Getting Through It: The Stages of Grief When Going Through a Divorce

When going through a Massachusetts divorce, it's perfectly normal to experience the wide variety of emotions normally associated with grief. Divorce involves an unavoidable mourning period for the loss of your marriage and the related casualties of your divorce. Many mental health professionals agree that people experience at least one form of loss when going through a divorce, and that it's natural to grieve that loss or losses. Often, people find that different aspects of loss arise at different times throughout the divorce process, and even after.

Losing your spouse can feel very much like a death. When your marriage ends, you experience several losses at once: the loss of familiarity, the loss of company, and the loss of support — financially, emotionally, socially, etc. The idea of emotional stages for divorce is derived from research on the emotional stages that terminally ill patients go through when coping with their impending death.[1] As morbid as that sounds, you have ultimately lost the life that accompanied your partnership and many people in it, as well as expectations and fantasies about the future. Allow yourself time to mourn and process these multiple losses.

Making the decision to end your marriage can be both chaotic and traumatic. You may feel conflicting emotions that are difficult to manage and process alone. Divergent feelings and attitudes may kick in, depending on which party initiated the decision to end the marriage. Maybe you pulled the plug, or maybe you wanted to work things out. If you initiated the divorce, it's understandable to experience feelings of guilt, impatience, distance, fear, or even relief. If you did not initiate the divorce and you wanted to work on your marriage with your spouse, you may have feelings of helplessness, betrayal, shock, denial, loss of control, anger, low self-esteem, frustration, resentment, desires to retaliate and get even, and sometimes even the hope for reconciliation. This list goes on and on. Seeking the professional help of a therapist for an individualized approach to healing is recommended and can be extremely beneficial.

One useful framework for understanding grief in terms of five distinct stages was developed by Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in the late 1960s, and this model has remained a keystone for laypersons and professionals attempting to make sense of loss of all kinds, not just the death of a person. Kübler-Ross identified common, distinct, and chronologically predictable emotional experiences of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance as ubiquitous emotional phases among the bereaved. [2]

Divorce is a tremendous experience of grief and loss for many people. You may recognize some or all of the following stages of grief from your experiences thinking about or moving forward through a divorce:

Bargaining

Many people bargain in a divorce. Understandably, it’s natural to try to avoid the inevitable. As a result, they try to come to terms with their ex-spouse in an effort to save the marriage. Some make promises to change certain behaviors, while others offer to forgive transgressions for the sake of preserving the marriage. In bargaining, you want the pain and hurt you’re experiencing to go away. You want to regain control and preserve the life with which you are familiar.

Denial

Denial is a normal reaction to trauma and a critical component of the grieving process. You were thrown into an enormous change in your life and have yet to fully process it. At some point, you will need to face the reality of the situation in order to make healthy, constructive decisions for yourself, your family, and those around you. Avoiding painful truths is a natural human response; however, remaining perpetually in fantasy-land is ultimately disempowering. It will not prevent you from experiencing more pain; on the contrary, it will keep you from moving forward by making pragmatic decisions in light of the way things are, as opposed to the way we wish for them to be.

Pain, Uncertainty, and Fear

Emotional pain in a divorce can result from a variety of factors- including pain associated with the hurt that comes from rejection, betrayal, and simply feeling emotionally overwhelmed. There may also be feelings of uncertainty involved, which are normally associated with not knowing how you will handle the responsibilities that were once shared with your soon-to-be-ex-spouse. This can lend itself to fears, such as financial losses or instability, losing a home, and a variety of other intimidating scenarios. What will holidays be like post divorce? How will family and friends react? Will the dreaded dating world be as horrific as coupled people imagine it to be?

Anger and Resentment

Anger is likely to supersede other emotions when a person starts thinking about how the divorce is going to impact his or her life and how the former spouse brought pain and conflict into it. You might have thoughts that ascribe blame to your former spouse, maybe along the lines of, Who else could possibly be to blame when my world is falling apart right in front of my eyes? Who else could be responsible for this terribly painful thing happening in my life?

It’s okay and natural to feel angry for any one of a number of reasons . . . your feelings are yours. Having said that, anger — although a completely normal and healthy human emotion — should be monitored. You may find that your anger extends towards the innocent parties completely uninvolved with your relationship. When anger gets out of control, it can become destructive and eventually lead to other problems in personal relationships, at work, and more. It can affect a person’s overall quality of life if not acknowledged and managed.

Depression

Depression can go hand-in-hand with many stages of grief. Depression is a normal part of the grieving process; it occurs once the brunt of the divorce finally hits and much of the other feelings of chaos and fear have subsided. You may be under the covers or in front of the television with chocolate for most of this phase. Showering may seem like an absolutely onerous chore; you may not feel like speak or eating; or you may find yourself inclined to overeat. You may find it difficult to sleep, even though you are physically and emotionally exhausted. It’s hard to tell when and how hard depression will hit.

If you or your children are experiencing symptoms of depression, consult a licensed mental health professional immediately.

Guilt and Shame

Experiencing guilt, remorse, or shame is a normal reaction to the end of a marriage. You might be battling a sense of failure or disappointment, since social or personal expectations might have you feeling like you should stay married for life. Guilt is so painful that it can quickly morph into anger or depression. Strong feelings of guilt can prevent you from staying balanced and realistic. Guilt sets in when a person believes that the divorce is his or her fault. Shame can turn into rage or blame that’s directed at the other spouse. It’s hard not to fall into cycles of “woulda/shoulda/coulda” thinking, especially when we are making retrospective judgement about earlier times.

If you find yourself in a feedback loop of guilt and shame, try to remember that we all do the best we can with very difficult circumstances and the internal and external resources we have available to us at any given time. And while we may wish that we had had more of this or less of that, and that we’d done things differently, the most constructive thing we can do is focus on what we want to implement in the future.

Acceptance

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and then you may find it’s full steam ahead from there. Acceptance materializes when reality truly sets in that the divorce is going to happen. You’ve emerged from denial and are ready to face the road ahead, which begins with accepting the certainty of your situation, and you realize that life has changed and there is no turning back. You are preparing yourself to cope, to survive, move on, and even ultimately thrive, and even though that can be hard to imagine, you’ll be surprised to find you’ve already been doing all of that, the whole time.

Acceptance sometimes comes more easily for those who anticipated the divorce, or who emotionally distanced themselves from the marriage well before the divorce was initiated. Regardless, gradually or suddenly, individuals come to terms with the finality of divorce. There are aspects of a divorce that may be harder to accept than others, and it is not unusual for individuals to find themselves more at peace with some aspects of the process than others.

Forgiveness

For many people, forgiveness is a more of a process than a singular benchmark achievement. There is no timeline on how long it should take, as everyone grieves and heals in their own way and in their own time. Forgiveness is a sign of true healing, where a person is not only able to forgive an ex-spouse, but also himself or herself for anything he or she did that may have contributed to the divorce (or the pain associated with it). Once a person is able to forgive, they are truly free and ready to move forward completely and without regrets.

If you or someone you know is going through a divorce, it may be easy to recognize some of these stages of grief. Talking about it with trusted friends and family members and/or accepting guidance from a support group or mental health professional can be tremendously helpful. An expert can assist you with developing coping mechanisms and strategies that will help you move beyond the stages of grief and onto the path of recovery.

The unhappiness that once pervaded your marriage is over. However, moving on is a marathon — not a sprint. There is no training regimen for getting through a divorce. Emotional and logistical recovery can be a slow process; take things one day at a time until you find solid ground.

[1] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. "Kübler-Ross model," accessed August 1, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model.

[2] Kübler-Ross, E. (1969) On Death and Dying. New York, NY: Routledge.

To speak with a lawyer about divorce or MA alimony matter, contact Mavrides Law in Boston or Wellesley, MA. To schedule an in-depth initial consultation, call 617-723-9900 or contact the firm at info@mavrideslaw.com

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