot of loss that flies under the radar when they lose it."

The good news is that addressing the issue of depression is increasingly part of modern divorce proceedings. Victoria Smith is what is called a "collaborative lawyer" who often brings in mental health practitioners to help during the mediation and arbitration process of divorces that take place outside of the courts.

"It's an interdisciplinary process," the Toronto professional says. "We know that emotion gets in the way of negotiating a good separation. It affects people's capacity to sit down and resolve issues. Any psychologist will tell you that the part of our brains that makes decisions shuts down when emotions are running high. And yet divorce and separation require a lot of decisions."

Being open about the emotional trauma of divorce allows couples to be better parents for their children and to make the transition to single life with less anger, Ms. Smith adds.

Working through the emotions of divorce also helps to prevent repeat dysfunctional relationships, Mr. Steinberg adds. "If the learning doesn't take place in the wake of divorce or separation, then the mistakes are going to be repeated. I have seen many people who divorce, then quickly get into new relationships. Ten years later, I feel that I have exactly the same couple in my office. It's the same partner, the same issues, just a different name."


Breakup blues

New research shows men are more likely than women to suffer from depression after a marriage ends.

Life changes that might increase the risk of depression:Men who had divorced or separated were 6 times more likely to report an episode of depression than men who remained married. Women who had divorced or separated were 3.5 times more likely to report an episode of depression than women who remained married.
Percentage that went through a breakup and had a substantial drop in their household income

15%

43%

Percentage who reported a decline in social support after parting with their spouse

19%

15%

Percentage of those whose relationship ended who no longer live with their children

 34%

3%


SOURCES: STATISTICS CANADA, NATIONAL POPULATION HEALTH SURVEY


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© 2017 Deborah Mecklinger LL.B., M.S.W