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Divorce as a Grieving Process - Part 1

As I have said many times before, “divorce is like a death in the family except no one is bringing you food.” Divorce was the first time in my adult life that I was brought to my knees. It hurt so much that I was doubled over in pain. If that is where you are, close to that, or even worse than that, it’s time to take a deep breath or two.

Allow yourself to feel the feelings of your divorce and to remember that feelings are not facts. Authentically feeling our emotions is not easy for many of us. It’s likely to bring up uncomfortable and unfamiliar thoughts about who and where you are in life, who you want to be, and where you want to go. This is scary stuff that shouldn’t be taken lightly or ignored. An adversarial divorce lawyer is not qualified to deal with what you are going through emotionally. It is in your best interest to work through these emotions with a skilled mental health professional.

Divorce lawyers are trained to process cases through the adversarial system. It is not a system of nuance, emotionality, or a place where vulnerability or compassion are honored. We are trained to analyze and advise. It is our responsibility to settle cases if you choose, or to take cases to court when settlements can’t be reached. You hire us to protect your flank and exposed areas. We exploit the weaknesses of your adversary, even when that adversary is your former spouse and parent to your children. The traditional approach to getting divorced is akin to a Roman gladiator fighting for his life in a public arena. This type of adversarial blood bath will leave you, your spouse, and your children wounded for life.

It is very hard to recover any sense of decency or compassion after going through a contested divorce. It doesn’t matter if you end up in a final hearing in front of a judge, you settle your case on the courthouse steps the day of the hearing, or even if you settle in a marathon mediation session a week before the scheduled hearing. The damage is done the moment someone files first and starts asking questions second.

Filing for divorce is an act of aggression. It gets the adversarial process started and it is often hard to stop that train once it leaves the station.

Divorce as a Grieving Process

For many years, I’ve been thinking about how divorce and grief are connected. I see divorce as a grieving process. There are a myriad ways in which societies through the ages have experienced death and grieving rituals. Often our “ritual” for divorce is the adversarial court system in which we act out all of the worst moments of a marriage in high drama fashion. If you wish to avoid this drama, consider pursuing a Collaborative Divorce, or talking to a lawyer trained in Collaborative Practice.

I recently learned that the theory behind the well-known Kubler-Ross “Five Stages of Grief” was never subject to peer review, nor was it purported by its author to be scientifically based. The phenomenon took off in popular culture from the book, On Death and Dying. It has become part of the fabric of grief discourse, despite its lack of scientific reliability. Take it with a grain of salt. If the construct seems useful to you, then feel free to apply it. If you don’t experience any or all of these feelings during the course of your divorce, that’s fine too. I use the stages of grief framework because I think it helps explain why good people behave badly during a divorce. I recognize that these “stages” occur in a fluid, less linear way than depicted. Some people don’t experience divorce as a grieving process. There is no “one size fits all” response.

Denial: This Cannot be Happening to Me

First, there is often denial. This is the stage of “Oh no! This is not happening to me.” Or,” I’m not dealing with this.” Sometimes people are ready and there is no denial. There is simply acceptance. In my experience, this happens most often with people who get along really well with their soon to be ex-spouses and have been separated for a year or more. However, this is not the norm.

Most frequently I hear things like: “I cannot believe this is happening to me!” Or, the classic: “I have no idea where this is coming from. I thought everything was fine in my marriage.”

Denial is a powerful psychological tool that helps you cope with some pretty stressful things in life. But when you are confronting the breakup of your primary relationship, it is time to deal with reality. The sooner you deal with the way things are, not the way you wished things were, the sooner you will find peace, contentment, and happiness. I’m not kidding! It starts with getting out of denial, acting like the grownup you are, and taking care of the business in front of you despite your pain.

Anger: A Mighty Powerful Emotion to Work Through

Next up: Anger. After finally finding the courage to admit that your marriage is falling apart, you will probably be pretty mad. This is mighty powerful anger. It’s the kind of anger that can cross the line from a verbal confrontation into a serious criminal act of domestic violence.

Even without overt violence, anger that is not appropriately addressed can fester into deep wounds that never heal. This can leave a person bitter and resentful. Unresolved anger is a huge problem for children who have been used as pawns to hurt the spouse that appears to have moved on.

I’ve heard it said that anger is like an envelope that holds other emotions, like frustration, sadness, and anxiety. In a divorce, no matter who you are, at some point you will feel frustrated, sad, confused, anxious, and downright mad as hell. It’s good to know what you are feeling and to name it. That seems to help people to move through the emotion. Your best strategy is to start to pay attention to these feelings.

You may find yourself vacillating between depression, hopelessness, hostility, and a strong urge to fight back. This can be a dark time in the process. Your amygdala has been hijacked. Your fight or flight response is triggered and in full swing. This is a time for extra caution and extra self-care. If you don’t know what “self-care” means, ask a therapist, or do some research. It is not rocket science and it is not selfish. It’s simply taking care of yourself.

It is important to feel your feelings, (as opposed to repressing them), but not to become your feelings. It is like when we teach our kids about emotional intelligence and how to identify feelings. We say something like, “Wow, it sounds like you are feeling angry, or mad. You know, just because you feel that way, doesn’t make you an angry or mad person.” Or we say, “I don’t like what you just did, but you are still a lovable person.” In other words, just because you behave badly doesn’t mean you are a bad person.

As a divorce lawyer, I can tell you that it is very easy to get stuck in anger, especially if you are using the adversarial divorce model. Your anger is like a sore that keeps getting picked at. You can’t heal because each month you are in the fight. You are likely paying pretty significant lawyer fees and you may think, “Since I’m paying this much, I might as well keep fighting to the end and see what happens.”

I urge you to find an appropriate outlet to feel your feelings like anger and to find healthy ways to address them. I encourage you to consider a Collaborative Divorce so that you have the space to resolve your emotions before negotiating the important issues, such as your future relationship with your children, and your financial stability.

In the end, divorce is going to set you free to be the best person you always wanted to be. It’s a growth opportunity. Feel your anger and be grateful. It is going to move you onto the next stage of your life.

If you stay stuck in your anger, I can assure you it will have long-term negative effects on every aspect of your life: your business; your friends; your family; your children; your finances; and, your creativity. Everything will be clouded by your anger and things will get worse. That is no way to live!

Bargaining: The Struggle to Find Meaning

Then there is the “bargaining” phase of grief. This is characterized by the “struggle to find meaning” in the chaos and the seemingly unmanageability of your marriage, home, and life.

During this time, reach out to others, find help, and share your story to safe people or groups. This is the time to realize that your spouse is no longer your emotional “go-to” person.

After repeating your story so many times, there will come a day when you suddenly say something like, “OMG, I am so sick of hearing this old story.”

That is a breakthrough moment! You are close to the final stage of the grieving process: Acceptance.

Acceptance: The Moment of Grace

Acceptance is a moment of grace. It is the time when you realize that you will be okay. You understand and believe that this major life transition is not going to actually kill you. You come to understand that you really don’t hate your spouse. You hate the fact that you’re getting divorced. You may come to realize that it really was a blessing after all. Now you are actually in a position to start the negotiation of your divorce. You are psychologically ready to be divorced.

Do you see the similarities between divorce and the grieving process? Does this analogy ring true to you?

*All information displayed on the Nanci A. Smith Esq PLLC website is informational and shall not be deemed as legal advice. If you’re currently dealing with an individual legal situation, you’re invited to contact me through email or by phone. Until an attorney-client relationship has been established, I urge that you avoid sharing any confidential information.