Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and divorce

Maslow's hierarchy of needs five stage pyramid (image credit: Simply Psychology)
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs five stage pyramid (image credit: Simply Psychology)

A few months ago I attended a training course at work about leadership and management style. During one presentation the trainer reintroduced me to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.

Maslow (1943, 1954) stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs and that some needs take precedence over others. Our most basic need is for physical survival, and this will be the first thing that motivates our behavior. Once that level is fulfilled the next level up is what motivates us, and so on.

(Source: Simply Psychology)

It struck me immediately, as I was sitting in the classroom, that this model could offer me a way of navigating a way through my divorce.

Pre-separation

Marriage can be hard, and it can be incredibly rewarding. It involves give and take, it requires commitment and at times self-sacrifice. To be honest, I felt at times that I poured myself out so much that I lost touch with who I was beneath it.

But even now, looking back at those most painful of moments, and comparing it with the hierarchy of needs pyramid, I can still see that I was at the top of the pyramid, in self-actualisation.

  • Level 1, physiological needs—I had air and water, food and shelter, sleep (though disturbed) and clothing. I lived comfortably in a house in Anstruther. We had everything we needed to live a comfortable, middle-class life.
  • Level 2, safety needs—I had personal security and employment. Sure, I had some health concerns but I felt safe and secure.
  • Level 3, love and belonging—Even in the midst of the hardest times in our marriage, I still felt a sense of belonging and commitment. I knew that I was committed to Jane because I had stood in the church before friends and family and God and I had made a vow to belong to her forever. That promise kept me going, kept me believing that we could work things out. And I had some amazing friends, not nearby, but certainly at the end of the phone or on Skype or email or text message.
  • Level 4, esteem—At work I felt I had the respect of colleagues. I had status (assistant web manager) and recognition. I had a certain degree of freedom across all areas of my life. I could choose when to take on more church work, I was free to choose when to visit friends or family.
  • Level 5, self-actualisation—And at the top of the pyramid, I was actively trying to become the best person that I could be. Standing on the foundations of a comfortable home, a secure job, a long-term relationship that had produced three beautiful children, and a job that gave me a position and place in the world that I was happy with, I was seeking to become the best person I could be. I was trying to improve my health, trying to draw closer to Jane and my children, trying to better myself through reading and side projects.

I felt privileged and although not always entirely happy, I felt confident that we could work things out and get through this.

And then… it was all over. Through a lot of heartache and tears, I finally agreed to a divorce. Leaving the children was the hardest thing I have ever done. It broke my heart.

Post-separation

When I agreed to a divorce, Jane and I discussed the next move. What happens next? I was determined to make the process as easy and create as few disruptions in the lives of my three children as possible. So I agreed to move out,

And in the real-life game of snakes and ladders that I found myself in, I took a snake from the top of the pyramid right to the bottom: from self-actualisation to physiological needs.

Where on earth am I going to live?! was the message screaming in my head. I felt utter panic at answering that question.

None of the levels above physiological seemed to matter more than the simple need to secure the absolute basics: where do I sleep, where do I eat? Thankfully I still had a job, and that job and my previous experience led me to my current position as a halls of residence warden. That gave me immediate relief of my physiological needs.

But more than that it also gave me a sense of security, a sense of belonging and connection. I had another community to belong to, and build, encourage and be encouraged by, and it gave me sense of self-esteem and recognition. Somehow, I had clawed myself back up to level four.

And now…?

When I moved out of my home and started to create a home for myself in the warden’s flat, I said to myself that I would do this for 3–5 years. I have just started my third year, and I have found myself considering what is next?

I’m enjoying the warden work—although it doesn’t leave much time for myself. I have enjoyed being a part of this ever changing and dynamic community of people learning together and learning how to live together.

I’ve been enjoying getting deeper into work as an agile project manager and business analyst—I’d certainly like to journey further down that road. I think I’m good at it—the scrum master role is one of servant leadership, and that’s very much how I think and live.

I find myself considering the future with a certain degree of uncertainty and fear but also hope and possibility. I would like to work in an agile role, I would like to create a new home where my children will feel comfortable and belong. I would like, eventually, to step confidently onto the top tier of the pyramid once again. There are a lot of questions to answer before I get there but that is certainly my goal.

As we used to say in my office: it’ll be alright in the end… and if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end. But this model, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, has been a useful tool for me to orientate myself and help chart a way forward.

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 46 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Latterly, web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall. Currently on sabbatical. I am a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir.

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