Let’s face it, during divorce most of us are an emotional mess. We wear the same sweats for a week. We cry all day. We are barely functioning, wondering if we’re going to end up hoarding stuff and never going outside again. Friends and family worry about us, set up a “mom-watch” and start talking about getting a “divorce dog.”
It’s a fact that when life hands us an unexpected blow, we often get emotional support from our own pets. Even though animals can, and do, help tremendously, they can’t take the place of good mental health care and loving human beings to connect with.
Especially in midlife or later, we are often facing many losses. Our body is turning against us. The empty nest is here sooner than we thought. Co-workers are suddenly our childrens’ ages. Friends and family are getting sick or showing up in the obituaries. And then, more and more of us hear those heart-stopping words from our spouse…“I love you, but I’m not in love with you. I want a divorce.”
An unwanted midlife divorce, especially after decades of marriage is a devastation. Often it is the first time we have EVER lived alone. When life losses pile up all at once, no matter how strong we thought we were, we secretly wonder if we can survive. We simply try to get from one day to the next in one piece. Luckily, I already had my own “divorce dog,” Sadie.
Sadie was our fawn-colored lab who had been a part of our family for years. She wasn’t as frisky as she had been when she was a puppy, but after my divorce she was under my desk as I worked from my home office every day, and she slept at the foot of my bed at night. She barked menacingly if anyone came to the door. Even though she sounded a lot more threatening than she was, she made me feel more secure and less lonely. Somehow, she knew something was very wrong. I could see it in how she looked at me and how careful she was around me.
Reasons To Get A Pet
Less Loneliness, More Company
Loneliness is almost always listed in the top three issues facing people going through midlife and late-life divorce. If your kids are also leaving home, you literally go from having a full house and a full calendar to a heart-hurting isolation. When your husband leaves and your kids leave, it’s not just them going away. Their activities and their friends leave as well. Your life changes literally overnight when the hustle and bustle of a busy family are gone.
Our dog, Sadie, played a big part in helping me deal with the emotional and physical isolation I felt. I had not figured on living by myself at this point in my life. With four busy, fun kids, I can remember the times I went into our bathroom, and locked the door just to have a few moments of quiet. Now, I found myself turning on the television to break up the silence. Or I talked to Sadie…or took her for a walk…or we watched some mindless TV show, waiting until 10 o’clock when I would let myself go to bed and stare at the ceiling for awhile until I dropped into a fitful sleep.
Another thing that happens when our partner leaves us for another relationship, is that we lose confidence in ourselves. We wonder if anyone likes us. We wonder if we are “good enough” for someone to love. We worry that we are too old and will be alone for the rest of our lives.
After divorce, pets, especially dogs, are always so excited to see us. Never once did I feel like I wasn’t good enough for Sadie. I never worried that I wasn’t thin enough or pretty enough or sexy enough. She was always glad to see me! And not just sort of happy to see me. She was tail-wagging, jumping around joyously every time I came in the door!
“A pet can remind you that you’re not alone,” says Desiree Wiercyski, a life coach in Fort Wayne, IN. “Pets offer unconditional love, which can be extraordinarily soothing when feeling isolated.” Wiercyski, who also lives with depression, says her dog helps her shake off feelings of worthlessness. “My pup has been right beside me offering comfort and love, reminding me that things aren’t so bad.”
According to an article in Psychology Today, even though all kinds of pets can give people a more positive view of life and relieve a sense of hopelessness and isolation, recent studies have shown that “therapy” pets cannot get rid of serious depression. We need to talk to our physician about the best way to deal with our sadness and depression after divorce. Depression is normal after divorce, but it’s important to deal with it and not let it get to be a more serious on-going problem.
Like Sadie, a pet can provide much-needed physical and emotional support when we are grieving and trying to heal from the hurts of life. Animals have an uncanny ability to read our emotions – even after divorce. There are service dogs who are specifically trained to be sensitive to the signs and symptoms of depression. In prescribing emotional support animals, divorce, and it’s physical and mental trauma (and PTSD) are sometimes reasons given by therapists. Support pets help relieve the anxiety, loneliness and hopelessness we feel after divorce.
Service dogs are more frequently being recommended for children going through debilitating grief and trauma, and also for older adults living on their own. Dogs are being trained to monitor physical illnesses like diabetes or detecting cancer. Funeral homes are hiring an Emotional Support Animal and their owner to help families (especially children) deal with the loss of a loved one. Divorce often causes that same feeling of loss.
Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Dogs
There are two kinds of service animals that are recommended for help with depression. One is a Service Dog and one is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). A service dog is allowed anywhere the public is allowed. ESAs sometimes cannot accompany their owners into all public places.
Both ESAs and service dogs must go through intensive training and be prescribed by a mental health or other health-care professional. ESAs are not service dogs even though both can ease a person’s anxiety, depression and some phobias. A physician, therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist must determine that the presence of the animal would improve the health and safety of the patient.
Is A Pet Right For Me?
One thing to consider before getting a pet after divorce is to realize that we are probably already feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Animals are dependent on us. If we are going to be taking on a new, more time-consuming job as often happens after divorce, remember that getting a pet, especially a young animal requires a lot of time and work!
Space & Room
Pets may also need more living space than we have after divorce. After divorce, many of us have to move to a smaller place. We often don’t have a yard, and it’s not fair to any animal to be cooped up in a crate during the day while we’re gone, and only released when we get home from work.
Of course, cats can make do with less space and can be more easily trained to use a litter box. Other pets like gerbils, birds, snakes or lizards can spend most of their time in a large cage. Also outdoor animals like ducks or chickens can have outdoor accommodations if our particular city or county allows it. Our RADiCAL Women on farms or ranches often talk about the fact that their animals have helped them recover after divorce.
When we are thinking about investing in any pets after divorce, we must make sure we are going to have the time to commit. The process of divorce is unbelievably emotionally and physically time consuming. Meetings with attorneys, financial people, therapists, and extra time for the kids who may be struggling, all make the divorce process stressful and overwhelming.
Because of your own normal (and extra) obligations, it is usually best to wait until after the divorce is completely “signed, sealed and delivered” before you jump into furry parenthood…especially if you’re getting a puppy or kitten. As awful as the loneliness and sadness can be, take a pause and get your bearings before you decide on getting a pet after divorce.
You won’t die of loneliness. It may feel like you’re going to, but you won’t. In fact, it can sometimes be a relief if you are completely alone for a while. If no one is home, you can go through the “sobbing and screaming” phase by yourself without making your kids freak out.
Finances & Budget
Another reality of divorce is that we often have less disposable income than when we were a couple. In the case of abandonment, some women struggle to pay for the very basics. In that situation, getting a new pet is usually not a good idea. I have also heard heartbreaking stories about having to get rid of beloved family pets after divorce because of finances…just when we need their emotional support the most. Some women request pet custody and support in the divorce negotiations.
Below are some extraneous expenses you’ll have when you get a divorce dog or other after-divorce pet or emotional support animal after divorce.
- Vet visits (+ missing work)
- Food & medicine
- Walking paraphernalia
- Outdoor shelter if necessary
- Boarding expenses
- Treat & Toys
- Cleaning supplies for accidents
- Chewing “incidents” and shoe replacement
Responses from our Midlife Divorce Recovery Community to the question: “Any personal experience with a pet helping with divorce recovery?”
“Yes! Since losing my teenage daughter to cancer, we have a room we sponsor at Ronald McDonald House. They always have a dog they call ‘Officer of Comfort and Healing.’ Animals give you unconditional love. They also sense your sadness and are even more loving in return. They also force you to get up and feed them etc. They can truly help you not slip into a depression by their presence and needs alone.” K.Z.
“I just discovered an article (about an animal-assisted therapy and scientific research group in France – Les Sabots du Coeur) According to them, animals appear to be able to reduce anxiety and stress, and also to have physical effects, such as lowering blood pressure, improving heart rate, and helping in pain management. The aim is to use the natural bond between humans and animals to provide comfort, peace, and companionship to…patients. Horses seem particularly suited for palliative care, as they are especially in tune with their surroundings.” B.N.
“I really don’t know where I’d be on my healing path if it weren’t for my two dogs. There to greet me each evening when I come home as if I’d been gone for weeks. So empathic when a fit of crying hits; each pawing me as if to say: ‘I’m sorry dear human, I feel your pain’. Loving the simple things in life like a walk or new toy. Two little heartbeats keeping me company, assuring me I was never really alone. There is a quote: ‘I aspire to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.’ Good one!” J.V.