Reprinted with permission from Section of Family Law eNewsletter, December 2017. © 2017 American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any or portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.
Sometimes, those of us that work every day helping people through divorce, are not always as aware as we wish we were about what an immense transition divorce is. Now and then, I find it helpful to go back to the basics and remind myself what the process is like for those moving through divorce. This month, I want to take the time to liken the process of coping with divorce with experiencing the grief that accompanies the loss of a loved one.
Divorce is a life change and transition that challenges the emotional, interpersonal and cognitive functioning and for some, spiritual functioning, of those experiencing it. Divorce is a life experience like no other. Divorce is not an event—it is a process that unfolds over a period of time. Deciding to divorce can take many months and even years. Healing from divorce, particularly when children are involved or when the marriage has been a long-term marriage, often takes several years.
Even when one wants to divorce (and especially when one doesn’t want the divorce), divorce represents a significant loss—the loss of aspirations, dreams, goals and hopes, let alone the loss of the marital relationship. It can involve more tangible loss like the marital lifestyle and standard of living as well as the everyday parenting of children. The decision to divorce can be one that is traumatic, chaotic and replete with ambivalent and conflicting emotions including sadness, guilt, relief and even joy. The emotions of divorce can be like a roller coaster with highs, lows, unexpected twists and turns and periods of hanging on, waiting until the ride is over. Whatever the emotional reactions are, it is reasonable to expect one’s adjustment to divorce to unfold over a period of time—perhaps as many as five years—and to involve some stages and phases that are similar to the stages of grief when one loses a loved one. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about the five stages of grief. These stages can be applied to coping with divorce.
Even when one wants to divorce (and especially when one does not), denial is an early common feature and includes thoughts such as “This is not happening to me” and “It will blow over—he/she will want to reconcile eventually.”
The denial stage is often followed by a period in which anger dominates. Each person’s experience of anger can differ depending on the situation and the person’s emotional patterns, but this stage is one in which the risk for increased conflict and argument with one’s soon to be former spouse greatly increases. Things that were accepted during the marriage now become unacceptable and even revolting. Behaviors and attitudes that one used to accept in one’s partner are now objectionable. When there are children from the relationship, this period can be particularly divisive with regard to concerns affecting parenting time. This is a period when blame tends to predominate versus being able to identify one’s role in the loss of the relationship. In some people, the anger phase can present in the form of feeling victimized and treated unfairly.
Bargaining is the next predictable phase. During this phase, thoughts and even attempts to reconcile are not uncommon, even when doing so may involve compromises that one really does not wish to make. These compromises can include falling back into patterns and agreements that did not seem tenable during the relationship. Reconciliations that are the result of this phase of adjustment can be fragile, tentative and they easily lead to disillusionment, discontent and a renewed decision to end the relationship. Of course, when this takes place, the complex and contradictory feelings that accompany the end of the relationship can be amplified, leading to even more conflict, hurt and upset.
As the reality that the relationship really is ending becomes more and more real, a period of deep sadness is often seen. While this is a very unpleasant and even scary thing to experience, it is a feeling that is vital to the healing process since it begins to signal one’s adjustment to the reality of what is taking place. One of the things that many people do when they recognize that someone is sad and depressed is to reassure them that they will be fine and that everything will be ok. However, reassuring someone who is depressed does not usually help them. It may even help worsen their depression. This is because depression is a communication of sadness/despair and the thing that really helps heal sadness is for others to recognize and validate the feeling. While it may seem counter-intuitive, experiencing this phase of the grief process is important.
Depression reflects a coming to terms with the reality of one’s situation and it is only when one is able to live in the truth and with the reality of what is going on that one is able to engage in the next and final stage of the grief process, that of acceptance. During this phase, one begins to see the ways in which change brings with it new potentials, new possibilities and new opportunities. It is during this phase that one begins to re-acquire a sense of normalcy and a changed and more adaptive sense of oneself.
As previously stated, divorce is one of life’s most complex and challenging life transitions. Each person experiencing divorce will go through the process in their own way, in their own time and with their own variation in the “typical” pattern. As a divorce professional, it is sometimes easy to become desensitized to what our clients are experiencing. While this may help to protect us emotionally, it serves our clients best for us to remain aware and attuned.