by Tami Sollo LCSW, Coordinator of the Divorce Specialty Center
I encounter many couples experiencing the early phases of divorce. Marked by the tearing down of comfortable routines, fear of the future and its unknowns, and sadness over the loss of a familiar way of life—no matter how unhappy it may have been—the early stages of divorce are chaotic and emotionally overwhelming. Like any time of grief or great loss, recovering from divorce is a process. How quickly couples move towards healing depends upon several factors: how well spouses work together to co-parent or make decisions for their separate futures; the level of conflict between the couple; the couple’s financial situation; how well developed the couple’s psychological coping skills are; and the external support systems of the soon-to-be ex-spouses.
As divorce is usually a time of loss and emotional hardship, it can simulate the stages of grief and recovery commonly experienced after the death of a loved one. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identifies the “Stages of Grief” in her 1969 book On Death and Dying as Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Using a similar framework, I help my clients understand the difficult process of divorce through four stages. Although these are numbered, each person’s experience is different, and not everyone experiences the phases in order. It is also possible to experience a stage more than once.
Stage One: Contemplation
This is the stage where one or both partners become aware that the marriage is not working. For the spouse(s) who decide to leave the marriage, this stage may take months or years. It is a time of denial, isolation and sometimes bargaining, characterized by last-ditch efforts to save the marriage. Despite their partner’s behavioral shifts, the spouse who will be left (the “leavee”) may have no idea that his or her spouse is dissatisfied. Therefore while the “leaver” may have ample time to consider and plan, the “leavee” is often blindsided.
Stage Two: Realization
Realization occurs when the couple is ready to admit to themselves that the marriage is not working. Attempts have been made to save the marriage and both parties are willing to move forward with the divorce. One or both parties make a decision to begin the legal process of divorce. Because this stage involves much chaos and confusion for the family, it is often marked by anger, denial and/or depression.
Stage Three: Adjustment
After the legal process has ended, there are many new life circumstances to set in place and the adjustment period can be challenging. Sometimes this is when depression sets in.
Stage Four: Renewal
Although both individuals may have already begun to envision their new lives, the process of establishing a new routine continues. This time is often marked by finding new people with whom to interact. New relationships may begin, both romantic and platonic. People may start a new career, enter the job market for the first time in many years or take on new challenges at their current jobs. It is a time of shaping a new future and this stage is often when acceptance begins to shine through.
Many of the individuals and couples that I meet in the beginning phases of divorce find it impossible to see beyond the present chaos, guilt, sadness and rage. That is why I like to focus on the fourth stage, Renewal.
Divorce is an opportunity to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of your old life, to be renewed and begin again. With the proper guidance, whether from a professional or a trusted friend, that new beginning can be a chance to become more self-aware and build healthier relationships. During the renewal process, it is essential to broaden one’s awareness of the role that one played in the failed relationship, not for the purpose of hanging on to guilt, but to ensure that future relationships can begin from a different and better place. People use many different methods in order to achieve this goal. Some of these include: meditation, therapy (group or individual), physical exercise, and creative outlets. This is a time to get to know one’s self again or maybe for the very first time. It is a chance to connect with one’s authentic self, to meet new people, let go of anger and resentment and to move on in a healthy, positive way.
The Divorce Specialty Center at JCFS Chicago is dedicated to helping all members of the family make this transition as smooth as possible. a confidential divorce consultation can determine what your family needs to navigate divorce and move towards a place of healing.