I “Lost” My Name in the Divorce

Posted by on Aug 8, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

Dear Dr. Jenn, I am recently divorced and have been experiencing a lot of very difficult emotions during this process. For example, I changed my name back to my maiden name after 21 years. This was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. One of my friends said I should be happy and relieved to have my old name back. She doesn’t understand why this upsets me so much. Is there something wrong with me that I am so upset at having changed my name back to my maiden name? Dr. Jenn's Answer: Divorce is a common loss in our society, albeit a non-death loss. We often expect non-death losses to be less painful, confusing, and difficult than a death loss, but this is often not the case. Divorce for many people can be an extremely painful, sorrow-filled, and disorienting loss. Divorce is not one loss but a series of very deep hurts from the loss of a sense of safety to financial insecurity to the loss of the fantasy of a happy future with the person you married. Besides losing a partner, lover, companion, and housemate, you may experience the loss of your own identity and a sense of who you are in the world. Changing your married surname back to your maiden name is not only a loss of identity in that your name is deeply personal and linked to your sense of self, but it is also a very tangible indicator of the losses associated with the divorce. The change of your name is something that is tangible. It requires a series of time consuming forms to fill out and submit in very formal settings. It also requires you change how you sign, type, and say your name from now forward. Every time you see or say your new name it is a painful reminder of the disappointment of the divorce itself as well as the months and years leading up to the divorce that probably continue to hold deep sadness for you. There is no doubt that divorce brings with it some level of an identity crisis. While taking your new husband’s name 21 years ago may have felt exciting and joy-filled, having it removed and replaced with the name you had growing up can make you feel all sorts of confusing and sometimes bad feelings. Some women say they don’t know who they are anymore after a divorce. Their identity had long ago become that of a wife, partner, spouse, and they had come to cherish that new sense of self. Socially, women are often elevated in status when they marry, therefore they sometimes sense a loss in social status related to their divorce and subsequent name change. They may feel worried how others think of them now that they divorced. They may be concerned that some people will have difficulty remembering their changed name and feel embarrassed when others mistakenly use their married name. They become deeply saddened at the thought that their children will no longer share their last name, and this is a harsh blow to their sense of what it means to still be a family despite the dissolution of the marriage. While no one can know exactly what it is like to be you in this situation, someone close to you should be able to imagine how disorienting it would be for you to have suddenly changed your name under circumstances that were not entirely of your choosing. When you have friends who say things that are insensitive or hurtful to you when you are grieving, it can be feel doubly painful. I would encourage you to honor your hurt feelings and don’t ignore them. Start by thinking about what your friend was intending when she said something hurtful to you. Was she intending to be hurtful and insensitive? If not, perhaps you can let it go. If you feel as though you would benefit from addressing her insensitivity directly, though, practice how you will gently bring it to her attention before saying something. Try saying something like, “Remember the other day we were taking about me changing my name and how hard that is for me? I know you didn’t mean to, but my feelings were hurt when you said I should be happy to be rid of it and have my own identity back. I’m actually not happy about any of it yet, and it might take me longer than you like for me to get there. What would have helped me more is if you had said, ‘I’m so sorry you are so sad’ and then let me cry about it a little.” If she is a good friend, she will receive this with the same grace in which it was delivered by you. The only appropriate response from her then would be, “I’m so sorry.” A simple repair of an unintentional hurt like this actually strengths the bonds of friendship and allows you both to trust each other even more. You need good friends during a time of loss and grief, so don’t dismiss her if she can repair the hurt she caused.

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