The emotional process of divorce

For most people who experience it, the end of a committed relationship comes as a shock. Perhaps you have to go through a divorce or dissolution to understand how long shock can last: it is as often a long painful bewilderment as it is a clean cut catastrophe. For this reason, the process of getting through divorce is often likened to the process of grieving over a death and parallels can be drawn in the emotional processes people experience in response to both types of event.

In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote an important book called ‘On Death and Dying’ which explained how in conversation with people facing terminal illness she had identified 5 stages of loss. The results of her research have come to be known as “the Loss Cycle”, and at CFLP we find that it sometimes helps our clients to understand a bit about what happens to the mind when it is dealing with a major life change.

The first stage of loss tends to be denial, a sense of “I can’t believe it” which may be bound up with feelings of acute shock. People sometimes just carry on as normal, not showing signs of taking on board that things have changed. Often, people get very practical in the wake of separating from a partner and can busy themselves endlessly with errands and tasks to put off having to deal with the end of the relationship.

The next stage is frequently anger or rage, when people are starting to come out of denial and realise that they have to deal with the situation. A shift from denial to anger is often precipitated by an external event – a gentle challenge from a friend, perhaps, or the requirement to make a decision that will lead to major change. A lot of this anger is born out of fear of the future, and fury about a perceived lack of control or unfairness. Many people in this stage after a separation feel intense envy of other people’s seemingly ‘perfect’ lives and relationships.

The third stage tends to be bargaining, and often involves coming up with a “solution” that will change the way things are. This is a proactive stage where there may be peaks of hope followed by troughs of disillusionment when the hope transpires to be unfounded. It may involve bargaining with a higher power to be a better person if the relationship can be restored; or it can be more direct bargaining with the other party to the relationship to change so that things can go back to the way they were. It may be a particularly traumatic phase because of its erratic character.

Then comes depression. This is where the reality of the relationship breakdown really starts to sink in and there may be a sense of hopelessness and a lack of interest in whatever the future might hold. The person suffering may become silent and show few signs of enjoying company. This is where the analogy between those going through relationship breakdown and those dealing with the death of a loved one is closest, as grief itself is felt in both situations. It may be a dreadful, dark time, but psychologists usually believe it an essential prerequisite for moving forward. Particularly at this stage of the cycle, which may last longer than the preceding ones, it can be useful to seek help from a counsellor.

Finally, people move towards acceptance and realise that there is a different future ahead, and they can start to cope with it. It’s about coming to terms with what has happened and controlling the fear of change, which will come whether we like it or not.

It’s important to understand that the Loss Cycle is not always linear. Some people experience its phases like being a car on the track of a rollercoaster, the momentum carrying them forward; for others, the phases can be jumbled up and or people can jump around between them. Some people get stuck in a particular phase, and we often see this when people are going through financial court proceedings at the end of a relationship. It can be difficult to move forward when there is no certainty about what lies ahead.

Children experience the loss cycle too. We must remember that they are likely to grieve for their intact family even if they still have good contact with both parents and both parents are able to support them.

Another important facet of the application of the Loss Cycle to relationship breakdown is how important it is to understand that different people can be at different stages in the same divorce. We often see this clearly when we assist couples together in mediation or collaborative law, and have noticed that it can be especially difficult for two people to communicate constructively when one is still angry, or in depression, and the other has moved to acceptance.

We at CFLP believe that it takes a fair amount of life experience to be a good relationship breakdown lawyer. Because CFLP is an all-partner firm with well over 50 years’ experience of family law between the four partners, you can be sure your journey through divorce will always be handled sensitively and professionally, and with a real understanding that the process you’re going through is more than just a legal one.

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