The grieving process during divorce
Divorce is the death of a relationship. The strongest emotions that govern people during a divorce are those of grief.
Psychologists have addressed grief and have typically defined its stages as:
- Shock: You want a divorce? What, where did this come from?
- Denial: This can’t be happening. She isn’t serious, she’ll come to her senses.
- Anger: How could you do this to me? You may want a divorce, but you are going to pay for it. I don’t care what it costs; he is never going to see his children again.
- Bargaining: If you’ll give me one more chance, I promise I’ll change. Can’t we wait until the children are out of high school?
- Depression: I don’t care, do whatever you want. Take whatever you want; I don’t care if I ever see the children.
- Acceptance: I understand that it’s over. It’s time I made a new life for myself.
Grief is a normal, predictable process that is an integral part of human existence. We are designed to survive it. However, although the process of coming to terms with grief can be impeded, it cannot be expedited. For example, handling a divorce through the adversarial process can easily delay people at the anger stage of grief. On the other hand, the process cannot be advanced by trying to “Just get over it.” The only cure for grief is time.
While the stages of the grieving process have been clearly and categorically identified, the actual process is not so orderly. People in the grieving process shift back and forth through the various stages of grief and their progress can be categorized only in general terms. For example, a husband may be in the acceptance stage of his grief until his wife tells him that the children will not be seeing him on Christmas. This news may drop him back to the anger stage from which he will have to climb his way back to acceptance.
Finally, some people get stuck in the grieving process. For example, they are unable to overcome their anger or to climb out of the depths of their depression. These people need to work with a qualified expert.
Grief disparity in divorce
People in a divorce progress through the grieving process at different rates. There is a direct correlation between the disparity of the parties’ stages of grief and their ability to negotiate and settle their divorce. The further apart the couple is in the grief process, the more unlikely it is that they will be able to negotiate and reach terms of settlement.
Since the only cure for grief is time, the only cure for disparate stages of grief is time.
However, sometimes the differences in the stages of grief are more a matter of perception than reality. For example, a wife in the depression stage of grief may not be able to proceed with negotiations until she believes that her husband is also feeling grief. The husband may be horribly hurt but refusing to show it, covering his grief with bluster or an unfeeling facade. In that situation, an expression of true feelings to the spouse may provide a commonality that will allow the couple to deal.
Dealing with anger in divorce
Anger is the most visible and pervasive of the stages of grief in a divorce. There are a number of reasons for this:
- Anger is the default position. When anything goes wrong during a divorce, parties typically view the situation as an attack, and the most common response to an attack is anger.
- Anger is infectious. When faced with an angry individual, the most common response is to become angry in defense.
- Anger is a common response to chaos, frustration, and uncertainty.
People in the middle of a divorce are usually dealing with angry spouses. Normally, their response to their angry spouse is to become angry themselves. Two angry people will delay the divorce process.
When anger is a problem, the best response is no response. The expression of anger requires energy. The angry party needs to be acknowledged. If the energy expended does not serve to meet the need, the individual will stop expending the energy. Most people find that while it may be incredibly difficult not to defend themselves or respond in kind, this approach works.
Weathering the storm
Divorce creates chaos. The chaos is caused by changes in residences, self-perceptions, finances, social relationships and parenting. Essentially, the rule book by which the divorcing individuals played has been destroyed. When this happens, divorcing peoples’ behavior can become distinctly odd. They may find themselves reverting to the lifestyle of their single days, and this will probably be in conflict with their current level of maturity. They may involve themselves in risky or self-destructive activities involving drugs and alcohol. They may also find themselves embroiled in questionable relations with members of the opposite sex.
It is important to weather this chaos while your rule book is being rewritten. Here are some guidelines to minimize the chaos during a divorce:
Don’t make any major changes for a year. People often react to a divorce by deciding that since their marriage is ending, everything has to be changed. They change jobs, residences, cash in retirement accounts, or join a commune. You have enough changes in your life right now. If something in your life doesn’t absolutely have to be changed, leave it alone.
Take care of your children. You don’t have any job that is more important than your children. Make sure they have what they need. Protect them from the divorce. Keep stress away from them. Maintain a positive attitude around your children. In addition to protecting the children, focusing on the needs of the children takes the focus away from you. This keeps you from dwelling on your problems while you are developing a new rule book for yourself.
Give yourself time. You are going through a lot, and it is going to take some time to recover from it. Don’t let anybody tell you to just get over it. You’ll get over it in your own time. Most people start to recover in about a year or so. Some people require a lot longer. If you find yourself stuck or can’t function at your job or as a parent, it is time to get help.
Protect your job. Your job is more important than it ever has been; don’t do anything to jeopardize it. Level with your employer. Tell your employer what is going on, and be sure to make up time if you have to. Do whatever is necessary to keep the relationship sound. If you are unhappy with your job, be extremely careful. The unhappiness could be a reaction to the divorce more than anything else. If after a year you are still unhappy, begin a systematic search for a new position. Do it right: give proper notice and don’t burn any bridges on your way out. As with focusing on the children, focusing on a job removes your focus from your situation.
Stay out of personal relationships for at least a year. You are at your most vulnerable right now. You are also seeking to redefine the new you. You will very likely be a very different person in a year than you are right now, and odds are you will not ultimately fit with anyone you become involved with now. Any relationship you enter into right now will be based on panic, need, or simply grief. These are bad ways to start a relationship.
Keep your friends. Some of your friends will feel very awkward associating with you since your separation. Some will not and will be supportive. Keep them close. Friends can help in tough times. However, be very careful about taking any advice they might give you. You can listen to them, but before you make any decisions, get advice from someone who knows what’s going on. If you have a friend of the same sex, that is a good thing. If you have a friend of the opposite sex, it will likely complicate things during this period in your life.
Keep your family. Members of your family can be your greatest allies. Don’t alienate them. Any unhappiness you may feel toward them right now may simply be a reflection of how you feel about the divorce process. It’s possible that your family will want to defend you at all costs. Be very careful; letting them defend you at all costs may not be the best approach. Any advice they give you, or actions they want you to take, may not be in your best interests or what is best for your children. Talk it over with the experts you’ve hired before acting on any advice family members give you.
Treat your spouse with respect. If you’d never had any children together, then it wouldn’t matter what you did to your spouse during the divorce. You could spend every dime the two of you’ve got making him or her miserable. However, the two of you are going to be parents forever. That means you are going to have a relationship forever. Do you want him or her as an enemy forever? If something you do hurts your ex-spouse, then it hurts your relationship as far as shared parenting is concerned, and that hurts your children. This is not what you want.
Take care of your finances. Don’t spend money on luxuries. Make the note payment on your car. You can’t get to work if you don’t have a car. Make the payment on the house if you can. If you can’t, make sure your spouse knows about it; then whether or not the house can be protected will be a joint problem. The same goes for your other bills. However, the necessities of life for you and your children come first. Any money you have goes to protect people first, then assets, and finally, your credit rating. For example, if it comes down to buying food or paying off a credit card, the choice should be obvious.