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.

Empty flat

Reuben and Joshua's bed
Reuben and Joshua’s bed

I struggle with weekends at the moment.

During the week I’m busy. I usually rise around 05:45, say morning prayer, have breakfast (usually porridge… what can I say, I’m Scottish), get myself together and head in to the office early. In the evening I return to my flat and get stuck in to hall life and other little projects that I have on the go right now (writing, illustrating, music, reading).

Most weekends I have my three children over, and I love it. I love them. I love being with them. I feel whole again. They have such energy, such life, such wild imaginations and we spend hours riffing off each other’s silliness with word play and rhyming (earlier today we had “stranger danger with the lone ranger”, and “I am Gimli, son of Glóin, son of… George?!”).

Some weekends they come over on Friday evening, still in their school uniforms, bouncing with energy, irritable with tiredness, overflowing with cuddles. A few hours later, they are asleep in bed, and I’m either asleep too or I spend a quiet evening in the lounge enjoying the emotional glow of having my boys with me again.

Saturday is usually filled with all sorts of activities. Reuben enjoys lying beneath his duvet on the bedroom floor with his tablet, watching cartoons on Netflix or Minecraft tutorials on YouTube. Joshua and Isaac migrate from the sofa to my PC and back to variously play computer games on my PC (mostly LEGO, although they’ve recently got into the multiplayer Ballistic Tanks and Dirt 3 rally) or their tablets. Usually at some point the LEGO comes out. Yesterday Reuben presented me with a packet of Papercraft models he’d received for his birthday asking for some help to build them. Translation: Dad, could you please build all of these for me while I watch?

Minecraft, but on paper: Papercraft.
Minecraft, but on paper: Papercraft.

This morning I heard Isaac (who will be six next week) exclaim, “Look at me! I’m doing elf parkour!” while playing LEGO The Hobbit.

Sometimes we’ll go out, though by the weekend they are often ready for a quiet day in, especially if the weather is foul. (Me too!) Yesterday we went out shopping for new winter hats and gloves, and they then spent a couple of hours (and most of the heat from the flat) traipsing in and out to play in the snow.

By Sunday lunchtime I generally begin to feel melancholic and heavy as I begin to anticipate the loss that I will feel when they have to go home. It’s unusual for me not to shed a tear after they are driven away. Not always immediately, but certainly at some point.

On some occasions Joshua (mostly) has simply refused to leave and has curled himself up in a ball on the sofa in a sulk and has stopped responding to any encouragement to leave, or simply repeats “I don’t want to go!” Sometimes I’ve just let him stay for a few more hours and we’ve enjoyed a fabulously fun afternoon, just the two of us, before cooking dinner and driving him back to Anstruther in the evening.

This is the hardest part of the separation for me. I’m sure I’ve said this before—I’ve certainly mentioned it in conversations more than once. I can accept that Jane doesn’t want to be with me: I’ve broken up with girls in the past. But it hurts to not live with my children.

I’ve often wondered what other people think about me because I moved out. It wasn’t easy. I think it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. On the day I moved out, my brother at times had to physically carry me. I’ve never experienced grief like it—my father’s death nineteen years ago was a walk in the park (well, in the cemetery, at least) compared with this. I would have happily stayed with them but it’s less socially acceptable for a mother to move away from her children than a father.

During the week, where I can, I nip over to Anstruther after work to see them for an hour or two, in a house from which my memory is slowly being erased. It’s not enough, but it’s better than nothing and it keeps me going until the weekend when we can enjoy another few days of silliness and laughter and cuddles together.

This weekend, for some reason, the WiFi went off in my flat. So it was a good opportunity to introduce them to the wonders of setting up a portable WiFi hotspot using my smartphone (4G, thankfully). And then watching them gobble up about half a month’s bandwidth allowance in two days between them on their tablets.

We also started to play around with Microsoft Kodu, which is designed to introduce children to computer programming.

This is Isaac's latest world and Rover.
This is Isaac’s latest world, and Rover the robot.

Using nothing more than an Xbox games controller (and/or keyboard and mouse) Kodu allows you to easily create games within a simple point-and-click environment. It was amazing to see Isaac get into it and think through how to build his world and program the controller with the basic framework of when X, do Y, e.g. when I press A on the gamepad, fire a missile; when I bump into a rock, make it explode; or when I press the right trigger on the gamepad, make my character grow to four times his normal size. Their experience with Minecraft: Pocket Edition has done wonders for their creativity and problem-solving skills.

And so… to my usual Sunday evening routine. Over the next few hours I will sink back into the silence of the flat, enjoy the warmth of the memories of another fun weekend with my children, and look forward to the next one. And prepare for my week ahead.

And so the divorce proceedings begin…

Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon cover, showing a prism

Tomorrow morning marks the formal beginning of divorce proceedings.

At 10:00 in Dundee, Jane and I will meet with two mediators (one also a solicitor) from Relationships Scotland to begin ‘All Issues Mediation’. The end result will be a document, a Mediation Summary, that sets out (I presume in legal-ese) the terms of our proposed agreements resulting from the mediation which we then take to our own solicitors and ask them to process it, to make it legal.

This evening I had to fill in a 10 page document ahead of tomorrow’s meeting that lays out my full financial situation as of the formal date of our separation: Saturday 14 November 2015. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it might be, although I am still a little confused about pensions and insurance/assurance, and all that other serious grown-up stuff.

The last six months have given me some perspective on the whole thing, especially my last four months living in hall as the warden. While I miss my children desperately, I do otherwise feel happier than I have felt in a long, long time. I feel more like my old self, but a little wiser and more experienced old self. And that is a good place to be to go into these pre-divorce proceedings.

I don’t feel angry with Jane, I don’t even feel sad now. I know that we tried our best—I certainly know that I tried my very best to make things work. We just couldn’t make it work—we simply couldn’t communicate on the same wavelength. We were like two magnets pushing against one another. Or like when coloured lights come together they produce white: together we lost our identities, our uniqueness, our vibrancy. There is no point in me holding on, or resenting, or feeling hurt. That’s not the road to healing or wholeness.

I have said from the start that I want our divorce to be carried out in a kind and caring way, with grace and respect. I want to model to the boys the kind of behaviour that demonstrates that even though our marriage relationship came to an end it can be ended in a way that allows us both to walk away with dignity.

I will try to blog what I can about the process in the hope that it helps others going through a similar situation.

Separation

Which path should I follow? (Image from Dear Esther)
Which path should I follow? (Image from Dear Esther)

Back in January 2014 I wrote a post about needing to rediscover honest blogging. It’s funny looking back at that now, almost two years later. A lot has happened in that time. I may not have fully rediscovered honest blogging, but I think I have definitely made a good stab at living a more honest life, and being more honest with myself and those around me.

I remember last summer, it was about 02.00 am, I was sitting in my hospital bed hugging my knees feeling utterly terrified. I had never felt so small and so vulnerable and so utterly afraid to die. I had gone into hospital, as many of you know, with suspected viral meningitis but having reviewed my family history I was told that they were now exploring the possibility that I’d had a brain haemorrhage like my dad, who had greedily had three.

What I realised that night and the nights following was that I wasn’t only afraid to die, I was actually afraid to live.

I looked back over the previous fifteen years or so and recognised that I had slowly and gradually lost something essential of who I was. I had lost my spark. I had lost myself in a vocation, in a job, in a relationship. And I realised that I didn’t really like the person I’d become. I realised that I’d let myself go. I realised that I couldn’t even look myself in the mirror any more, I had become so ashamed of who I was.

But here’s the remarkable, grace-filled thing about this personal epiphany: I simply observed and asked questions of myself without judgement. I, thankfully, recognised that beating myself up about it would solve nothing. This was a time for self-forgiveness, for listening, and for doing something about it.

Live without fear

I sat in that hospital bed in Kirkcaldy and I promised myself that if I got through all of this then I would live without fear, I would grasp life again, I would join the adventure once more.

This past year has been one of the happiest I’ve ever known. I think this has been the most content I’ve ever been, certainly the most consistently content. I’ve felt empowered, and as I’ve listened to myself without judgement I’ve learned and grown.

All this despite what’s going on.

Separation

After years of struggling together, a couple of months ago Jane and I agreed to separate, with a view to divorce.

It wasn’t a decision that we took lightly. I cried for about three weeks. But I think in terms of our own personal growth and happiness I think this is the right decision. Obviously, we now need to guide the children through this as gracefully as we can.

We told the boys a couple of weeks ago; it wasn’t as difficult as I had anticipated. Now is the time to make it public.

There is still a lot to sort out, a lot of practicalities as we untangle seventeen years of life together. But we’ve agreed to be as gentle and kind to one another as we can. There is no animosity, there is no resentment. We’re still friends, we just make terrible partners: we still don’t really get each other. We’re like bright, colourful lights that when brought together cancel one another out and produce white.

It’s important to both of us that we model to our children a positive, healthy approach to separating: that even though it is terribly sad that we weren’t able to make things work (and boy! did we try) that we can wind things up gently and courteously.

So… that’s where I am. A lot of uncertainly ahead, but within myself I’m in a good place. I’m healthier than I’ve been for a long time; I’m happier too; and I’ve got my zest for life again. Time to make it count.

And what amazing family and friends and colleagues I have around me—I’ve never felt so supported and so inspired by these amazing people. Thank you, thank you, thank you lovely people. I am truly and deeply humbled by your love.

As I tweeted a couple of weeks’ ago: