Divorce, any way you look at it, is a catastrophic life event. Much like a serious illness or death of a loved one, we have to learn to process divorce grief and accept a cocktail of emotions to come to terms with the fact that life as it was before will no longer be the way it is moving forward. If we apply the five stages of grief, as defined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler and typically used to describe the steps one takes to overcome the death of a loved one, a divorcing person will progress through:
Divorce Grief: Denial
“This can’t be happening to us!” “He wouldn’t do that to me!” During this phase, the situation is so intense and surreal, that we simply can’t accept that the events could be real. It’s an emotional survival mechanism that prevents us from becoming too overwhelmed before we are mentally prepared to deal with the situation at hand. As we gradually recognize and accept the reality, the fog of denial fades and we are better able to see things for what they are.
Divorce Grief: Anger
“How could she throw our marriage away like this?” “Why is this happening to me?” Anger is the phase of most raw emotion. The blinders are off, and the intense pain of the events becomes real in every way. The more attached and emotionally-invested we are in the marriage, the deeper the pain of the wound. The anger we feel may be directed at anyone around us who reminds us of the pain. Our ex will likely take the brunt of our anger, but anyone in our vicinity may feel our wrath. We may snap at well-meaning friends and family who attempt to console us or even fume at other happy couples who seem to mock our misery with their joy.
Divorce Grief: Bargaining
“If only I’d been more attentive and affectionate…” “Please, if I can have just one more chance, I’ll get it right!” After the intensity of the anger phase has subsided, we often turn to bargaining to reconcile the events and somehow wish for them not to be happening. We may beg and plead directly to our ex to take us back or work on the relationship, or even lobby a higher power to take pity on us and solve our problem. Bargaining is rooted in the past and what could have been. It may torture us with a walk down memory lane to review and second guess all of our mistakes and shortcomings. We may find ourselves blaming things that we did or pinpointing specific moments that we believe to be the catalyst for everything wrong in our life.
Divorce Grief: Depression
“I’m so alone and my life is such a mess!” “I just don’t know if I will ever be happy again!” Bargaining eventually makes way for focusing on the present, and we may find that our new life feels very empty and lonely, now that the chorus of questions and tormented thoughts have quieted in surrender to the reality of no longer being part of a couple. This phase can be a very cold and hollow setting for facing what’s ahead. It may be hard to maintain an optimistic attitude in light of how many changes have occurred.
Divorce Grief: Acceptance
“You know what? I’m going to be okay!” “Many good things are happening for me!” Thankfully, the gloom of the depressive phase finally lifts and makes room for emerging positive ideations! We start to build more confidence in our ability to go it alone, and we start to recognize the potential we have to be happy again- perhaps happier than we’ve ever been! This is when we start to accept, even embrace, what life has in store for us and prepare to move forward. As with anything else in life, your individual divorce circumstances and reaction to them will be unique. You may breeze through some of the steps, then linger through others longer. The fact is that we owe it to ourselves to feel each stage and fully work through it, however long it takes.
Through processing the events, we learn valuable information about ourselves and what went wrong in the relationship. This is what helps us to move forward in a whole and healthy way so that we can achieve peace and be in the best state of mind, should we become part of future relationships! You and your soon-to-be-ex may be traveling through the stages of grief at very different rates, and likely started to go through them at very different times. What may be interpreted as an ex who has “moved on so fast” or who may seem unemotional and “over it” while you’re still falling apart may actually be a sign that they have already progressed through some of the steps.
One might be well into the stages of grief before the ink has dried on divorce papers, whereas their former spouse may still be shell-shocked and in denial at the same moment. Many times, one spouse becomes conscious of marital problems and is unhappy or trying to work on the relationship for a while, long before their partner recognizes there’s a problem! Some experts have suggested that for every year you with your partner, it will take one to three months to heal from a break-up, or an average of a year and a half. There’s no prescribed length of time we can expect to commit to be healed from heartbreak. We all take it at our own speed and in whatever way is most effective and makes the most sense to us.
Some of us are on our way after a matter of weeks or months, and others of us may still hurt for years. The most important thing to know, as you find yourself in denial, anger, or bargaining, is that after enduring depression and acceptance, there is life after divorce! It may seem impossible to believe in those darkest moments; but, you will find new purpose, peace, and even happiness again. Do it in your own time, and in your own way; just know that divorce is not the end!