As I See It: Breakup
August 22, 2016 Victor Rozek
I went to a wedding last weekend and it was everything a wedding should be: beautifully located, attended by scores of family, supported by legions of friends, and replete with that singular optimistic naivety that believes in happily ever after. While it would be foolish to marry without a firm belief in the prospect of future happiness, regrettably “happily ever after” has a shelf life for about half of all married couples. There’s a fair chance that at some point during the career of a married employee, divorce will bring an unexpected end to what might have been.
Whether amicable or contentious, the complexities and emotional toll of uncoiling two entwined lives will have an unavoidable impact on work quality. Paul Newman once said that if you can find passion in one area of your life, it will bleed into all the others. The same can be said for sadness, grief, anger, fear, or any other dominant emotion. Expecting to compartmentalize a major life change such as divorce, and simply carry on without consequence, is unrealistic.
People who study such things estimate that the productivity of an employee undergoing a divorce can decrease to half its former level. Mistakes go up; creativity declines. That’s not altogether surprising given that employees are grappling with emotional hijacking that will, like a yelping dog, make concentration all but impossible. Additionally, there may be absences for court appearances, meetings with attorneys, and negotiations to settle financial, custody, and visitation issues, all of which are a drain on productivity.
What is surprising is how long it may take to recover. Individual resilience varies as, of course, do the financial, social, and parental consequences of divorce. But for those most deeply distressed, it may take as long as five years to regain full productivity. However long the road back, it is telling that divorce is widely considered the second most impactful experience after the death of a spouse or a child.
In the workplace, divorce comes with real costs for employers. It is estimated that a company will lose about $8,300 in productivity per divorcing employee. In a midsized company of, say, a thousand people, if only 1 percent divorce annually, that’s a hit of $83,000. Not insubstantial.
For individuals, the impacts of ending a primary relationship will manifest in one or more of the following arenas: concentration; self-regard; and attitude.
Concentration: Although work is often viewed as an escape from the travails of home, typically concerns over the dissolution of a primary relationship supersede concerns over work responsibilities. The mind obsesses with the loss of the higher value; it replays the current crisis, regretful of the past and worried about the future. Calming and controlling the mind is a lifelong practice. The best most of us can do is admit we are in the midst of a transition and give ourselves some grace around expectations of normalcy. Being honest with management will explain the need for taking personal time or minor changes in work habits. An astute manager may temporarily steer distressed employees away from overly demanding tasks.
Self-regard: Divorce is the ultimate rejection because it negates the ultimate commitment. To the person being left behind, it says “I no longer find you worthwhile enough to invest my time.” It can be interpreted as a devastating judgment on a person’s desirability and their value as a partner, parent, and friend. For the person leaving, it’s an indictment of their choices.
Often self-esteem is attached to status and lifestyle, which divorce can change in an instant. Unless the couple accumulated vast amounts of wealth, the lifestyle options of both parties are about to diminish. Starting over, especially in middle age, is daunting, like being asked to use a set of muscles that have been dormant for years. In that sense, divorce is a thief of confidence and certainty, the temporary lack of which may show up in the workplace.
Decoupling self-esteem from possessions brings the focus back to that which does not change. Belongings are nouns; people are verbs. In Stephen Covey’s words: “People can’t live with change if there’s not a changeless core inside them. The key to the ability to change is a changeless sense of who you are, what you are about, and what you value.”
Attitude: Divorce often results from the breaking of trust or, at the very least, a long-term failure to meet expectations. Terminal disappointment in a spouse inevitably leads to conclusions, some of which will not be flattering. It’s easy to overlay judgments about a partner on all members of their sex: All men are. . . All women are. . . (fill in your favorite pejorative). Negative beliefs about, or anger toward, the opposite sex will leak out in the workplace and may damage relationships. Body language and tonality in particular will betray hidden hostilities.
Generally speaking, men will be under-communicative about their process and women will be over-communicative. Thus men may feel isolated, while women may drive colleagues away by excessive retelling of their story. Oddly, the results are the same: a feeling of being unsupported. Sharing in moderation is key for obtaining support without either robbing yourself or alienating others.
It is human nature to want to put disturbing experiences behind us. Denying their full impact, however, will only extend the hold they exert. As a rule, any feeling fully felt, changes, and the quickest way out is through.
As sad the prospect of divorce may be, when soul mates begin to feel more like cellmates, the time has come to move on. Whether cordial or contentious, parting will always bring a mixture of relief and regret. For both parties it is a leap into the great unknown, and whether the road ahead is frightening or exciting is a measure of individual adaptability and resolve.
Having said that, however attractive a solution divorce seems in times of impasse, in the end, it simply exchanges one set of problems for another. Ultimately, it may be simpler to conquer the known set of challenges. At the very least it is worth considering Marcel Proust’s observation: “All our final decisions are made in a state of mind that is not going to last.”
And that’s my final word on the subject.