Grief in a Divorce is Real
Except for the death of a spouse, separation and divorce are generally more stressful than losing a job, personal sickness or injury, and financial problems like bankruptcy and foreclosure. Divorce is the ending of a relationship—the death of a relationship you could say. The rollercoaster of emotions one feels while going through a divorce is vast. It is not uncommon for someone to feel relief, guilt, sadness, and depression all in one day while going through a divorce.
All divorce cases are procedurally the same. At the end of the day, your attorney needs to ensure certain legal requirements are met to end your marriage. A divorce decree will divide property of the marriage, it will order child/spousal support, and will outline parent-time and custody. However, outside of all the legal requirements and whether you recognize it or not, you and your spouse are grieving the end of your marriage. These feelings, especially in the beginning, are often disproportionate to our other emotions and can impact how we temporarily see our spouse, our children, and the world.
The Five Stages of Grief
Most people have heard of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Unfortunately, we don’t all take the same path through the stages of grief. Finalizing a divorce requires a lot of effort from both sides. Aside from all the documents that need to be prepared and filed, most people experience an overwhelming flood of emotions throughout the process. These emotions are often a barrier to making progress or settling a divorce case.
Many people find themselves unable to take any decisive action until they can properly process their feelings about ending their marriage. Once the initial shock wears off, you might find yourself procrastinating the work that needs to be done to begin a divorce. These types of behaviors are common in the denial stage of grief, the thought being if you don’t do anything, the divorce won’t actually happen or that by delaying the process your spouse will have time to reconsider. Although completely natural trains of thought, they are not rational or realistic. The truth is most couples who begin down the path to divorce end up divorced in the end.
If you find yourself dwelling on all of things wrong with your ex or all the ways in which they hurt you, you may be in the anger stage of grief. Parties in this stage will often make ridiculous demands or reject fair proposals from their ex just to hurt or punish them. No one makes rational decisions when they are angry.
People who find themselves being overly generous to their spouse in hopes of changing their minds about the divorce may be in the bargaining stage. The thought process here is that by showing their spouse that they are reasonable and giving, it may help them realize the divorce was a mistake. People will often promise to be a better husband, wife or father or may try to prove this through actions. Often, client’s going through this stage will be willing to give away the farm so to speak, even when it is not in their best interests, to keep the peace.
In the depression stage clients often withdraw and will tell friends, family and even their attorneys that they no longer care how the case is resolved. As a result, cases can stall out and lose momentum as people going through this stage will find it difficult to follow through with assignments and tasks and find it hard to make decisions about the direction of their case.
Once people acknowledge that their marriage is over and decide to move on with their life, you can be sure they are likely in the acceptance stage. People who have accepted their circumstances will be eager to move on and create a new life for themselves. This is when people are most able to come to terms in the negotiation process.
David Kessler identifies another, sixth stage after acceptance he calls meaning or learning. Life is all about learning from our experiences. This usually comes after we find the presence of mind to review our past objectively and pull out lessons from our experiences and grow from them. Just realize that to get from stage one to stage six it takes time.
Regardless of where you might be in this process, recognizing that you are going through this process is half the battle and will allow you to check your feelings and move forward with your case. Sometimes it is helpful to speak with someone to help you recognize what you are going through so that it isn’t detrimental to you or your future.
Navigating the Stages of Grief
Very few people get divorced without going through a grief process. It is a completely natural part of life, and you will come out the other end of the tunnel eventually. The key is giving yourself time. It’s also important to be patient with your ex, who is likely going through the same process as you. So many people want to rush the process, but you can’t. Every person needs to go at their own pace. The antidote for grief is time. I know, not what you wanted to hear, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Comings to terms that you are going through the stages of grief and acknowledging that is the first steppingstone to getting through it.
Whether it is five or seven stages of grief, nothing about going through the grief process is as orderly or organized as we have made it. Life, as you likely know already, is not as clean and simple as that. The stages will blur together as you move forward and backward in your process. You may think you have reached acceptance when you are thrown back into depression. Things can still be triggering and push you back into the anger stage. Often the most triggering events are the things we care about the most: our children, our house that we built together, our pets, etc. So even though grief is a process, just realize that it is a process you may have to repeat more than once.
Your Grief is Not Your Spouses
We want our ex to feel the same as we do. It’s only natural. We expect that they are doing the work to get over it just like we are. But you and your spouse will go through the process differently. The likelihood that you both will arrive at the acceptance or learning stages (the most productive stages) at the same time is unlikely and that is ok.
Obviously, if one spouse has seemingly moved on and reached acceptance when the other is still mired in anger or even denial, it can hurt their negotiations and prevent an amicable resolution. Unfortunately, if you and your spouse are on opposite sides of the spectrum, it makes a deal so much less likely. The cure? Time. I know, there’s that word again, the one you don’t like, but it is the truth.
But just because you aren’t in the same place in your grieving process, doesn’t mean you are as far apart as you might think when it comes to the negotiation process. How you perceive where your spouse is in their grieving process may not be accurate. A husband may be hurting terribly, but his coping mechanism may be to hold his emotions in, which is a common reaction in men. But a wife may not be able to move forward with negotiations unless she perceives that her husband is mirroring her feelings as well. In short, they are feeling the same way, but there is a perception gap that is impeding progress.
When the gulf between spouses is vast, it is often best to wait before attempting to negotiations. Extreme emotions are often the worst enemy in divorce negotiations and trying to force something in a pressure cooker of extremes is a recipe for disaster. Even worse, trying to push negotiations when the parties are not ready can result in major setbacks that will prevent parties from going back to the negotiation table. This costs parties thousands in unnecessary legal fees. Making sure the other side is at least receptive is key in any successful strategy.
Go to Therapy Early and Go Often
We are proponents of therapy. Divorce is a trauma and sometimes people get stuck in the grief process and can’t seem to get over the anger or depression. As a result, we often recommend all of our clients start seeing a therapist early on in the process and to go see them more frequently, especially in the beginning of a case. A therapist can help you navigate the stages of grief and may be able to compress the time it takes for you to reach the more productive stages.
Although society seems to have fully accepted therapy as a necessity in many situations, including divorce, there still is some stigma around it and many still hesitate to go. Please try it out. If you are stuck and can’t seem to get over the emotions connected to your divorce, it will delay progress and prevent a meaningful resolution. Even if you do somehow manage a deal, if you or your spouse hasn’t properly dealt with grief, you are exponentially more likely to end up back in court for one reason or another. It’s simply not worth putting off. Resolving differences in court gives all the decision-making power to a judge or commissioner and leaves you with none. In most cases, judges or commissioners, although well-intentioned, simply do not have enough time or resources to know your case as well as you would like. They certainly can’t possibly care as much as you do either. The best results often come when you are in the driver’s seat of your own case and work with your spouse to tailor the deal together.