When contemplating divorce, you will likely experience a series of different emotions along what I call the “grief progression”. Based on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief in her book On Death and Dying (originally published in 1969), this progression is a compilation of many different responses I have witnessed my clients undergo.
While there are certain commonalities to all grieving processes, each person has a different experience of grief and loss from change.
At this point, you already may have completed at least one cycle of grieving, which often accompanies the initial realization that your spouse is not the person you hoped he or she was or would become. Regardless of the outcome of this decision-making process, you will likely experience more cycles of grief as you continue through it.
This is not necessarily a linear process, so your emotions may bounce you from one stage to another, or you might even feel as if you’re in two stages at the same time. Because you will experience this same cycle on many levels at different stages in your contemplation process, I suggest that you refer back to this grief progression often. You may find it comforting, especially at times when you question yourself the most.
Phase 1: Initial Loss
You may have felt a sense of being stunned when you got the first real inkling that your spouse was not who you thought or hoped he or she was, or that the marriage was not what you hoped it would be. The initial feelings can be shock, disbelief, and numbness.
It’s not uncommon to try to shut down the shock that comes with grief and loss. This shutting down is what leads to disbelieving or denying what is happening, and possibly even becoming numb. You may effectively say to yourself, “This can’t be real” or “If I don’t see it, maybe it will go away!” These instinctual reactions attempt to protect you by helping you avoid your current unpleasant reality.
Phase 2: Protest
When you began to open up to the idea that you might not be with your spouse forever after all, you may have tried to negate your feelings by telling yourself that you were imagining things or were simply focusing too much on your spouse’s negative aspects. You may not have wanted to let go of your dream of living happily ever after. You may have wished it could all be different and that circumstances would change so that you wouldn’t have to. It has likely made you frustrated and sad, and even made you angry that you couldn’t get back the innocence or harmony that your marriage once enjoyed.
Your friends and family may have perpetuated your denial by telling you to ignore your feelings and stop being so picky, or, not knowing what you have been through up to this point, that it’s just a passing phase.
Your response to such notions may be anger, fear, or both. You may feel as if you are on an emotional roller coaster, spending your energy bargaining with your spouse or struggling to reclaim the past. Because the nature of this phase is to protest, it is by far the most exhausting phase of the grief progression, causing you to expend great amounts of energy fighting reality and trying to stop feeling the negative emotions.
Phase 3: Despair
In the despair phase, you’ve reached a deeper level of pain and realized that you can no longer stay in the unhealthy or unfulfilling environment. This stage moves you further into sadness, which, more than any other emotion, may make you feel out of control. However, this sadness absolutely needs acknowledging, regardless of your final decision about whether to stay married or get divorced. You are grieving the loss of the idea of whom you thought you were married to or the dreams your marriage represented to you.
Following your initial sadness, your thoughts may be something like this: “It really is as bad as I feared. I’ve tried everything I know to work on the relationship and improve things between us, but I can’t force change. I’m deeply saddened and angry that my partner isn’t acting like a partner and that this relationship is not as I would have it be.”
You’re probably restless, preoccupied with grief, and uncertain what to do next. You may even feel as if your world were falling apart. Your inability to make the situation any better may make you feel disempowered and hopeless. Adding sadness to the difficult emotions of anger, restlessness, uncertainty, and hopelessness that you were already experiencing can be particularly draining.
At this stage in the grief progression, because you are so deeply entrenched in trying to figure out the next steps, you will not be fully present. You may be particularly vulnerable to injuries, illnesses, and accidents from your inability to focus on the current moment.
Phase 4: Detachment
The principal reaction you will experience in the detachment phase is withdrawal from normal social contact and interaction with others. This is a time to go within and put your needs above those of everyone else around you.
Prior to this phase, you may have spent an inordinate amount of energy trying to change your spouse or some aspect of your situation. In this detachment phase, in essence, you resign yourself to the fact that you cannot control anyone but yourself, so you stop caring so much and focusing on people and things outside yourself.
Such detachment is a normal and healthy response to this type of situation. One benefit of this coping mechanism is that you conserve your energy. It is a form of self-preservation in the sense that continuing to work too hard or care too much about a situation would surely make you burn out. Instead, you begin to go within and assess how you can meet your own needs instead of trying to get others to meet or understand your needs.
Those close to you may resist your growth, but when you disengage from unhealthy people or dynamics, and instead focus on what you can change, you gain strength. You will need this strength to move into the next phase, which entails setting new goals for yourself. In all likelihood, once you are on the other side of that phase, you will resume closer-to-normal interactions with others.
Phase 5: Reorganization
Although I mentioned that this grief progression is not necessarily a linear cycle, the reorganization phase – characterized by the more positive emotions of happiness, inner peace and acceptance, and optimism and joy – can’t fully occur unless you have passed through the earlier phases. It makes sense that you won’t begin to feel good again until you either accept your current reality as it is or make a firm decision to create the necessary changes to get where you want to be. The happiness you may experience here will be the springboard into the next chapter of your life.
Projecting into the future is required at this stage, as you start planning what’s next, with or without your spouse. As a couple, you either move on together and work on the marital issues, or split up and begin your new lives as singlendividuals.
In either case, you will have a renewed excitement for life, new insights, and increased strength; you’ll feel that you have something to look forward to. Unlike the previous stages of the grief progression, when your negative emotions drain you, these new, positive emotions will propel you forward with new energy.
As much as you may want to, you can’t skip any of the five stages of the grief progression. You may certainly have your own version of each phase, but you will have to pass through each experience.
The more you can surrender to experiencing the emotions accompanying the grief progression, the smoother your divorce-contemplation process will go. Most people compound their difficult emotions by creating an added story line. The story, or meaning, you give the event then causes a whole new set of potentially detrimental emotions, because all such emotions require energy, which explains the exhaustion you experience when you’re in a highly emotional state. This second set of emotions further saps your time, energy, and resources to process the feelings, but because these additional emotions are based on an invented story line, the energy you use to feel them is wasted.
Susan Pease Gadoua, LCSW is founder and executive director of the Transition Institute of Marin, an agency that provides coaching, therapy, and workshops to people who are at some stage of marital dissolution, in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. This article has been edited and excerpted with permission from Contemplating Divorce: A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go (New Harbinger Publications, 2008).