The loss of a marriage is traumatic. People going through a divorce experience a wide range of emotion, but a common underlying feeling is one of mourning. Mourning the loss of what the marriage was and what they hoped it would be. Spouses initiating the divorce often express the wish that they took action sooner while the other spouse often feels surprised and offended that they were not given more notice or a chance to save the relationship.
It’s no secret that people process emotions differently and at different speeds. It’s not uncommon for one spouse to come to terms with the divorce sooner than the other. This is particularly true when one of the spouses has been thinking about divorce for longer than the other.
To the extent possible, it’s helpful to have a compassionate view of each spouse’s emotional process. People going through a divorce may behave in irrational and unpredictable ways. It’s easy to reduce them to caricatures of their emotions: “he is an angry person” or “she is in denial,” but those caricatures don’t encourage the necessary compassion and patience to amicably dissolve a marriage. Instead, they encourage resentment and impatience. While there are plenty of cases where a spouse is harmful, abusive, or otherwise a threat to another’s emotional or physical wellbeing, plenty of divorces involve kind people whose relationship didn’t work.
The Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross created the five stages of grief in 1969. Also known as the Kubler-Ross model, the five stages of grief were originally created to describe the emotional process of terminally ill patients. The five stages of grief are comprised of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages are not linear, not everyone goes through each stage, and they have different durations for different people, but these are the most common experiences of those going through grief.
Everyone experiences and expresses emotions differently. What I’d like to illustrate is how the five stages of grief apply to divorce and provide some examples.
Denial During Divorce
In this stage, people are unwilling or unable to accept the loss that has taken place. They may feel that what has happened is not truly real, that they will soon wake up from a bad dream and everything will return to normal. Denial is usually a temporary defense mechanism that allows the individual to cope with and survive their grief. Instead of allowing all of the feelings of grief to wash over them at once, they deny it and stagger its full impact.
Denial in divorce can take many forms. Early in the case, it’s common for one spouse to suggest the other isn’t serious about the divorce and will drop the case once he or she calms down or realizes how difficult post-divorce life is. Denial may also express itself during the case, particularly during litigation. A spouse may find him or herself surprised by the other’s actions in and out of the courtroom. A spouse may be shocked when the other seeks spousal support, or confronts the other about longstanding issues from the marriage.
Denial can also take the form of avoidance: avoidance of letters asking for participation in the divorce; avoidance of a summons; avoidance listing a home for sale or securing a new apartment; or anything that would otherwise progress the case. Refusal to engage will not stop a divorce or save a marriage, but it may slow the process. This can all be quite frustrating and costly for the other spouse.
Denial is common and not harmful unto itself, so long as there are objective voices advising the party in denial. Ideally, a party’s lawyer should remain critical and analytical of the case and assist the client in coming to terms with his or her spouse’s actions. It’s also common for a party’s friends or relatives to provide emotional support and an honest assessment of the situation.
Anger During Divorce
Once people are able to accept the loss that has occurred, they may begin to feel anger. This anger is often misdirected at family, friends, or even the person who has been lost. The griever is searching desperately for someone to blame. Mental health professionals actually encourage this stage, claiming that it is a natural and necessary response to loss and the more someone truly feels anger, the more quickly they will be able to heal.
Anger may complicate a divorce. It often manifests itself in a spouse acting spitefully, and sometimes contrary to their own self-interest. Anger can be seen in inflammatory pleadings, needless and excessive discovery requests, and in taking baseless positions just to harass the other spouse. Anger often begets anger. One spouse’s unsettling actions may lead to retaliation, and thus a cycle of anger and retribution. This is an easy way for an otherwise simple case to spiral into contentious litigation.
Bargaining During Divorce
In this stage, people beg a higher power for a reversal or postponement of loss with a promise to change their behavior for the better – something along the lines of, “If you prevent this loss, I promise to be the best version of myself and never complain again.” People may make themselves believe that they can avoid grief through this type of negotiation. Guilt is often a large component of the bargaining phase, with people often asking themselves endless “what if” questions of how they could have prevented their grief.
While bargaining is common in divorce, I rarely see cases where both anger and bargaining are well-represented. Instead, I often see cases defined by one or the other. Bargaining is commonly seen when one spouse does not want the divorce and especially in cases where the divorce has come as a surprise. The spouse still working to save the marriage often feels abandoned and resentful, articulating that their spouse hasn’t put in the requisite effort to repair the relationship. The bargaining spouse often believes there are concrete issues that can be addressed and improved to salvage the marriage. The bargaining often manifests itself in requests to the other spouse to take certain actions before the divorce can continue, typically with the hope that those actions may save the marriage. This often comes in the form of requests for counseling during a pending divorce, or attempts to work around lawyers in hopes that direct communication rekindles a spark. Occasionally, the bargaining spouse will directly promise to do X or refrain from Y, knowing that those actions or inactions led the couple towards divorce in the first place. Bargaining is not a legal strategy, but I have seen it repair relationships (or at least end the divorce the process).
Depression During Divorce
Once an individual has accepted that anger and bargaining will not reverse the loss, they often sink into a depression where they acknowledge the reality of the loss and their own helplessness to change it. People may withdraw from relationships or activities, or find it difficult to get out of bed. They may also blame themselves for causing their loss.
Depression differs in severity. Severe depression is dangerous and requires medical attention. I’d suggest that all parties going through a divorce attend therapy on a regular basis. Depression is something larger than sadness. It can cause a spouse to lose sleep or sleep excessively. Weight changes, difficulties at work, and a general detachment are common. Depression will also cloud a spouse’s thinking and make it difficult for him or her to be a participant in the case. Depression, like all stages of grief, requires compassion and patience.
Acceptance During Divorce
Finally, grieving people will enter a stage of acceptance where they have processed their emotions, accepted the reality of the loss, and are once again able to engage in daily life and plan for their future. This stage is a time for adjustment and readjustment, with good days and bad, as people evolve and comes to terms with their new normal.
Acceptance of a divorce is helpful for all involved. It will make the process easier on both sides and allow the parties to have frank discussions about their needs for the future. There is no way to rush straight to acceptance. Everyone processes emotions at their own pace and it’s important for all involved to remain patient and compassionate.
Rebecca Meisler, Northwestern ’21, contributed to this post