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By Irving H. Zaroff, JD LMFT and Dana Schutz, MA LMFT
The loss of love is not nearly painful as our resistance to accepting it is.
There are many theories about the emotional journey when a marriage comes to an end. In this article and others to follow, we take a look at one theory that compresses the many stages of divorce to four general phases: Deliberation; Litigation; Transition: and Post Divorce (or Redirection) (John Haynes, Ph.D.).
The Deliberation Phase involves the decision to divorce. This spouse, often the wife, has been described as experiencing dissatisfaction, alienation, loneliness, and despair (Saposnek and Rose). During this period the spouse begins to emotionally withdraw from the relationship. There are a variety of attempts to manage their feelings including demands to attend couple therapy, provocations to induce change, and shutting down as a means of avoiding the pain of the emotional loss. Other attempts to quiet the pain may lead to alcohol or drug abuse, extra-marital affairs, or other distracting behaviors. This process could last for years.
At some point, the inevitability of the marriage ending becomes clear and the spouse expresses the decision to divorce. This spouse, the Dumper, has mixed feelings of guilt and relief. The other spouse, the Dumpee, is often in shock. One description of the different feelings about the divorce characterizes the Dumpee as feeling like someone suddenly died, while the Dumper feels as though someone died after a long, painful illness. This can be a very wide gap that will influence the phases to follow.
The Dumpee will often seek to reverse the Dumper’s decision with pleading for opportunities to work on the marriage. The Dumpee may seek counseling for both to correct the problems in the marriage or become angry and make threats about the negative financial consequences of the divorce. Even threats about the custody of children can be raised.
Since the second phase of the divorce involves the legal engagement, failing to attend to this gap in emotional readiness can make the process, which is adversarial in litigation, painful and a source for long-term conflict. Next month we will discuss ways to mitigate the emotional impact of the Litigation phase.