“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” 

Viktor E. Frankl

As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive After A Divorce” I had the pleasure of interviewing

Dr. Laura Dabney who has been in practice in Virginia Beach for almost twenty years and has treated patients in more than a dozen cities across Virginia. Her psychiatric expertise has been featured on radio and in print media, and she consults for a number of large institutions, including the Virginia Veterans Administration Medical Center. She received her MD from Eastern Virginia Medical School and has been Board Certified in Psychiatry.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Whenever recess was cancelled, my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Mitchell, sat us in a circle and encouraged us to talk about personal problems. Ted blurted out that his dog died and Lizzie sobbed about her parents splitting up. It was my first experience with group therapy! I would go home all excited about “circle time.” My mom was the one to put words to it and head me down the path. “You know, that interest is called psychology.”

Can you explain to our readers why you are an authority about “divorce”?

This niche developed by accident. Newspaper advertising was the only option when I opened my practice in 2000. My ad had the tagline “dedicated to patient privacy” which meant I didn’t work with insurance companies and had a private waiting area. Professional men with marital problems started calling. It turned out marital problems threatened their professional reputations so the privacy assurance was key. Some of them took it even further and parked a street over or gave me a false name! I’ve been dedicated to helping successful men avoid, and mend from, divorce while maintaining their dignity ever since. And I’m still learning from my patients. So I would say my “authority” on the subject of divorce is continuing to develop.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

The local Veterans Affairs Hospital had an intensive outpatient substance abuse clinic. During residency (training), I conducted their initial assessments. One man, in his early thirties, was frustrated with himself for not understanding his relapses. When we got to the family history, he stoically said his father had died. He refused details, except the date. I pointed out his drug use started the same year. He looked thunderstruck and then tears streamed down his face. “I never realized that, never!” Together, we surmised drugs helped him avoid what he thought would be crippling grief. Buoyed with his “answer,” he completed the program, and did not return. This man taught me that change begins with understanding our problems. Therapy, instead of medications, became my healing art of choice.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The appropriate time to use therapy versus medication was a principal lesson in residency (training). One morning, a paranoid man presented to our emergency department (ED). It took hospital security and a lot of convincing to get him into the exam room with me. However, he quickly settled down and was cooperative with my assessment. At one point, he asked if I heard anyone coming and several times his eyes darted toward the door. My reassurances appeared to soothe him. I was so proud of my fledgling therapy skills that I did not order any medication. I completed my chart work, and said my goodbyes while the nurses prepared to move him to the psychiatry ward.

Fifteen minutes later, I was just starting my lunch, the ED paged me. On the phone, I just heard commotion and then someone shouted “Dr. Dabney get back here, your patient escaped.” This was impossible! He was fine, the exam room door was locked, there were a dozen workers there. On my way back, I was smart enough to grab a senior doctor, Dr. B. I noticed the lights were out in the hallway and outside the ED. “Oh this is not a good sign,” Dr. B said. Before I could ask what this meant, we rounded the corner, and I was shocked to see the nursing station in total disarray. Out of fear, the patient escaped by turning his cot into a ladder, and pulling himself up into the ceiling through which he eventually fell onto a nurse and the nursing station, taking all the electrical wires with him. A security guard had the struggling patient in a bear hug. Before I could pull my jaw off the floor, Dr. B swiftly ordered and administered medication, verbally calmed the patient and accompanied him to the ward. While there was humor in the chaos and my new title as “the resident who caused the chaos,” my hubris caused a patient (and the ED staff!) unnecessary pain which I will never forget.

If you had a close friend come to you for advice after a divorce, what are 5 things you would advise in order to survive and thrive after the divorce? Can you please give a story or example for each?

Firstly, I would advise him to grieve. This requires an understanding that all feelings are normal. The death of a relationship requires grieving for healing. Sadness is not a weakness, it’s an alarm alerting us to this need. If you bury the grief it will come back to haunt you either in an inability to move on or as an eruption in an unexpected situation. Some divorced patients deny their sadness by blaming and refusing to marry or date again.

Then I would advise her to examine her role in the problems that ended her relationship and not to expect a new partner to resolve the problems. Not being able to see one’s role in a failed relationship is why 75% of second, and 81% of third, marriages fail. We have the ability to resolve all our relationship problems. Either she must express what she needs/feels more often or clearer or needs to put up better boundaries against his unacceptable behavior. My patients who can’t see the problems that caused the breakup, and not the ex-spouse, find themselves with a new partner, same problems. For instance their criticisms will drive another person away or their inability to say they’re angry will cause them to be taken over again.

When he is dating again, I would advise him to avoid anyone with red flags. Red flags are: a belief one is above the law, an ability to control oneself (abuses alcohol or drugs, is verbally or physically abusive), an inability to care for oneself (can’t hold a job, attempts suicide) or a lack of empathy (can’t see another’s viewpoint or take ownership in a problem). These problems are serious character flaws and thus insidious. In fact, most mental health workers believe these problems are untreatable. If you think you can help these people with love, understanding or finances you are kidding yourself, and perhaps enabling them, which is not healthy for either of you. I’ve had dozens of patients report having a partner with outlandish behavior. Despite sometimes years of trying everything, these tumultuous relationships didn’t resolve until my patient was able to leave.

When she’s involved in a new relationship, I would advise her to speak her mind. Too many people believe a partner will intuitively know what do and say. No one is a mind reader no matter how much history you have. You have to get comfortable with saying what you feel, need, want for a relationship to be successful. For example, instead of “But he should know this about me by now….” or “But I know how he’s going to react ….” the approach should be: “I need X from you when Y….” or “I feel X when you do Y….” Similarly she needs to let her partner know she’s not a mindreader. “I get a sense you’re angry but I’m not able to guess why…..” “Instead of blowing up it would be more helpful if you told me your needs in advance….”

Lastly, when he is married again, I would advise him to not let anyone, including/especially the ex, come between them. Marriage is a contract between you and another person which means your spouse takes priority above all others. Many marriages fall apart when one of the partners acts as if they have a contractual relationship with someone else, such as a former spouse. Example: If you expect your spouse to tolerate you staying in touch with the ex, you are risking another divorce. And if your spouse is making someone else a priority, it’s your responsibility to let her know this bothers you. This doesn’t mean avoid all other people, it means you decide together how this other relationship will work.

What are the most common mistakes people make after they go through a divorce? What can be done to avoid that?

They have the mistaken belief a new spouse will fix the problem, which is based on the mistaken belief that they have no power to change the problem, which is based on the mistaken belief that their feelings need to be buried instead of expressed and the mistaken belief that they have no option except to change their spouse to fix the problem which leads to the first mistaken belief, that a new spouse will fix the problem.

To avoid these mistakes, one has to learn that the opposite of all these beliefs is the truth.

Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources related to this topic that you would recommend to our readers?

The movie Inside Out best summarizes what I teach every patient every day. It highlights why we have to pay attention to all of our emotions. And it does it in a fun way!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that helped you in this work? Can you share how that was relevant in your real life?

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Most people arrive to treatment having just accepted this. After years, or decades, of trying to change everyone else, they realize they are the common denominator and the only one they can control. It’s a great challenge to see our role in a problem, but when we do, we also see our power to change it. This is why I often say I can do couples counseling without the couple.

When I get my control freak on, this quote helps reign me in. Having grown up with the heady but completely false mantle of “fixer,” I had to learn (the hard way of course) that changing me: putting up boundaries, altering my approach, expressing my feelings, examining my past approaches, considering new conclusions, etc. was much easier and more effective than trying to change everyone else.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

People who are too afraid to come into treatment are my current focus. For every person who gets up the nerve to call me, there are many more (dozens, hundreds?) who are still suffering in silence. To help reach them, I recently completed a digital course based on feedback from past patients. This is a resource they can use in the privacy of their own home until they are ready to pick up the phone. It’s uniqueness is that it includes written feedback from me, so it’s more individualized than most self help books or courses. The feedback has been inspiring so far 🙂

Because of the position that you are in, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Emotionally troubled people have at the heart of their problem a misunderstanding of how our minds work. Like all creatures, we don’t like pain, so our minds will try and ignore or bury painful emotions. Some people take this a step further and believe they have to stamp out these emotions for a happy life, but the opposite is true. Painful emotions have to be experienced for them to dissipate.

For example, people who think anger is bad often think they deserve punishment for it which can lead to suicide or panic. People who think neediness is shameful end up burying it under binge eating, alcoholism or workaholism. And people who think sadness equates to weakness can’t grieve which creates an inability to move on. A movement to help people understand that anger, neediness and sadness are normal emotions that will dissipate if experienced would help alleviate emotional suffering for millions.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

The sports and Hollywood stars who have spoken out about their mental health and relationship struggles such as Michael Phelps, Jerry West, Lady Gaga, Brandon Marshall, Chrissy Teigen, Imani Boyette, Donny Osmond, Kevin Love, Mardy Fish, etc. have made such a huge impact on our societal views of mental health that I would welcome an opportunity to learn what therapeutic techniques were the most helpful to them and to heartily thank them in person.