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Divorce, Grief and Anger - Part 3

At the outset of the decision to end a marriage, one or both partners may feel some relief from the previous suspense of waiting for a final determination. Even when both halves of a couple agree that they foresee the end of their relationship, the emotions associated with this process take about a year to incorporate. Normally, a person recognizes grief when it follows any other significant and involuntary loss, such as a death in the family or an unexpected termination of employment. Because divorce is an event that at least one person "asks for," it can confuse those involved, especially the emotional support network, when it comes with so many moods.

What does GRIEF have to do with this?

Understanding that the human body & mind can only tolerate a small variance from day-to-day can help us accept that there is a limited pace at which the parties to a divorce can move forward and absorb the impact of divorce. Initially, the emotions surrounding the break-up can feel worse instead of better, even when everyone "agreed" to split up. Grief encompasses several stages & emotions: Shock/Denial; Bargaining/Negotiation; Anger/Resentment; Sadness/Depression; & Acceptance/Bitterness. Most people recognize at least one of these stages, hope they will avoid another, and are completely shocked again when they admit they have visited every single one of them on & off by the end of Final Divorce (+) Year One.

Shock & often its bedfellow, Denial, is the first recognizable stage of grief. When discussing the reality of ending a marriage, one or both spouses may not fully digest the degree of change that will occur after their separation. Many couples share with us that the first time the idea of divorce entered their arguments, there was certainly a shockwave, and often the fight ended without mention (denial) of the word again for some time.

This is not an indication of intelligence or realism, it is more reflective of the emotional strength and energy reserves that each party has at their personal disposal. Even very "strong" people may not be able to wrap their head around the reality that they are ending a long-term relationship.

Shock does serve a purpose. It buffers the emotional overload that accompanies a difficult choice or decision, and often allows the person to reflect on their job tasks associated with the event- such as making arrangements for a funeral.

A common example of someone functioning under the blanket of shock is that of the loved one planning a funeral. This may involve making travel arrangements for family, picking out clothes for their beloved, even participating in the final rites, greeting and thanking the community that comes to show their support. Anyone would understand this individual collapsing, physically or emotionally, at the end of the event as it all "soaks in" that this is really happening. Any person associated with the loss may not fully miss their departed family member/ friend until certain anniversaries come around - such as birthdays, memories of special trips, or the mention of common loyalties such as their Alma Mater.

The feeling of this emotion is often compared to something unemotional- mechanical, robotic actions- and/or a mental state of detachment. Shock & Denial can allow one to maintain surface function and to complete tasks while reality settles into the brain on more than the superficial knowledge of an event. This can only occur when one has a quiet moment to really contemplate all the areas of life that will be affected. This careful analysis tells the brain & the body how much to invest in the event. This is why the loss affects each individual so uniquely. During the divorce, each party will experience the loss of a spouse, which psychologists believe is one of the most stressful life events that a person can endure.

Bargaining follows quickly on the heels of denial, as the human brain tries to stretch and set parameters for new conditions: financial resources dictate the degree of flexibility and equity of living arrangements; whether or not children are in a relationship with one or both parties, and the degree to which they still depend on one or both for support; and the impact of splitting up on each party's extended network of friends and family. Conditions and rules fly around the table as each person tried to preserve their sense of stability and come to grips with the degree of change that will beset the family system. This stage usually exposes each person's weaknesses and may set off either formal or informal negotiations. The feeling of this stage is usually described as fear, anxiety, with a greater amount of mental activity- for better or worse- but often extremely distracting from routine tasks and interfering with daily work and job performance. The brain is beginning to prioritize this issue and it becomes difficult to think about anything else. Unknown parameters mean uncertainty about every aspect of the marriage; this is known to produce fear & anxiety in the majority of the population.

Why is Anger so commonly recognized as the primary emotion in divorce?

The previous emotions mentioned are not always understood to be directly associated with grief, and the divorce process is often the most stressful event one or both partners have endured as adults. If someone does not have a history of resolving another significant loss, then their divorce may be the first time they have been shocked to this extent.

Anger is a natural by-product of living with a stressful circumstance which is beyond one's control, and dealing with this means running into our own limitations. When energy and options run out, people usually try to protect both themselves and those people or things they feel strongly about defending. It is a power emotion and can generate the motivation to move to action. After a period of latency, apathy, or depressive immobility, anger is a normal reaction to the extreme self-control seen in the first two stages, or the immobility that the later stages of grief expose, and often exhibits itself in an explosive step-forward or backwards- and may be followed by more extreme behaviors such as yelling or absolute silence. The feeling of this stage is widely recognized and usually described by extremes: temperamental language, hot flashes, fits of rage, or, the other extreme, cold-blooded, remorseless affect, other comparisons to ice, stone, or hardness of heart, silence, all of which require heightened energy.

These extremes are energy users, and most people cannot sustain the chemical outlay it requires to fuel anger for an extended period of time. This is good news for all concerned.

While it is normal to feel angry when the situational changes do not match one's expectations, or when needs are simply not met, this emotion usually rides on the coattails of adrenaline and leaves just as quickly. Recognizing that it is normal, really strong, but transient, can all enhance r self-awareness. Trying to see the other person's state of mind can help to boost empathy. We often feel angry & defensive when we are approached with anger or contempt. It is so important to step away from the heat of the moment and not get sucked into the battle. Even one person remaining in control at any given time can contain the spread of anger. (See comprehensive article on ANGER by DJS Mediation Services)

Sadness/Depression often follows episodes of Anger, but sometimes surges after latent periods of denial or acceptance. Hurtful words and painful silences can set off a series of emotions, including self-doubt and regret. But quiet periods of solitude can echo with circular thoughts of what might have been and feelings of inadequacy. The feeling of this stage simply put, is pain, and it is widely discussed in every color of language. These emotions are equally strong, but the activity surrounding them is slower. This change of pace allows one to physically slow down, think through the events, choices, and may even rebound the person to the lower emotional state of bargaining again as all aspects of the changing landscape are fully realized and evaluated. A lower level of confidence often is associated with sadness and can astound someone who is usually decisive. It can also slow down the process of resolution as everything previously used to evaluate choices may be questioned and reconsidered. This state is also an energy drainer and because it is closely linked to anger, these high energy reactions to a circumstance may seem like the person is bouncing back and forth between being really mad and very hurt, and then quite angry again, and then very remorseful and sad.

Acceptance - or Bitterness?

The degree with which an individual can stand alone will make a big impact on whether or not the end of the first year is beginning to feel like a new chapter or a prison sentence. The feeling of this stage is a passive, almost involuntary state of being. When one feels calm and at ease with their decisions, their new life status, and when the changes that occurred over the past year have faded into the background and are no longer prevalent thoughts, this stage feels like peace. When the emotional triggers are still sensitive and security is not felt, both parties may still experience disruption based on the instability of one person. The dissolution of the marriage does not guarantee the resolution of feelings. Bitterness takes hold when a person is disappointed in their life or themselves. IT cannot be created for someone, and unfortunately, cannot be taken away from someone who holds onto past hurts and judgments.

Developing independent friends, a new job, and a firm understanding of the new budget limits will help lend a more optimistic outlook to a person's circumstance. Often, poverty after divorce accompanies the responsibility for the majority of child care and schedule keeping. Having an open and honest discussion with the other party prior to finalizing the divorce will allay frustrations about what areas each person plans to contribute to for the children. Even when child support is ordered, it rarely covers all the costs associated with kids' extracurricular activities, orthodontics, and summer/school trips. Knowing ahead of time where each party's budget can & cannot be flexible can help everyone to accept their new limitations and avoid spending when the funds are not available.

It is helpful to realize the natural consequences of separating into two households.

Avoid blaming the other party and/or comparing different incomes; remember that the division of responsibility came with some inequity. One party may have more debt to pay; the other may have less earning power or higher expenses. One may have more free time and more responsibility for the children; the other may earn more and have to pay child support. Actively participating in drawing the terms of the settlement, asking questions throughout the process, and trying new language and limits with a former partner will build acceptance. Accepting the terms of the divorce will help to resolve the feelings of most of these emotions and over time, give each party back a sense of stability, and eventually peace.

It is very important to realize that any of these emotions are present under the surface, ready to serve the mind and escort the person dealing with this event through the psychological drama. In grief, a person does not check off each emotion as a landmark or developmental step. If the process were as tidy as 1,2,3,4,5 then the community at large would know better when to intervene with help. Life is much more unpredictable. The emotional stability of each party in a divorce has as much to do with their personal history as the event itself. The emotional support network may struggle to say the right things, tolerate the mood swings, and stand faithful in the face of their loved one's discomfort. It is important to listen and accept each emotion as legitimate, while trying to avoid issuing advice, choosing sides, or rushing to the other party's defense. When faced with an overwhelming emotion, a person is struggling to breathe. Simple and direct answers to questions, objective help- such as suggesting they get advice about their legal situation from a professional- and showing them love in a way that feels authentic to them will be the lifeline that sustains their hope.

The most compassionate and supportive thing that anyone facing a divorce needs is the reassurance that they will still have that support, even when things have not gone as planned.


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