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When a significant relationship or marriage ends, there is almost always loss and grief. This is true not just for people to whom the separation comes as a shock, but also for those who instigate the end, and for those for whom it is a truly mutual decision reached after a great deal of thought and consideration. Even for those whose relationship may have been objectively abusive or dysfunctional, and for whom the end of the relationship may come as a relief, there is a void afterwards: a lack of something that was there before, a loss of what you knew and, to an extent, could rely upon happening. It is also true for children.

The grief and loss that people tend to feel at the end of a significant relationship can be destabilising and confusing. The emotions can be unfamiliar, unwelcome and contradictory; hence the feeling so many people express that their ‘world has been turned upside down’. Not only is their grief for the loss of the relationship itself, but there is the loss of so much else to contend with: a lifestyle, perhaps; status, extended family, even identity, not to mention the challenges of addressing changes in living arrangements, financial matters and regarding children’s arrangements.

As lawyers, we help people to focus on what should happen in relation to their finances and property, and trying to put their children’s interest first when making arrangements for them, during these difficult times. The legal system is well-equipped to deal with logical, fact-based matters on behalf of people who can give clear instructions and know what they want. In divorce, however, we are dealing with people in the maelstrom of grief. We know that it feels like a cruel trick to be asked to make decisions about the rest of your life, and take on so much new information about what might be done, when you can’t think straight.

In her seminal book ‘On Death and Dying’, psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described the five stages of grief that she had identified that the dying go through when they are coming to terms with their terminal condition. She noted denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These ‘five stages of grief’ have been adopted to explain the grieving process that can besiege not just the dying but those grieving after death, or coping with other significant losses such as divorce. They are not always independent and discrete stages, to be dealt with in strict turn and in a particular order, but mutate and diffuse into each other, and ebb and flow.

In divorce, it is clear that the grief process exists. However the fact that each family member is going through his or her own grief process makes the situation incredibly complex. Each one may be at a different stage. Consider this common situation: one of the adults has been coming to terms with the end of the marriage for a while before telling the other spouse that the marriage is over; the other spouse is catapulted into grief, and may be ricocheting from denial, to anger, to depression; then the adults tell the children, who start their own processes that the adults have to cope and help them with. For the spouse who may already think he or she is through the worst, this all may lead to the start of a new phase of loss with its own denials, and anger that things are not how he or she thought they would be. Often, the instigating spouse is further along in processing his or her grief, and may be impatient to progress arrangements, in the face of a spouse still suffering trauma in the early stages of coming to terms with his or her loss.

This can help to explain why there is often so much conflict in divorce, and why people can find it so difficult to understand where the other person is ‘coming from’ or why other people make the decisions they do. We often find that patterns of conflict familiar from the marriage can come forward to fill the void left by separation: love and hate are both strong emotions, and conflict can be something familiar and tangible, a focus, serving a purpose for conducting the grief of both adults.

The obvious problem is that unless the underlying issues of grief are given space to resolve, the conflict can become the biggest thing in the world of those getting divorced. This can be particularly harmful where there are children who need their parents’ love and support as they work through their own feelings about the changes to their family. Studies have repeatedly shown the detrimental effect of conflict upon children. We have all read the stories about former couples who spend millions of pounds fighting in court over their assets, only to realise at the end of the day that there is little left to divide between them.

(We don’t let that happen, by the way.)

Harmful conflict is not inevitable in divorce, but the legal process itself does not really provide any emotional solutions: that’s not what it was set up to do. It is also not set up to provide what some people see as “justice”. The family court system is not about “punishing” individuals; it is intended to produce solutions so that separated couples can move forward, usually independently of each other. It’s important to understand the impact of grief and loss on decision-making, to appreciate that others in the family may not be at the same stage, and to ensure you give yourself – and them, where possible – space and time to process significant change. Separation counselling, either alone or together, can be useful in addressing the underlying emotional issues that may be trapping a family in conflict. There is also help available for children. In terms of working things out for the future, both the mediation process and the collaborative process offer the possibility of working towards practical solutions in a way that can help to defuse conflict and help participants learn different ways to communicate, through their grief, that set the new family order on a more positive footing.

If you’ve got any questions, or there’s a family law issue you’d like to talk about, please give us a call on 01223 443333 and make an appointment to speak to Tricia, Adam, Sue, Gail or Simon.