This is the first in series of posts on dealing with grief during divorce and taking steps to move on emotionally. This material is adapted the award-winning book by Ed Sherman, “Make any Divorce Better.” Ed Sherman is one of the founders of Divorce Helpline. His dedication to providing compassionate and cost-effective personalized legal support to those facing divorce resulted in the unique service model that distinguishes Divorce Helpline from other California divorce attorneys and divorce document services.
In scientific studies of life’s most stressful events, divorce always scores near the very top. Those who leave follow different patterns from those who get left, but the degree of turmoil is about the same. The important thing about upset is not if you are going to have it but how you are going to go through it.
How you go through your divorce is an expression of who you are. The way you deal with your problems will also determine who you will be when the divorce is long over and done with. “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” You are creating your own future with every thought, word, and act.
Upset in divorce may range from mild to violent; it may feel like you’ve been physically torn — major surgery without anesthetic — or hit in the head, or just simply gone mad. Upset may last for weeks or it may linger for months, even years. You can’t rush things, but you can avoid getting stuck in common psychological traps that prolong the pain.
No two divorces are the same, but the recovery process from the disruption of divorce often follows four predictable stages.
1. Shock: The first two stages may be so intense and disorienting that you feel crazy. With everything happening at once, you have no choice — you must cope, and you will. You might experience symptoms of shock, such as pain, numbness, feeling out of control or going crazy, loss of concentration, insomnia, extreme eating patterns. You may have wide swings in emotions. Intense anxiety, panic, anger, rage, depression may alternate with interludes of clarity, elation, optimism — and then back again. The shock stage can last from days to several months. It can be frightening and painful but it is absolutely natural.
The danger at this stage is getting stuck in denial and numbness. You have to feel, you have to grieve and hurt. Don’t escape into drink or drugs; just let it happen. The depth of your pain is also the measure of your capacity for love and joy.
2. Roller coaster: After the shock stage, the intensity tends to subside. You may experience it intermittently. This is the main difference from the shock stage — but you may have confusing swings in emotions, especially your feelings for your mate and for yourself. You feel like you can’t trust your feelings. Almost any little thing can set you off — a smell, a song, a memory. You dwell on the past, constantly reliving it and evaluating. You may feel guilt, blame, self-blame, anger, shame, loss, loneliness or depression. The way you think about yourself is shaky and uncertain; you feel incompetent, awkward, inadequate and unlovable. Your feelings go around and around and around; they seem to never settle down.
This is all very natural, part of the grieving process, part of letting go of the past, and very necessary. It can go on for a few months to a year. You are under high stress and may be prone to illness and accident, so you have to take extra good care of yourself. Be patient, be kind; pamper yourself a little.
Your judgment is likely to be poor while you are in this state, so try to avoid making important decisions. Unfortunately, this is exactly when you have to deal with your divorce and create new arrangements for your children.
If you dwell on loss, blame or being wronged, you will prolong your own depression, anger, or fear. Don’t get stuck too long — you need to get on with your life. Let go of your past and make room for your future.
3. Self-development: Divorce is over when the end becomes a beginning. The roller coaster eventually evens out more and more. Now you begin to notice the possibilities of your new life. The present and the future become more important than the past. You pay a lot of attention to yourself and your image. You make plans. You make new friends, experiment with new interests and experiences. You may act like a kid again. Dating and sex may bring on a certain degree of confusion, a rerun of old feelings from as far back as adolescence. Have fun discovering who you are and who you like, but don’t overdo it.
4. Emergence: You are getting comfortable with yourself, getting stronger, increasingly clear and aware of who you are. You are more interested in the present and the future.
You have a new center of balance as a single person, whole and complete to yourself, and you are now ready for intimacy in new relationships. You survived the divorce and have been strengthened by it. You can still feel grief and sadness about the past, but without guilt, blame or resentment. You are no longer threatened by your own feelings.
Remember that your spouse is going through these cycles, too. Whatever anger and grief your spouse is experiencing is helping to break the bonds of attachment. It is a necessary part of the healing process.
The next post in this series examines the major emotional components of the divorce cycle.