Perception of Divorce
Many people think of divorce as a proscribed or very limited experience beginning with the first visit to an attorney or mediator and ending with the decree stating that the divorce is finalized. The reality is that the process of divorce is an ongoing experience that takes place in stages.
The process of divorce moves at a pace commensurate to each person’s ability to adapt to the physical, financial, and emotional changes that divorce demands. Some people move quickly through these stages, others need more time to accomplish the tasks involved in a stage and to assimilate the information and the emotional experiences the stage encompasses.
Making the Decision
Living alone after having spent many months to many years living alongside another person requires a period of adjustment. Additionally, there are emotional as well as financial conditions that can take long periods of time to adjust to and accept. For these reasons, the divorce process extends beyond the receipt of the judge’s decree that legally ends the marriage.
Making the decision to divorce is, of course, the first step in the divorce process, and it is a complicated step. The pain of living in dissension with another person has to be greater than one spouse’s ability to endure any more stress and disappointment. The stressors may ebb and flow, meaning that at times there is turmoil and dissatisfaction, but at other times there are periods of calm; the couple may be able to make changes that reduce the frequency or intensity of the dissatisfactions. If there is limited dissension, there may be a lot of confusion to sort through before a spouse can feel justified to end the relationship. Some spouses live amicably but without sexual or emotional intimacy: they are friends but have no passion.
In such a situation, they may feel selfish and guilty for wanting more for themselves in a marriage. They may not want to hurt their partner by creating a permanent end to their relationship as wife and husband. The greater the person’s ability to tolerate pain, confusion, and guilt, the longer the decision-making stage will last. The decision to divorce can be hastened by repeated, or severe trauma caused by alcohol or drug abuse and dependence that results in physical and/or emotional violence or abuse, particularly where children are involved.
Divorce and Fear
The decision to divorce is often postponed by fear: fear of not being able to survive alone, financially, or emotionally, fear of reprisal from the other spouse or from one’s family, and fear of severely wounding the remaining partner or the children involved in the family. Once a person has made the decision to end their relationship, their next task is to tell their spouse they want to end the marriage. Once again, the time involved in completing this step is dependent on the amount of fear and guilt and support the person experiences.
If friends and family are behind the decision, the person may feel sufficiently secure to talk with their spouse. The less support and the less self-confidence a person has, the more time will be needed before the spouse will be able to reveal their decision to their partner.
At the point where one spouse tells the other that they have decided to divorce, there is usually a lot of discussion between partners. There may be offers to mend unresolved problems in the marriage, including going to marriage counseling to find solutions to the dissatisfactions in the relationship.
Promises to change are made, often in desperate attempts to keep the marriage together. Many times this is the “wake-up call” the relationship needs to get differences resolved and to prove to the other spouse that existing dissatisfactions are serious. It can be a time of emotional turmoil, especially if one spouse is not willing to make adjustments but the other spouse is wanting to make an effort. The decision to divorce can be postponed at this juncture, or it may be consolidated if both parties agree that it is something they want.
Making It Official
The next step is usually the legal one: the spouses decide to get advice from an attorney or a mediator on how to proceed with the divorce. Both spouses need to determine whether they can work together to settle the joint property and to determine custody, child support, and visitation if children are involved.
If they have an amicable relationship and are able to civilly discuss these issues, only one attorney may be needed to draw up these agreements, or a mediator can be used to negotiate and draft agreements. If there is dissension between partners and it is not possible to make decisions based on the best interest of the children or the future of the partners, extended mediation or negotiation may be required and each partner may need her/his own lawyer.
This can be a period of high emotion for one or both of the spouses: it is frequently the time when all the tension, hurt, and the desire for revenge get played out between partners. Sometimes couples, even once divorced, get stuck in this stage. They tend to perceive this stage as the last piece of the process holding them together, and it may be very difficult to let go of the relationship.
It is not unusual for couples, years after receiving the divorce decree, to be still battling each other in the courts over issues that have more to do with emotion and less to do with assets. At some point, the couple physically separates: one partner moves out. This begins the experience of living as a single person or as a single parent. All the realities of the living solo are contrasted with prior expectations of living without a spouse.
For some, it is an experience of relief; for others, it is an experience that is emotionally and financially unsettling. One’s ability to care for themselves, get support from friends and family, and to succeed as a single parent and as a single individual is put to the test. Not only is the person dealing with the challenges of living solo and being the sole caretaker, but they are, at the same time, having to deal with and adjust to the emotional loss of the marriage.
They may be involved in the legal stage of the divorce at this same time, having to negotiate financial agreements and custody agreements while trying to cope with the transition of living by themselves. Outside support is critical at this time in order to manage one’s emotional experiences and at the same time transition from relying on the other spouse to relying on one’s self, and to help grieve the loss of the relationship.
Many people who distance themselves emotionally suppress these experiences. They feel as though nothing significant has happened to them. They may regard the situation as a business negotiation. Drugs, sex, or alcohol can become prime distractions, as can over-involvement in work. Rather than accepting the emotions that come with the experience of separation, they insulate themselves from the event. Other people feel totally overwhelmed.
They resist relying on the support of family and friends, feeling that they will overwhelm their support and lose their ties. Some people isolate themselves, withdrawing from family or friends who could offer comfort. Others withdraw to avoid conflict or confusion or the unwanted influence and advice that close relationships offer. While some people who have separated are able to reach out for healthy support and advice, others are not so successful.
They may reach for alcohol, drugs, food, or fantasy to numb the confusion of this stage of separation. They may reach for their children to get the soothing their emotions yearns for. Those who are more capable will find divorce groups, therapists, or clergy to help them navigate through this difficult period. The more a person reaches out to find and use healthy support the quicker they will make emotional adjustments and the sooner they will adapt to this stage.
The Period of Waiting
Learning to date again, and learning to care for and discipline the children by themselves are significant tasks for many separated or divorced persons. Developing a workable relationship with the child’s other parent is a developmental hurdle in successfully adjusting to divorce.
People who come to terms with their needs, both physical and emotional, are more likely to develop new ways of relating with less hostility and less conflict with their ex-partner. Research shows that those who are able to establish more amicable relationships with their ex-spouse have greater success in creating a new identity for themselves and creating healthier intimate relationships in the future. Their children are able to adjust to the divorce with far less emotional baggage, are more likely to establish strong bonds with significant others later on in their lives, and are less likely to divorce once married. At some point, one of the partners or their attorney will file for divorce in court.
Each state has its own period of waiting before the divorce decree is granted. In California, the waiting period is six months. While filing for divorce is one step in the divorce process, it is far from the last, and this step varies in terms of how quickly spouses pass through it. Those spouses who get caught in the legal stage of divorce and have difficulty coming to terms with financial or custody agreements may find themselves in this stage longer than six months.
Many people expect to move through a divorce at a rapid pace only to find themselves disappointed and frustrated. Remember, movement is dependent on legal, financial, and emotional factors. Stress scales have been established to indicate the power that various life experiences exert on a human being’s functioning. These scales allow us to anticipate how affected an average person is likely to become as different types of events occur in their life.
Divorce is second on these scales, trailing only the death of a family member or significant other. Research has indicated that the average period of time it takes to recover from either of these events is approximately one year. Recovery means that a person is able to return to their level of functioning at work and in their personal life before the crisis occurred.
The process of divorce is often assumed to take the minimum period of time required for a couple to move through the legal system in their state starting at the time papers are filed and ending the day the court issues the divorce decree. The receipt of the decree has little to do with a person’s ability to adjust to the stages of divorce. The experience of divorce is considerably different from the actual legal event.