In many ways divorce is like going through death of a loved one, involving loss and grief. It changes the structure of the family forever. Divorce causes the loss of hopes and dreams of what marriage and a family are supposed to be.
There is no one experience of divorce. Changing status from being married to being single can present varied difficulties in emotional adjustments for people who defined themselves primarily as married and coupled.
The way a person experiences divorce depends on many factors: socioeconomic status, what part of the life cycle they are in, and whether the divorce is a “friendly” one or “adversarial”.
Even then, a person’s response to transition will vary with his/her point of view and individual experiences. Some see divorce as failure and experience depressions, while others define it as freedom and experience relief. Most fall somewhere in the middle.
The stages presented here are similar to the stages a person goes through when grieving a death. They are simply general guides. Some people may experience them in the order they are presented; others may experience a few of the stages, but not all. Still others may not experience them at all. The point is that divorce is a process, and it may not be the same process for everyone.
Although individual reactions to the divorce process are varied, there is a typical and predictable series of psychological stages some pass through. The four stages can be labeled denial, conflict, ambivalence, and acceptance. Awareness of these stages will help to understand that adjustment to divorce is a process rather than a single event. It usually takes two to three years to form a strong attachment to a person and for some people, if separation occurs after this time, it usually involves a reaction called separation shock.
The first stage is mainly characterized by denial and separation shock. The individual may experience relief, numbness, or panic. (Relief is often felt when the divorce has been an extended, drawn-out process). The most typical reaction to separation is fear of abandonment. The emotional response to this fear is often apprehensiveness and anxiety.
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Anxious feelings may be accompanied by disturbances of sleep or appetite patterns.
Decreased in food intake and increased in time spent sleeping are probably related to depression. Both anxiety and depression are indications of separation shock. Often during this time clients will report that they are unable to concentrate on work activities or carry on conversations with people. They may experience sudden outbursts of tears or anger.
Other people report that they often lose control of their anger and, for what later seems to them to be an insignificant reason, explode into sudden flashes of rage.
Many people experience feelings of numbness or the absence of feelings. Numbness is a way of muting or denying feelings, which, if experienced, might be too overwhelming for the individual to handle.
Often during Stage 1 a person vacillates between these emotions – feeling first anxious, then angry, and then numb. For many, these emotions are often combined with feelings of optimism about their new lives. This stage of separation shock can last anywhere from a few days to several months.
Guilt and anger
Often one partner wants the divorce more than the other. The person who leaves is often burdened with enormous amounts of guilt and self-blame, whereas the remaining partner potentially feels more anger, hurt, self-pity, and condemnation of the other. Both individuals suffer.
Coming to grips with the marriage ending
The principal problem of Stage 1 for many people involves coming to grips with the fact that the marriage is ending. The emotional task of the person at this stage of the divorcing process is to accept the reality of the separation.
Shortly after separation shock, one may begin to experience a multitude of emotions, one occurring right after the other. One minute people may feel perfectly comfortable with their new lifestyle, and a minute later they may find themselves in tears, reminiscing about their former spouses. Shortly thereafter, remembering a negative event or an argument, they may feel enraged. The only thing predictable in this stage is the unpredictability of feelings.
People will reminisce about what went wrong with their marriages, who was to blame, what their own role was in the failure. They relive the best times in the marriage and mourn the loss of the more intimate aspects. Scanning may also provide constructive insight about their own patterns in relationships. In this sense it can be a valuable learning experience.
Loss and loneliness
During this stage a person may experience a sense of loss and loneliness, similar to that which a person experiences at the death of a loved one. Loneliness can manifest itself in many ways. Some may become passive and isolate themselves, withdrawing from social contacts. Others may experience a more active type of loneliness. Instead of sitting at home, they may frequent old restaurants, pass by their spouse’s home, or go from one singles bar to another, desperately looking for solace from their loneliness. During this time also, any negative feelings and emotions the person experiences as a child, such as separation anxiety, low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness, may resurface, causing the individual much distress.
Conversely, in Stage 2 may experience periods of euphoria. Some divorcing people feel a sense of relief, increased personal freedom, newly gained competence and reinvest emotional energy into themselves which was previously directed toward the marriage.
Evening out the emotional swings
In sum, stage 2 is an emotional see-saw, characterized mainly by psychological conflict. The emotional tasks of individual at this state is to achieve a realistic definition of what their marriage represented, what their role was in its maintenance, and what their responsibility was for its failure.
The danger is that divorcing people in Stage 2 may think that the worst is over only to become depressed again. Unfortunately, the emotional see-saw of this stage (and the other stages) makes it even more difficult to work with lawyers, make decisions, and sometimes be an effective parent.
The ambivalence of Stage 3 may involve changes in the person’s identity. In many ways, this is the most psychologically stressful aspect of the divorcing process. Being married is a primary source of self-identity. Two individuals enter a relationship with two separate identities and then co-construct a couple identity about who they are and where and how they fit into the world. When their relationship ends, they may feel confused and fearful, as though they no longer have a script telling them how to behave.
At this time the divorcing person faces a major change in self-perception. Often during this time period, they may try on different identities, attempting to find one that is comfortable for them. Sometimes during this period adults go through a second adolescence. Similar to their first adolescence, people may become very concerned about how they look, how they sound. They may buy new clothes or a new car. Many of the struggles an adult experienced as a teenager may reappear and may find herself trying to decide how to handle sexual advances or when to kiss a date good night. People may engage is sexual experimentation as they make attempts to explore their new sexuality outside of the marriage.
Making the psychological transition
The emotional task for the person divorcing at this stage is making the psychological transition from being “married” to being “single” again. This identity transformation, for many, is psychologically the most difficult and stressful undertaking of the divorcing process.
Characteristics of Stage 4: Finally (and the time varies from months to perhaps several years), divorcing people enter stage 4 and feel a sense of relief and acceptance about their situation. After a while they start to experience a new sense of strength and accomplishment. For the most part, in this stage people feel quite content with their lifestyles and no longer dwell on the past. They now have a sense of awareness and knowledge of their own needs.
Resolving the loss
Although many of the feelings triggered by divorce are painful and uncomfortable, they ultimately lead toward resolving the loss so that, if the person desires, he or she will be emotionally able to reestablish an intimate relationship.
In Stage 4 feelings of well-being begin to take precedence over feelings of anxiety and anger. Divorcing people become able to pursue their own interest and put their former spouses and marriages in a perspective they are comfortable with.
A word about therapy
While many people feel relief during and after the divorce, many others experience a wide range of discomfort at the ending of their marriages. Sometimes those who experience extreme amounts of discomfort do not go through the stages and experience resolution. Some individuals get ‘stuck’. Although most people would benefit from therapy while going through this major change, those who get ‘stuck’ would especially find therapy most useful.