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By Irving H. Zaroff, JD LMFT and Dana Schutz, MA LMFT
All things are difficult before they are easy.
~Thomas Fuller, M.D
Once the decision to divorce surfaces (the "deliberation" phase) couples enter the "transition" phase. Transitioning is an emotional roller coaster of adjustment to physical and financial separation. Feelings of hurt, fear, humiliation, loss, abandonment and powerlessness drive behavior. Often these primary feelings are expressed as anger. Pressure mounts as couples face an uncertain economic division and the challenges of child custody. Spouses may reconstruct their picture of each other in negative terms to justify harsh treatment. It is like times of war when the enemy is redefined in villainous terms to depersonalize them and make attacks on them seem like the right thing to do.
The goal of transition is to finally accept the separation and be able to move forward in a new life. Ex-spouses are able to openly acknowledge the divorce, let go of joint possessions, develop new social and romantic interests, and tend to the unfinished business with the ex-spouse in ways that were not possible during the marriage.
The transition phase may last for years depending on the support (or lack of support) the individual receives. The litigation phase involves the legal process of the divorce and generally acts like an amplifier that greatly increases the negativity, and thus the length and quality of the transition phase. The adversarial nature of litigation pushes all the emotional buttons brought on by the transition phase. Each spouse’s social network participate in the creation of a “bad” other spouse, reinforcing the negative images. Legal representatives may wage legal war in an effort to “win” for their client. All of this has an impact on the transition phase.
Efforts to minimize the impact of litigation will ease and shorten transitions, lower the potential damage to children’s development, and help in the final phase of post-divorce life (“redirection” phase). Therapeutic support during this emotional phase and the use of alternatives to litigation, such as mediation, are effective in lowering the negativity. Mediators, although neutral, can educate, empower and enable couples to tend to the business of divorce without allowing the emotional storms to become tsunamis.