Okay, in my last blog, I talked about contemplating divorce. This one will focus on divorce itself.
The decision to ask for a divorce is huge. Few people will go into the conversation on a whim. Most folks I have met thought about divorce for several months often doing desperate things to avoid making the decision. Some make significant compromises for the sake of the relationship. I applaud all these so long as it contributes to attempting to reconcile the marriage.
Oddly enough, having an affair comes to mind and some have acted on it. Half those decisions seem to be a cry for connection, attention, and intimacy missing or perceived to be missing in the relationship. Others have an affair for self-sabotage reasons. The logic being you piss off the spouse by acknowledging the affair and it makes them ask for a divorce. A coward’s way to do what you lack the courage to do yourself.
Let me say plainly, this is crazy thinking. If the relationship has soured this far, infidelity is not the answer. It creates animus. Inflicting an intentional hurt on your partner is just mean. You de-value yourself emotionally and morally. If you have kids, think about explaining it to your kids now or even years from now.
If you need to work through your feelings leading up to a divorce, consider do it confidentially. I talked about pre-divorce counseling in my previous blog. My goal is to help you explore your feelings and help you prepare for the outcome whatever that may be. Some people just need to have their thinking and feelings validated but I won’t necessarily do that. Your decision has to be your decision.
Consider Divorce Counseling
It is possible to weather a divorce alone but I don’t recommend it. Outside of divorce counseling, you need to have trusted resources who will support you but will not be complete ‘yes’ people. You will need someone to challenge your thinking and challenge your decisions. You need someone who can see your sadness but not feed into it. They need to be someone who is looking out for your well-being: physical and emotional health.
Divorce is not a painless process for most relationships. There is a lot of uncertainty and pain accompanies the unknowns. When it becomes unbearable, divorce counseling is recommended. Anger is a big emotion that has led many to decisions, not in their best interest. Divorce brings on a flood of emotions that can paralyze some people into inaction. Once the feelings are sorted out the goal of divorce counseling is to get you back into action, making decisions in your best interest (and the kids) and building coping skills to face future challenges.
From my perspective, I am also thinking about the end-game. I want you to be emotionally sound, confident and be emotionally resilient to face post-divorce life. There is life after divorce. Don’t doubt it. Friends and family that support you through the divorce process want to see you succeed and find happiness on the other side.
Stages of Divorce
Divorce is a form of loss. It is the loss of a relationship. It is the loss of a life planned out. With loss comes grief. So divorce does have it’s own loss/grief model. These are not always sequential stages; you can re-cycle through phases throughout the divorce process. These can also depend on if you are the person seeking the divorce or being divorced.
- Denial: Characterized by shock and persistent attempts to dispel the thought of divorce. You ignore or downplay the seriousness of the event. You attempt to feel and act normal carrying on as if divorce was not pending. This is both an intentional and unintentional response to psychological numbness.
- Pain and Uncertainty: This stage is when the old reality and the new reality clash creating uncertainty (fear and anxiety). For the partner being divorced, the denial numbness wears off and you start to experience the loss of the relationship and the loss of the future you had planned for yourself and partner. For the divorce initiating partner, they can experience some guilt for causing the pain in the soon-to-be ex-partner. Their own emotions may be muted in this stage because they dealt with them while contemplating the divorce.
In this stage, friends, and family start to polarize or retreat from the divorcing couple, too. Friends disappear because they don’t know how to respond to the divorcing couple. So they just fade away which is painful. Families polarize around their respective child and hurtful things will be said that won’t help.
- Anger: This is the phase that most people think about in divorces and sadly is sensationalized by Hollywood. For both parties, this is the most important stage to not screw up if you want any hope of an amicable separation for yourselves, as well as, any kids. Both parties are apt to point blame in the other. Assigning blame to the other partner is a defense mechanism. Our anger is justified by the transgressions of the other partner. While blame makes us feel good at the moment it also creates unneeded ‘baggage’ that can be carried for years. Frankly, the kids don’t need to hear any of it and should never be the target of your unresolved anger. From a counselor’s perspective, marriages dissolve due to factors attributed to both partners.
Anger is likely to spill out onto others and in other areas. Families start to polarize, friends start to withdraw and kids become the unintended pawns (e.g. secondary victims) in the process. Anger alienates the people close to you. Work may become an emotional escape or be neglected. Much of this can be mitigated if both parties commit to working through hurts in divorce or individual counseling. Stress and anger management are common goals along with conflict resolution. You can guarantee that I will give you a Fighting Fair Rules handout.
- Bargaining: This is the ‘oddest’ phase where one or both parties reach an emotional state where they question the divorce. It is a way to deal with the pain, too. Some are apt to make compromises and behavior changes in hopes of resolving the marital dissolve. Partners reflect and form regrets for words/deeds they feel responsible for that may (or may not) be a reason for the relationship ending.
In pre-divorce counseling, I try to work with clients to minimize this stage because “I want a divorce” are words that are hard to take back. The hurt is done. Second chances do occur. I have friends who divorced then starting dating and re-married with a successful relationship. In their case, the divorce was a ‘relationship reset button’ allowing them to clear past hurts and transgressions and allow the attraction to become new, again.
- Guilt: This feeling is a natural process where one recognizes the pain they are responsible for in their partner. Guilt is internalized self-blame. Reflecting back objectively to see where things could have been done differently is healthy. Reflecting back to take the blame for every problem in the marriage is not so healthy. As previously stated, marriages dissolve due to actions or inactions by both parties. Guilt can also fuel the Bargaining phase, too.
Take ownership of your mistakes and not the others. Strive to do things differently. Do not rehash your mistakes and psychologically assault yourself for your mistakes. Beat yourself up too much and you will turn guilt into shame. Shame is a cancer of guilt embedded in your bones. Get help with your guilty feelings before they turn to shame.
- Depression: Feeling deeply sad is absolutely normal. It is a normal reaction by a normal person to an abnormal event. How you deal with these feelings is a precursor to whether it becomes depression or not. The symptoms to look for are these:
- Isolating yourself from friends and family
- Negative thinking about yourself and your future
- Sleeping issues: over-sleeping or lack of sleep
- Thinking you are unworthy of love or happiness
- Unintentional weight loss or weight gain
- Your interest in activities that brought you pleasure no longer do
- Misplaced or self-directed anger
- Extended periods of sadness trending towards depression
- Intense feelings interfere with your ability to care for yourself: eating, bathing, etc.
- Feelings of hopelessness
One or more of these will occur during the divorce process for everyone. If they are often occurring, increasing in severity or persist beyond the divorce, it is time to seek help. You are stuck. You can recover and thrive following a divorce but it may take some assistance. If your friends say something, listen to them. Brief counseling is the prescription and for some life transition coaching can help you actively reclaim or renew your life post-divorce. If you are prone to depression already, getting engaged with a counselor during the divorce is a great idea.
- Acceptance: The last stage of divorce is everybody’s goal. This is where you can look in the rearview mirror at your divorce and still look forward into your new future. You have come to accept the relationship has ended. What is done is done. You have come to a point where the past is not going to hold you back. It doesn’t mean the sadness is gone; it means the emotions are no longer holding you back from thriving. This phase is where you start doing for yourself as an individual and no longer as a married unit. This is where people feel true freedom. You’re future is no longer ‘on hold’.
If you are still looking back at your divorce with anger and regret, you have not reached acceptance. And, you may be stuck. It may be post-divorce life is intimidating. Friends, family and other well-meaning friends will encourage you to: get ‘out there’, get a hobby, meet people, etc. Keep those people close because they are your supporters and when you are ready to move on you will. If you are truly stuck, get some post-divorce counseling or life transition coaching. Your new life and new adventures are waiting for you. Divorce sucks but you will be a stronger person.
Self-Care Emotional Strategies
Regardless of how well you emotionally handle a divorce, there are things you can do for yourself to survive the process.
- Circle of Trust – Ensure you include friends and family who are positive emotional support. Surround yourself with people who can be your ally and a sounding board. Pause those that are not a positive influence; you can rekindle those later if desired.
- Self-Inventory – Objectively assess your handling of the situation. Don’t cause yourself more stress nor do things you will regret later. If you need help, ask for it.
- Values – Keep your values intact; don’t compromise those. You need to be proud of yourself when it is all over.
- High Road – If kids are involved, commit to an amicable divorce and comport your words and behaviors accordingly….regardless of what your partner does or says.
- Reflect – understand issues and behaviors that led to the demise of the relationship. You will be less likely to repeat them and/or avoid them in future relationships.
- Best Friend – Be your own best friend. You can easily be your own worst enemy but don’t do it to yourself.
When my parents divorced when I was 11, it didn’t make any sense to me. I still have those thoughts sitting in a session with a client contemplating or going through a divorce. The reality is that relationships do fail. Too often, marriage issues are not dealt with until it’s too late. Dealing with issues requires two people to be vulnerable and that can be too much to ask one or both partners. The question is whether some moments of vulnerability are more valuable than breaking up a family and splitting assets. I think vulnerability is more important. The biggest problem in a marriage, in my opinion, is an inability to communicate effectively. When couples cannot communicate, they cannot talk about issues and they cannot resolve conflicts.