You may be familiar with the stages of grief that were first explained by Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in the context of losing a loved one or even facing one’s own death. Research has shown that divorce causes a similar grieving process and that it is healthy to progress through all of the stages as one adjusts to the divorce.
You might go through all of these stages before your divorce is finalized, or even before it’s actually filed. Or you might not work through them until many months after the divorce has ended. There is no correct timeline and anything you feel is valid. These are the five common stages most people experience:
The first step in the grief process for your relationship is denial. You don’t want to accept that the relationship is over. Mental health experts believe that this stage is necessary so that your brain can adjust to the loss over a period of time. Denial also allows you to remain emotionally detached from the grief. If you don’t accept it, you cannot grieve it. It’s a protective reaction in some ways.
At this stage, it’s common to believe your relationship is just going through a rough patch, that the affair is not serious, that you still belong together, that there are things you can do to improve the relationship and that you still have a future together. This stage can be dangerous if you receive divorce papers and decide to just ignore them.
This is the stage in the healing process where you feel complete rage at the other person. It can feel all-consuming, but some people may experience it as a quieter resentment or feeling bitterness. Anger is a protective measure, which keeps you from deeply experiencing the hurt and loss of the situation. It’s common to feel intense anger at your spouse as well as towards other people you might see as involved or complicit.
There can be a strong desire to seek revenge or to somehow punish the other person. This stage can be a problem if your anger leads you to take actions that are damaging to your case, such as threatening your spouse or destroying marital assets. Anger can also result in attempting to retaliate against your spouse through your actions in the divorce, by withholding support, interfering in their relationship with your children, seeking unrealistic outcomes, or dragging out a case to make it expensive and painful.
In this step, you will look for ways to save the marriage or get stuck on things you could have or should have done. You might regret having spent so much time at work or tell your spouse you’ll go to rehab if you can come home. Some people try to make deals with God at this time as well (if I start going to church, you’ll bring him back to me). The bargaining stage generally does not result in any turning back the clock or repair to the relationship, and it simply helps postpone the finality of the situation, allowing you to push off the pain of that ending a bit longer.
Bargaining can be problematic if you remain focused on how to fix the relationship instead of how to resolve the divorce. It can also be of concern if you are consumed with guilt and are overly generous in your financial offers to make up for what you see as your own wrongdoing during the marriage.
Depression is a quieter stage where everything might feel hopeless or sad. It can be difficult to foresee anything bright in the future, and the entire focus is on how sad and unhappy you are at the moment. You may feel tired, confused, listless, detached, and uninterested in things that previously brought you joy. It’s common to think things like, “I’m going to be alone forever.”
Depression is of concern when you are not able to function for your children, in your job, or to care for yourself. It is also an issue when you are unable to rationally consider decisions that must be made in your divorce case or refuse to assist in your own case.
The final stage is when you come to accept where you are and make peace with the reality of the end of the marriage. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have bounced back and are happy, but it is instead an understanding of where your marriage is and a realization that this was the right outcome.
Everyone is different, and everyone may experience the stages and the emotions associated with them differently. Some researchers believe there are actually seven stages of grief. This theory includes:
- Denial and shock
- Pain and guilt
- Bargaining and anger
- Brief Positivity
- Hope and acceptance
If you feel you are stuck in one of the stages of grief, don’t think you are progressing well, or just need some support or help, talk to a therapist. [Learn more about therapy and divorce records here.] Your divorce attorney can recommend therapists experienced in helping people through divorce, or your primary care physician can make a referral. As always, it makes sense to bring in an expert for a situation you are unfamiliar with.
No matter where you are in the grief cycle, it is important to work with an attorney who has a deep understanding of the stages of grief in a divorce and is able to recognize them. An uninformed attorney may not understand where some reactions are coming from and may base the entire approach to the case on a stage of grief that is fleeting.