The novelist and poet Margaret Atwood once said, “a divorce is like an amputation; you survive, but there’s less of you.” Anyone who’s been through even the most amicable separation knows this to be true. To lose the person with whom you thought you’d be spending the rest of your life is to suffer a sizeable wound. And that wound, no matter how large or small, requires time to transform into a scar.
The subject of divorce has crept up into my social circle recently. In my early twenties, I saw my close friends spin off and pair up with significant others. One by one I watched them find people who seemed to complement and strengthen them. Couples moved in together, selfies were taken, cheese plates were served, game nights were planned, wedding invitations were postmarked.
Some couples will not survive. The invisible lines that lassoed them together began to tighten under unforeseen loads; the fibers frayed, the rope snapped. C’est la vie. It is sad in the moment yes; your heart aches for both parties and selfishly for the rift it will cause in your social circle. It is sadder, though, when you realize one person will superglue the pieces of him or herself back together so much faster than the other.
My friend, let’s call him Steve, falls into the latter category. I could go on about the heartache, the fists through the wall and everything else that has appeared in the wake. But that would do no good. There are steps to take. There are checklists to work through, doctors to speak with, days to be X’d off the calendar.
Mostly, Steve’s situation got me thinking about sleep. About sleep and healing and reconciliation. And how nights after traumas are spent awake, the mind retracing every missed engagement and sharp word. I began to think about the connection between quality rest and our ability to overcome personal failures, as one of sleep’s many purposes is to apply a salve to our emotional wounds.
In 1984, Psychiatry Research published a study called “Broken Dreams: A study on the effects of divorce and depression on dream content.” For six nights in a sleep clinic, researchers monitored 29 women, ages 30 to 55, who were undergoing a divorce. They were asked to self-report on their state of mind (depressed or not) as well as the content of their dreams. They compared their answers to a group of women who were happily married and followed up with all parties after some time had elapsed.
Researchers found the dreams of soon-to-be-divorced women without major mood problems were longer and more complex than the others'; they also dealt more with issues around marital status itself. The dreams of the depressed divorcees, meanwhile, were fractured and sporadic, without much time elapsing within them. Upon follow-up, when there had presumably been time to mend, those who were depressed had REM visions that were more dreamlike; they even had instances where they saw themselves within their “marital role.”
What does this mean? According to the reseachers, “some dream characteristics respond adaptively during life changes but that this is delayed when subjects are depressed.” In other words, our subconscious waits until depression has passed before bringing dreams that help us work through our issues.
It makes more sense, then, that one person is able to start a new life more quickly in the aftermath of a divorce. If he or she has accepted the inevitable — or is, perhaps, happy to leave a caustic marraige — his or her unconscious is better able to sleep properly and work through the issues during those hours spent in bed.
Nightmares, incidentally, work the same way. While terrifying in the moment, bad dreams are a blessing, a way of allowing our unconscious to work through and understand issues, whether they’re monsters under the bed or deep-seated personal failures.
Rosalind Cartwright, professor emeritus of psychology at Rush University in Chicago, explained that a nightmare is “almost like having an internal therapist, because you associate to previous similar feelings, and you work through the emotion related to it so that it is reduced by morning.” A dream about a divorcee’s previous life might not be a nightmare because the issue is out in the open, but it may be troubling enough to count as something your brain is sorting out while you sleep.
Rest, we know, plays a large role in both mental and physical recovery. Our minds mend at night along with our bodies. In another study on divorced couples, titled “Adjustment disorders of sleep: The sleep effects of a major stressful event and its resolution,” published in Psychiatry Research, Cartwright, with fellow researcher Ellen Wood, monitored the sleep habits of 70 people who had recently experienced a marital separation. The subjects, they found, not only experienced more disrupted sleep, but their delta sleep was also decreased Delta sleep, or non-REM deep sleep, is so called for the high frequency of delta waves that appear on an EEG.
This stage is actually marked by the sleeper’s complete disengagement from their current environment. Therefore, the less deep sleep you enjoy, the less chance you have to unmoor yourself from troubles.
Finally, in yet another study on dreams and divorce, researchers monitored a handful of recently divorced men; first, shortly after their divorce and then a year removed. Those who got a healthy amount of sleep were at a much better place mentally than those who hadn’t. Researchers concluded that these subjects wereable to sif through and resolve a lot of their issues as they slept.
The point is, I suppose, that everyone needs time to heal after personal traumas — and sleep is essential to this mending process. For some, it can feel likes days, weeks or months; for others, the pain may last for years.
As I watch Steve and other friends suffer through heartaches and breakups, see their lives torn apart and any semblance of routine shredded, I can offer support, kindness and a ready ear when they call at three a.m. One day soon, however, I hope that they'lll be able to sleep through the night and let their subconcious guide them closer to that healing place.