Divorce is like a death in the family, except no one is bringing you food. I suggest that you start treating it like the huge loss that it is, so that you can eventually come to a peaceful acceptance of the situation and be ready, able, and willing to move on to the next stage of life.
Regardless of whether you are the initiator or the recipient, divorce naturally generates fear, anxiety, anger, resentment, bitterness, and occasional bouts of hopelessness.
Facing The Loss
Although divorce is more common than intact marriages these days, it still feels like a failure in a society where failure is not an option. Going through a traditional divorce process may include times when you feel like you might be dying or that your head might spin off your neck. It is very uncomfortable, especially if you have spent years convincing yourself the marriage was working for you, or that this was just the way it is. The good news is that now you no longer have to pretend the marriage is working for you, when it isn’t. Once the secret is out, it can be shocking to see how your friends may have seen this coming for years yet failed to share their insights with you.
The losses are many. You are losing a friend, a companion, and a lover. You are losing the dream of your marriage. You may lose some or all your friends, and some of your family if your in-laws choose to take sides. One or both of you will lose your home and the comforts this represents. If you have young children, you will most likely no longer see them every day. You also are likely to experience some loss in standard of living unless you have sufficient wealth to avoid this financial loss. Regardless of your financial status, the rest of these losses add up and can take a toll on your emotional wellbeing.
The Five Stages Of Grief
In my experience with divorcing people, divorce mimics the famous Kübler-Ross five stages of grief: denial (avoidance, confusion, elation, shock, fear), anger (frustration, irritation, anxiety), bargaining (struggling to find meaning, reaching out to others, sharing one’s story and perspective), depression (feeling overwhelmed, helpless, hopeless, hostile, and wanting to run away from the pain), and acceptance (exploring options, putting together a new plan for the future, moving on). These feelings arise at some point along the continuum from when a spouse first discloses the desire for a divorce, all the way through the process, until a final order is issued by a court. How you cope with those intense emotions during your divorce is critical to emerging from this process whole, healthy, and feeling good about yourself.
Denial – The denial phase often happens without anyone naming it, unbeknownst to anyone in the divorce process, including the lawyers. The only person who might know this is happening is someone’s therapist who, of course, cannot tell anyone. While the grieving stages of divorce are not things that traditional divorce lawyers talk about with their clients, if you seek a Collaborative Divorce there will be an opportunity to explore this phase.
Anger – The angry phase of a divorce is everyone’s worst nightmare. This is often the time when someone “lawyers up” with the biggest shark out there, basically, to put the screws to the spouse before the other spouse does the same. This is a reactive moment. You and your family will be better served in the long run if you can hit the pause button before hiring an adversarial divorce lawyer and running to the courthouse to “file for divorce” before you have processed all your strong emotions. My point is, your anger is a phase to work through, not get stuck in. Of course, if you need the court to protect you from abuse, then go to court.
Bargaining – This phase, as it applies to grief during a divorce, suggests that sometime during this process you will struggle to find meaning from this experience. You may want to reach out to share your story and perspective about it all. This is also a good time for self-reflection and a good mental health professional. It is a time to assign meaning to your life going forward, especially if you happen to be a spouse who derived not only meaning but personal identity and satisfaction from your role in the marriage. That can leave even the sturdiest among us feeling vulnerable and directionless. Sharing your perspective is helpful if you are sharing it with appropriate people. In general, your spouse is no longer your emotional go-to person, so I encourage you to find someone else who is safe and can keep your confidence.
Sadness and Depression – This is perhaps the hardest part of the divorce process. It hurts to deal with all of this. It is stressful and it is sad. It is also okay, in fact it is healthy, to feel your feelings. However, it is not okay to cry all the time, especially in front of your children. If that happens, get professional help. Divorce is an emotionally complicated time of life, and no one is immune from the devastating toll it brings to a family. Handling the darker emotions with compassion and a family system counselor will help everyone around you. If you work through the emotional aspects of divorce before you try to settle your future financial reality and your relationship with your children, you will eventually come to acceptance.
Acceptance – True acceptance of reality is hard. It is so much easier to tell ourselves a story that we prefer to hear. But at some point in the grieving process, you will notice yourself saying: “OMG, I am so sick of hearing myself talk about this,” and “Enough is enough. Let’s get on with this divorce and move forward.” When you reach that stage of your emotional roller coaster, that is a breakthrough moment worth celebrating.
Note that the challenge in most divorces is that these breakthrough moments don’t usually happen at the same time. So, if you have had yours, but your spouse seems stuck in some other phase of the process, your job is to focus on rebuilding your new life while being patient and demonstrating empathy for your spouse. They will catch up to you on their own timeline, which cannot be rushed by arbitrary deadlines or court hearing dates.
Do not expect the feelings associated with a divorce to be “neat and tidy.” You may feel some, but not all of these feelings. There is no “right” way to get through this process. Do the best you can, get professional support, and be wary of anyone who tells you how it will be or how long these strong feelings will last. Everyone is different.
The Collaborative Divorce Process
Fear of the future is common at the beginning of the divorce process. You are the proverbial stranger in a strange land. You don’t speak the language, and you don’t know all your options. You are processing all the losses. Our culture adds an additional layer of guilt to make it seem like divorce is someone’s fault, that someone is to blame, even though we have so-called no-fault divorces.
The traditional lawyer will follow the initial path you set, even if once you process the grief your perspective changes. Perhaps you are not so angry anymore. You just want to move on in peace because you have worked through your sadness, and you are now into acceptance.
Collaborative Divorce offers the privacy, space, and dignity to move through this major life transition at a pace that makes sense to you and your spouse. The lawyers are in a supportive role, not a combative, adversarial one. There is a mental health coach to help normalize intense emotions. A financial neutral is part of the team, to gather, organize, and analyze the best financial options so that you and your spouse can untangle your marriage and move confidently into your futures with the knowledge that you managed your divorce in the most humane way possible.
Collaborative Divorce is about choices; it refuses to succumb to a model designed to break things apart and leave people feeling shattered. It accepts you and your spouse as you are, recognizing that you will grow, change, and heal over the course of your divorce process. It allows you to align the process to your own core values. It encourages you and your spouse to come together in order to separate amicably and respectfully.
How does it work? You and your spouse each retain collaboratively trained attorneys, and an interdisciplinary team is created. Agendas are set in advance of meetings, and you retain more control over the pace of your divorce process. The team is there to provide appropriate support at the correct time. Collaborative Divorce is an out-of-court settlement process that is legal in every state in the United States, and it is practiced throughout Canada, England, Australia, Israel, Italy, and Denmark, among other countries. There is structure, support and an expectation that you and your spouse will emerge healthier and better friends or co-parents than a married couple.
The Flip Side Of Grief Is Resilience And Opportunity
It will take time to process it all. But take heart – you will be transformed by this experience. The key is to look at divorce beyond the lens of grief and loss, toward a lens of resiliency, transformation, and an opportunity for personal growth.
Nanci A. Smith, Esq., is an attorney licensed to practice in Vermont and New York. She is the chair of the Collaborative Divorce section of the Vermont Bar Association, a leader in her collaborative divorce practice group, and a member of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals.
She frequently writes and talks about divorce, family law, ethics, and collaborative divorce practices. Smith is the author of Untangling Your Marriage: A Guide to Collaborative Divorce (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Oct 11, 2022). Learn more at nancismithlaw.com.