If you’re wondering about the process of coping with and minimising the experience of grief in divorce, here are some tips and information for you to help manage. This information is sourced from the book Breaking Up Without Breaking Down by Dr Tina Sinclair, Tricia Peters and Marguerite Picard of leading national collaborative divorce firm, MELCA.
Many people are surprised when the term ‘grief’ is used regarding the end of a relationship or marriage. No one has actually died, after all. Isn’t grief what we feel when somebody dies?
‘There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.’ – Washington Irving
The truth is that there is a death. In fact, there are many deaths at the end of a relationship. We generally refer to these as losses, and the response to an emotional loss is similar to the response to the loss of a life.
There is the loss of the relationship. There is the loss of the dream of the relationship – what might have been and the future you had been planning. If you have children or had been planning to have children, there is also the loss of the traditional picture of the family, with both parents living with their children and raising them as a team. There might be material losses, such as the loss of the family home, lifestyle and material possessions.
And then there is the loss of who you thought you were – one half of a couple or a part of a family.
The pain of losing a relationship in the present can also bring up past pain, such as the loss of other loved ones. Re-experiencing these wounds can then intensify the grieving felt in separation and divorce.
Grieving the end of a relationship or marriage is normal – even if you are the person choosing to end it.
It’s important to recognise that this grieving needs to take place so you can disentangle and let go. This is essential to reaching the final stage of detachment and then moving on.
The stages of grief in separation
While a lot of work has been done on the stages of grief following the death of a loved one, the emotional process following separation and divorce is different – the partner is still alive, and ironically, this fact can make the situation more complicated to navigate emotionally. As a result, it can be helpful to order your feelings somehow.
The five stages of grief were first introduced by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and outline the series of emotions experienced following the death of a loved one. These stages are denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance.
Denial is a state of shock. You don’t want to believe that after so many years, perhaps even decades, your relationship is coming to an end.
If you have been noticing problems for some time, you might pretend they don’t exist or claim that they’re temporary. You might be experiencing guilt about initiating the separation (or thinking about separating).
If your spouse has told you that they want to leave, you might not believe them, and continue making plans and living your life as you have always done. You push their words away, but find that they keep bubbling to the surface as you wonder why. ‘What happened?’ ‘Did I do something wrong?’ And then you find yourself denying those thoughts. ‘It’s not true.’ ‘I don’t believe it.’ ‘I don’t want to think about this.’
In this stage, you might want to isolate yourself from the situation by not wanting to talk about it, or by not wanting to hear about any facts or thoughts or feelings from your spouse. As a result, there is often less contact between you and more silence as you grow more distant.
A person in denial may refuse to speak with any professional associated with separation, especially with a lawyer. That can cause frustration for the other spouse, who might be tempted to ‘lawyer up’ to get things moving. If you are struggling to come to terms with your separation, asking for time might keep this in check.
At the other end of the spectrum, there can be frequent arguments, as the spouse in denial refuses to agree that there is a problem and will not listen to or hear the other spouse.
This can be a very low time emotionally. It can look like depression, but it is not the depression usually experienced a bit later – it is the crippling grief and sadness of being in shock, numb, not being able to go forward, being stuck in denial.
This process occurs over and over, with your thoughts grappling with what you know to be true or what you have been told. The accompanying feelings – despair, loneliness, and fear – are painful and this pain can keep you stuck in denial.
However, with increased pressure to face the truth another feeling begins to dominate – anger.
There can be angry reactions, explosive arguments, even domestic violence events in the denial stage. These emotions are often masking the pain and can prevent you from facing reality.
The anger stage is different. It is a step forward. This anger can be constructive as it can help you feel more empowered. Anger as an emotion carries huge energy. This energy can mobilise you out of being stuck and move you towards the future.
However, damage can be done at this stage if this emotion is not managed well. It is healthy to feel anger, but being able to express it in a healthy way is critical for all concerned.
Anger helps you and your spouse move towards detaching. Inevitably, at this stage, you might find yourself blaming each other and avoiding sharing the responsibility for the relationship breakdown. Support and guidance from a therapist or skilled, neutral third party can be very helpful here. Venting, focusing on the negative, name-calling, shouting, and releasing the pressure build-up is important at this stage, but should not be done in front of the children or your spouse.
How you behave towards each other in the anger phase is critical to determine how well your separation will proceed; whether you will focus on a calm, reasonable and amicable way forward, or try to strike a ‘winning’ blow at your ex. How you manage your anger at this time will also help shape your capacity to parent effectively once you have separated.
Give yourself time to calm down
Anger is a response that is very likely to send people on the search for a ‘bulldog’ lawyer, and is the time when you’ll hear one or both spouses saying, ‘I’ll take him/her to the cleaners’ and ‘He/she will never see the children again’.
This is not a good frame of mind for thinking about settlement process options, and waiting until you feel more rational is a smart thing to do. It is a time when friends and family will often suggest getting traditional legal advice, but this can set you on an adversarial path that will damage you, your spouse and your children forever.
Instead, remember that this is a pivotal point in setting the tone for your separation, and give yourselves time to calm down and look at peaceable alternatives for finalising your marriage.
Bargaining is usually listed as the third stage in the grieving process. However, as mentioned earlier, this may not be a linear progression. The stages can cycle backwards and forwards, and the bargaining phase is a time when you and your spouse might find yourselves taking a step backwards.
How you act in this stage depends on what you are thinking about. If your focus is away from acceptance (some common behaviours include offering to change, pleading for forgiveness and promising a different future) the energy can move back to the status quo, which can be another denial stage. If you are trying to avoid an inevitable ending, the step backwards will likely be short-lived. However, if the promises are genuine, accompanied by the support of skilled counselling, the relationship may survive.
Therefore, the bargaining stage can be seen as pivotal for change in either direction – to stay or to leave. As a result, this is not a good time to negotiate a property settlement or a parenting plan, because it is likely that your decisions will be influenced by your efforts to avoid the end of your relationship.
The bargaining stage can also influence how the separation process runs when it comes to negotiations and agreements. If one of you is at this stage and the other is still in anger, there are often heightened negative emotions played out in an effort to seek compensation in parenting or property settlements. There can be a strong emphasis placed on balancing some form of emotional ledger to find fairness or justice – in order to resolve unfinished business. As a result, we strongly recommend getting some skilled professional assistance from family lawyers with the knowledge and sensitivity to understand this phenomenon. This wisdom can help redirect the distressed spouse away from what can easily become adversarial legal proceedings.
After bargaining, there is a new sense of reality. The end of the relationship will occur. With this realisation can come a deep sadness and grieve, which is often called the depression stage. This is likely to be felt not only by both of the spouses but also by those around them.
When you’re lost in your own grief, it’s easy to forget that you, as the separating couple, are not the only ones who are going through the grieving process. Your children, your wider family, your close friends, and even your workmates all have their own emotional journey to take. And, like you and your spouse, these journeys are rarely in sync. People will be at different stages at different times. The behaviour that people display will be different depending on personality, gender, their own past losses, ages, the developmental stages of your children, and the closeness of their relationship with you.
Sadness is usually an aspect of normal grieving. It is possible, however, to tip into a clinical depression. Therefore it’s important to be aware of the difference, which mostly involves the degree of debilitation. The length of the sadness or depression, whether normal day-to-day activities can be continued despite the grief, the pervasiveness of the negative thinking, and whether the individual continues with adequate self-care are all key considerations. If there is any concern for you, your spouse or your children, medical assistance is vital in order to assess the seriousness of the condition.
Ask for help
The chaos of grief makes it hard to approach negotiations logically or with energy. You need understanding from your professional advisors about what you can manage, and for your spouse to understand what you are going through. To find this, look for counselling support, ideally within a collaborative divorce team.
Acceptance is the end of the trail. It’s mounting the summit after a long and difficult climb or reaching your destination through rough waters or turbulent skies.
This is the stage when you start to focus on the future. You realise that the divorce is going to go ahead and, even if you aren’t happy about it, you can still make the best of it. You get a sense that everything will be okay, and before long you start to have hope for the future.
Acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t have lingering feelings of sadness or anger, but you are able to put energy into imagining and creating your new life and this has become important to you in a practical way. You can come to grips with the decisions you have to make. You are now more equipped for the legal negotiations required for you and your ex to reach a mutually acceptable settlement.
How long might it take before you reach acceptance? Know that this process is different for everyone. Acceptance usually isn’t an immediate, all-encompassing state – you won’t wake up one day to find you have transitioned from sadness into total acceptance. Instead, you will feel degrees of relief at different stages of your journey.
The key is to remember that it can happen. There is an increased sense of freedom and hope at the end of the tunnel.
What if you and your partner are at different stages? If you and your spouse have both reached the detachment stage of uncoupling, while a conversation about the end of the relationship may be sad, it may not be an acute emotional crisis. If you are both emotionally detached, you may be able to navigate your way through the decision-making required, successfully tell the children, help the children adjust, and move forward to new living and parenting arrangements.
However, what happens if one of you has no awareness of what the other one is feeling? Yes, perhaps you have noticed that things have changed – you are not as close, you don’t do things together as much, you don’t chat or share what happens in your day – but you didn’t think it was bad enough to end the relationship.
Hearing that your spouse wants to end the relationship would be a huge shock. You might try to understand, you might suggest therapy, you might become angry and defensive and argue, or you might create more distance. You may even leave the discussion and not want it raised again.
The problem is that there is then a big emotional gap between the initiator and the other partner. The initiator might have already reached acceptance and be ready to move forward with their separation, while the other partner might still be in a state of denial and unable to move forward at the pace the initiator would like. In these cases, it may take months for that partner to accept that the relationship is over and be more ready to negotiate a settlement.
Research shows that our brains are not able to function normally when we are highly stressed. We are not able to think rationally or clearly, and simple tasks that we once did without thinking, are no longer achievable. This can be debilitating when we are used to functioning normally.
When considering whether you are ready for the business aspects of your separation, consider the following:
- Can you talk together without it getting out of control?
- Can you and your spouse be in the same room?
- What happens when you start to disagree?
- Can you compromise and let some things go?
- How much are you focused on ‘winning (or maybe your spouse ‘not winning)?
- How far apart are you in what you think you need?
- How fixed are you in those ideas?
- Do you have friends or relatives telling you what you should end up with?
In any case, the best approach is usually to slow down. Ideally, the divorce process should move at the pace of the slowest person, as they will find it difficult to negotiate a settlement if they are in the very early stages of the grief process before they have reached attachment and acceptance. And, if one or both of you tries to push through with the separation anyway, this is far more likely to result in a high-conflict divorce where neither of you is happy with the outcome and you’re unable to maintain a good relationship in the future.
We hope this short bit of information provided you or someone you know better understand the process of grief in their divorce. If you would like to read more about the processes of a peaceful settlement, purchase Breaking Up Without Breaking Down at Melca.com.au or contact the team on 1300MELCA1. MELCA has offices in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and regional centres along the east coast.