Divorce is one of the biggest loss we might experience in life. It is number two on the list of major life stressors after the death of a loved one. Since divorce is a loss with its own grief process, we need to go through all the stages of grief in order to fully process it and find healing.
The five stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, but they do not necessary occur in this specific order. We can move back and forth between stages for a while, or wildly jump around them, or slowly crawl from one to another. They are just responses to our feelings and can last anywhere between days to months and can repeat multiple times. There are no right or wrong ways to grieve, the only important thing is that we keep moving through all of these stages, even if it feels like this is our tenth time around, and don’t get stuck in one for an unreasonably long time by falling into some of the common pitfalls of divorce.
Stage 1:Denial. Pitfalls: Numbing and Distraction.
Denial is our first line defense coping mechanism. It is the brain’s shock absorber, letting in only as much reality as we can handle at the moment. It keeps our sanity intact and our body moving by keeping us from feeling the pain. Denial is healthy and necessary in small dosages and for a short time but it becomes unhealthy and destructive if it is prolonged.
If we are unwilling to face reality and to feel the pain, we might get stuck in the denial stage by keep distracting and numbing ourselves. From staying crazy busy to abusing alcohol and drugs, there are numerous ways to numb our feelings and avoid facing our divorce reality. They all work for a while, and some of us are really good at keep running from our pain but unfortunately we cannot alter one part of our realty without having an effect on our whole life eventually. Staying stuck in denial will prevent us from moving forward in any area of life. Everything will come to a halt ultimately.
Stage 2: Anger. Pitfall: Rage and Revenge.
As denial starts to dissipate and reality emerges with all its pain, which we still cannot fully handle, it redirects and expresses as anger. It is always a necessary stage of healing and it is helpful to understand that our anger holds all the pain, fear, guilt, and shame underneath we are not ready to face yet.
Anger is not reserved only for those being left. The one leaving the marriage goes through the anger phase as well, but probably at a different time. We all blame the other one for the ruin of our marriage at times, or get mad at God for letting it happen, or even at ourselves for past mistakes. Anger can take a lot of forms, most of them are healthy and necessary part of the healing process, except rage and seeking revenge. It is important to truly feel our anger and find safe ways to express it, but rage and revenge against our ex (in any form) can do serious harm to our divorce process, and if young children are involved it might danger our custody of them. Seeking revenge, trying to hurt our ex financially, emotionally, or any other way will keep us stuck in the anger phase, and eventually will destroy our own mental, emotional and even physical health.
Stage 3: Bargaining. Pitfalls: Guilt and Shame.
Desperately wanting to return to “normal”, to what it was before, and trying every form of bargaining and negotiating with our spouse or God is a normal stage of the grief process. We promise to be different, to change, to become somebody else, in order to regain control, and not to feel powerless. It is a defense mechanism, just like anger, but a weaker and less emotionally charged one. It is our last ditch effort to escape the overwhelming pain and not to face the permanency of our divorce.
We go through a series of “if onlys” and “what ifs” which can be extremely guilt and shame producing if we hold on to them. Believing that if we did something different, behaved in other ways, treated our spouse better, things would have not turned out like this. Promising to do everything different form this point and having our spouse reject the plead often time throws us back to the anger phase. It’s common to ping pong between guilt/bargaining and anger for a while until we are ready to face our pain and our divorce reality as it is and not as we would like it to be.
Stage 4: Depression. Pitfalls: Isolation and Loneliness.
After we have exhausted all our defenses against reality, the truth of our situation starts sinking in and depression hits. Life feels dark and pointless. We feel intense sadness and lose our drive to go on or fight. It might be hard for us to find our identity without this marriage so we feel lost, alone, and ungrounded. When we feel empty, numb, low energy, and hopeless, the divorce process seems even more overwhelming and paralyzing than ever before. We wonder if we will be able to do it at all. If the depression stage hits us after the divorce is over, our whole future might seem dark and pointless altogether.
Depression and temporary withdrawal from life is a normal and necessary stage of grief but we need to watch out for unnecessary isolation from friends, family, and society. The more we isolate and lonelier we get, the darker our thinking becomes and the bleaker our future looks. If isolation continues, depression becomes more debilitating and we might need medical and psychological help to climb out of it. Support groups and individual counseling is the best way to keep connected even in the midst of our sadness and grief.
Stage 5: Acceptance. Pitfalls: False Illusions and Unreasonable Expectations.
Acceptance starts when we begin redefining ourselves without this marriage, even if we don’t feel okay or fine yet. When we are ready to face our new permanent reality even if we don’t like it, and we are willing to readjust and learn how to live in our new norm. We might still feel sad and even depressed at times, but there are also good days now and then, and we start enjoying life again in bits and pieces. We might even experience euphoric highs of freedom or doses of excitement and elation.
The pitfalls of this stage is thinking that since we have made it this far everything will be good and easy from now on. If the divorce is still going we will sail through it with light and ease, and if it’s over we will live happily ever after in our blissful untethered state. Full acceptance takes time, just like all the other stages of grief and has its own ups and downs. It does not equal “everything is great” or “things are easy”. It simply means we have given up our fantasies and hopes for a different past.
Grief has many layers and even if we feel like we have grieved the loss of our marriage fully and deeply, a new aspect of our loss might resurface with time and we will find ourselves yet in another grief cycle. We need to be patient with ourselves and give healing plenty of time so we can rebuild our lives from a mentally, emotionally, and psychologically strong and healthy place.
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