Coping with the Emotional Divorce Process
The legal divorce process is different than the emotional divorce process. The legal process becomes more difficult in direct proportion to how you and your soon to be ex-spouse handle the emotional side of divorce.
When going through a divorce, you need to focus your attention on making decisions regarding dividing assets, custody schedules for the children, calculating child support and spousal support. Letting other things like getting even with your spouse get in the way make the whole process more difficult. It also makes it many times more expensive.
Going through a divorce causes an up swell of emotions. With emotions running through your veins simple decisions like dividing furniture or visitation schedules become difficult. I often compare it to trying to tie your shoes while holding your breath. Without oxygen simple tasks become difficult.
Emotions are understandable. Scientists have even studied it. In 1967, two psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, evaluated 43 life events and ranked them as to the severity of the stress they caused. Second on the list is divorce. Separation from a mate comes in third. These two events are outranked only by the death of a child.
The emotion is not just about the loss of your marriage, but the change in status quo. There are obvious changes like moving out of the home, dividing incomes, and visitation exchanges with the children. There are also some unexpected changes like your spouse “getting custody” of mutual friends, not wearing your wedding ring, and changed relationships with in-laws. All of these changes add bits of uncertainty, stress, and emotion to the divorce.
The emotional distress is greatest when one party wants the divorce, and the other does not. We call this syndrome “spouse still hanging on.” Some spouses have a hard time accepting the divorce. The change is too much for them. They will try in vain to hold onto their old life. What usually follows is anger and vindictiveness. For your own sake try not to respond to the anger. All you can do is appreciate their situation and give them time.
It took you months, maybe years, to decide to divorce. During this period your brain resolved any issues raised with the thoughts of life after the marriage. Similar to grieving over the loss of a loved one, your brain has had the time to accept the new reality. Your spouse has not had this time. This is why they are more emotional and irrational about the whole idea. You spouse’s brain has not yet accepted the new reality.
The fix is time. Over time your ex will accept the new situation. They might never love it, but they will learn to accept it. You can’t talk your spouse through the process any faster than his or her brain will allow. Arguing with them or pushing their buttons will only worsen the situation.
You need to concentrate on yourself and let time work on your spouse. Some say it takes one year for every three years you were married for emotions to die down. Allow everyone the time to adjust.
There are two ways to look at the range of emotions you will experience during a divorce. The more common one is parallel to the five stages of grief. The less commonly discussed stages of emotional divorce look at the whole picture. From the first realization that there is something wrong with the marriage to moving on years later. We will start with the big picture.
Kathleen O’Connell Corcoran, Ph.D. summarized the stages nicely in her work over the years as a family mediator.
Stage 1: Disillusionment of One Party
This is the stage where you realize there is a problem. You haven’t mentioned it yet. You’re trying to decide what to do about it. You may even thing about divorce at this point, weighing your options. Feeling frustration, anger, guilt, and anxiety is normal.
Stage 2: Expressing Dissatisfaction
This stage involves telling your spouse that you are unhappy or even ambivalent. This could mean that the two of you are arguing what feels like all the time. Maybe you sought marital counseling. On occasion, couples will hit a second honeymoon phase while trying to reignite the flame. It’s normal to feel relief, guilt, doubt, and grief.
Stage 3: Deciding to Divorce
Whether you and your partner have settled on the decision or not, once one person decides in their mind, the decision is almost never reversable. It took you or your partner months if not years to move through stage one and two. By the time one of you hits this point, there is little left to consider.
You will notice an increased emotional distance. Whether it’s one person withdrawing or blaming the other, the gulf will widen. It’s normal for both spouses to feel like the victim as well as experience resentment, anxiety, guilt, impatience, and neediness.
Stage 4: Acting on the Decision
This is the beginning of the legal process as well as the point where you go public with the decision. You will experience all the emotions in the five stages of grieving we will go over next.
Stage 5: Growing Acceptance
This can start during the legal divorce process or after. If you and your spouse can agree to file a joint petition, your divorce could be finalized in as little as 30 days. If you fight over everything because you let your emotions get the better of your judgment, it could take over a year.
At this point, you accept that your life is changing. You realize that even though there were good times, you weren’t happy in your marriage. You begin to reclaim yourself and take control of your future.
Stage 6: New Beginnings
You move beyond resentment. Anger is not a familiar companion. You have moved on, and everything is okay.
When you go through a divorce, you are essentially grieving. Perhaps for yourself or your old life. Perhaps for your children or what might have been “if only.”
You are pretending that everything is okay. Everything is normal. It’s a coping mechanism to keep yourself from being overwhelmed.
You are vengence, with a capitol V. Maybe you’re angry at your spouse, but it could be almost anything.
Be careful with this stage. Resist the temptation to bash your spouse in front of your children (it can damage their development and future relationships) as well as venting over social media. It may feel good at the time, but it will come back to bite you later.
You realize that you are struggling to deal with your emotional, possibly subconciously. It’s just too tiring, frustrating, awful, unbearable, etc. You are willing to sacrifice things you normally wouldn’t to get back what you had.
You will remember the good times and think maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to get back to that.
This is the phase most people seem to think of when they think of divorce, especially in an emotional divorce. It feels like life is in shambles and maybe there isn’t much point to anything.
It can be tempting, especially here, to take solace in things to take your mind off your sorrow. Therapists see people turn to excessive drinking or smoking as well as entering new relationships just because they feel lonely.
Maybe you aren’t thrilled. Perhaps you still feel anger or resentment or betrayal. Yet through all that you have accepted that the relationship is over. Everything is settled or soon will be. You can move on with your life.
There are healthy ways to deal with your emotions as well as destructive ways. The best way to take revenge (let’s be honest, most everyone thinks about it at some point) is to live the rest of your life well. Focus on creating a beautiful life for yourself and any children, the rest will follow.
Consider keeping a journal where you can express your feelings. Treat yourself to activities you have always wanted to do but didn’t make time for. Make new friends. Adding new people to your life can help with the transition.
Another way is to focus on your health and career. Take the opportunity to get in shape, if you aren’t. Study something new or take classes to get better at your job and earn a raise.
Find a support group where you can talk about your feelings. We highly recommend you to visit one of our marriage and family therapists. Paying a therapist to vent your feelings is much cheaper and more productive than venting to a divorce attorney.