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The Stages of Divorce

(The following article was co-authored by Dr. Tom Merrill and Geoff Hamilton, Esq., a family law attorney and partner in the firm of Char, Hamilton, Campbell and Tom, Honolulu, Hawaii. It has appeared in numerous publications and is an integral part of the section on Psychology in the Hawaii Divorce Manual. Refer to The Stages of Divorce Chart following this section for further clarification of the stages and the process discussed below.)


While it often appears that the erratic, emotional “nuttiness” occurring during the divorce process is random in nature, specific, predictable stages in one form or another have been identified by many professionals in this field (Brown, 2000; Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989; Trafford, 1992; Hayes, 1981; Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2000; Merrill and Hamilton 1998). Our model (see diagram in appendix A) is inspired by Ms. Brown's (1976) model. It is a compilation of our own personal experiences from private practice, along with the ideas of Dr. Judith Wallerstein and Ms.Abigail Trafford.

Our model starts with the "Divorce Initiator" (in the left column) coming to recognize that divorce, previously not thought of, looms as a real possibility. The middle column includes the stages through which the marriage progresses as opposed to individual progression (the left column is the "Initiator" and the right column is the "Non-Initiator"). In chronological fashion, the chart demonstrates the parties' psychological stages as they progress through the four phases of the divorce process (i.e., deliberation, decision, transition and healing). The chronology of the litigation phase "floats" and is distinct from the emotional phases in that it may occur anytime after the decision to divorce is made.

Some couples start and complete the legal process of divorce long after separation and completion of the emotional stages of the divorce. Others, of course, start the legal divorce process immediately after the decision to divorce is communicated. The proposed model will not fit all cases at all times. It appears to be most appropriate when there is a clear-cut initiator with a non-initiator who neither wants nor expects the divorce (approximately 85 % of the cases).

You will see as you work your way through the model that while in cases where the divorce is the result of mutual agreement the stages might be appropriate (approximately 15 % of the cases), the activities within each stage are not as generally applicable. The Stages (running vertically down the left hand column of the diagram, e.g., Deliberation, Decision, Transition, and Healing) will occur in virtually all divorces. However, the content of the stages, particularly the affectively loaded content, may not. If such content is present in mutually agreed upon divorces it will most likely be front-loaded in the Deliberation phase. Thus the following discussion on the Stages of Divorce applies to the dichotomous Initiator/Non-initiator, ("doer"/"do-ee", divorcer/divorcee and/or dumper/dumpee) situation, with your client being one or the other.

Deliberation Phase This is the period of time between which the idea of divorce initially surfaces and the time when divorce is finally implemented. Often, the background of this stage is some form of stressful circumstance for one or both parties, such as a loss of a good job, health or money problems. The more stress there is, the more likely it will impact on the marriage. While individuals are in the midst of this phase, they rarely understand it.

Typically, this stage is one in which the fact that the relationship is in trouble is not directly verbalized. Rather, it is characterized by indirect, covert, destructive behavior by one or both partners. Often the initiator, either consciously or not, begins "rewriting" the history of the marriage or the image of the other spouse to build a case that justifies the eventual split. "Rewriting" simply involves selecting, coloring and emphasizing the "bad stuff": unresolved "hurts" from the past or behavior that does not currently work. It also includes "glossing over" or ignoring the "good stuff" and thereby reaching the conclusion that divorce is appropriate.

This process is simply a matter of deliberate, subjective choice, as opposed to "historical accuracy" or searching for the truth since its purpose is to justify the choice to split up which has already been made. It is a period that sees the development of what has been described as the marital "point of no return." From this point on, in the absence of positive intervention, behaviors and actions move the relationship toward the inevitable point of divorce.

Generally, confrontation regarding divorce and separation mark the end of this stage. As a rule of thumb, the issues that fuel the deliberation process (the initiator's perception that there are serious problems in the marriage) are not "fly by night". A Gallup Poll (1988) of people who had been divorced indicated that over seventy percent (70%) of divorced people knew of the problems that led to the divorce, either when they got married, or after they had been married for some time. Only twenty-two percent (22%) of divorced people discovered the source of their marital problems leading to separation just before the break-up.

In hindsight, people appear to have remarkably few regrets about the decision to separate and divorce. The same Gallup Poll found that only twelve percent (12%) of the divorced people who were polled felt "they should have stayed together", while eighty-two percent (82%) felt that the right decision was to separate and divorce. Seventy percent (70%) felt that the problems that led to the separation and divorce were "too difficult to solve" as opposed to problems that "might have been solved had the parties stayed together." These statistics are all the more remarkable since, as indicated above, in roughly eighty-five percent (85%) of the divorces there is a clear-cut initiator and the other party, to a greater or lesser degree, does not want the divorce. In retrospect, this may be another example of "rewriting history" subjectively justifying the divorce. Or, it may simply be taken at its face value: that a very substantial majority of the divorced population feels that in hindsight, their divorce was the right thing.

Decision Phase Communication of the intent to divorce ends the deliberation phase. Often, there is a brief, but intense decision-making phase where the intent to divorce has been seriously communicated but the outcome remains in doubt. Such communication frequently opens Pandora's Box. Family members and friends get involved and offer unsolicited advice, opinions and their own "spin" on what could or should have been done (the classical "I told you so!") and what could or should happen now.

The "Non-Initiator", now stung and fully awakened from the phase of denial or simply being oblivious to his or her spouse's discontent, enters the fray and retaliates in some fashion designed to deflect the pain of rejection, to punish the "Initiator", or derail the decision to divorce, or all of the above. Often the "Initiator", wounded by guilt or outcry from family or friends, loses motivation and reconsiders. If he or she does not reconsider and proceeds with the divorce, then the parties move to the Transition Phase.

Transition Phase ("Crazy Time") This is a period fraught with the potential for a wide range of "crazy" behavior. It most likely will be a time of nuttiness as one or both partners are faced, head-on, with the need to let go. While the partners may have physically separated at the end of the previous stage, this is a period requiring emotional or psychological separation. Sexual "acting out" is common during this phase. Men often become "hip, hirsute, and horny". Both men and women may become obsessed with sexual fantasies.

Terminating a period of attachment that may span many years is frequently difficult and may, in some cases, be impossible. Viewing their life as inextricably interwoven with that of their ex-partner, they may see half of themselves and their life as terminating with divorce -- a perception of death from which they may never recover. "No-fault" divorce does not seem to make it easier. The Wallersteing and Blakeslee (1988) study suggests that people simply do not see it that way. The parties inevitably see one party more responsible than the other. "Fault" lives on--at least below the legal surface.

Litigation Phase Although litigation is not an emotional stage, it is superimposed on the emotional process of divorce and is primarily defined in terms of duration as a function of the legal process in your state. Generally, the process takes about one year if the divorce is fully contested in court and is considerably shorter if the parties reach an amicable agreement. Once the legal process earnestly begins, this period is characterized by the redefinition of the roles of each partner. As such, it can be either a period of tremendous growth or stagnation and despair, or, it can be both, to varying degrees.

Healing Phase As ex-partners, this period is marked by healing, a commitment to the future, and the promise of a new life. It is a period characterized by individual development of the Self in the absence of the other partner. In other words, a period of where you "move" on. Those hot spots that previously were stimuli for irrational and destructive behavior are dealt with and handled. A new scope of stability is often achieved, and it often continues indefinitely.

Three Important Caveats First, it is important to realize that the stages can overlap. Second, the Initiator and/or the Non-Initiator can be in more than one stage at the same time and can also regress into previous stages. Third, there are clear distinctions between what the "Initiator" of the divorce experiences compared to that of the "Non-Initiator".

In addition to the predictable stages, there are predictable emotions, fears or feelings. Hayes (1981) lists rejection (the most basic, universal feeling for the "Non-Initiator"), anger, loneliness, confusion, self-doubt, depression, the fear of making mistakes, the fear of being inadequate, the fear of going over the "edge," anxiety over the unknown, self-pity, and believe it or not, euphoria.  

Gender Differences Dr. Wallerstein (1989; 2000) suggests it takes longer for women generally, and most particularly, women over 40, than men after separation to get their lives back to some kind of order. That is somewhat surprising, given well-established data which suggests that in substantial majority of cases, women initiate the divorce. This may well address the point that while one party may officially initiate the divorce by filing, this may only be in reaction to the behaviors of their partner that clearly identify him as the “true” initiator. 

Men generally, and most particularly men who are successful in their occupations, seem to undergo less psychological changes following the divorce which, given the traditional male focus on occupational success, is not surprising. However, Bryan (1999) argues that the primary culprit for the differential level of adjustment between men and women following divorce relates to directly to economic considerations.

Specifically, following divorce, women fare less well than men. Bryan notes, “Research and gender bias reports indicate clearly that the standards of living of many women and their dependent children decline precipitously at divorce, frequently plunging families into poverty.” Supporting this idea is the well-known relationships between low socioeconomic status and both mental and physical illness.

What Happens To The Children? One-third to one-half of all American children will spend at least part of their childhood and youth in a "broken" family. As Drs. Wallerstein and. Kelly(1980) point out, the response of children to divorce is distinctly different from the response of their parents. We were surprised at first to find that many marriages that had been unhappy for adults had been reasonably comfortable, even gratifying for the children, and that very few of the children concurred in their parents' decision or experienced relief at the time of separation.

Five years after the separation, most of the adults approved the divorce decision and only one-fifth of them felt strongly that the divorce had been ill-advised. Among the children, however, over one-half did not regard the divorced family as an improvement over their pre-divorced family. Many of these youngsters, some of whom were doing well, would have preferred to turn back the clock and return to the pre-divorced family, despite its remembered failings. Furthermore, most of the adults, especially the women, were feeling better, despite the greater economic pressures and many stresses of their lives in the post-divorced family. Their self-esteem was higher and their overall psychological adjustment was considerably improved. And, . . . many of their somatic symptoms and their psychological dysfunctions disappeared during the post-divorce years.

Unlike the adults who felt considerably improved after the divorce, the children and adolescents did not, as a group, show an improvement in their psychological health during the years following the separation period. Only those children who were physically separated by divorce from a rejecting, or demeaning, or a psychiatrically disturbed father showed improvement compared to that of adults.

Children of divorcing parents often have it the worst. Parents going through the emotional crisis of divorce generally have a diminished capacity to "parent" effectively just at the time that the children, often even more emotionally affected, need them the most. All too frequently children blame themselves for the divorce. The long-term impact of their mis-perception is frequently difficult to predict and is most often worse than is generally acknowledged. Many children undertake inappropriate personal responsibilities by psychologically advising or nurturing one or both of their parents.

As a general rule, children going through a divorce need three things from their parents: First, both parents need to maintain the best possible continuing parenting relationship with the child, regardless of the level of hostility and/or separation between the parents. Second, both parents must not draw the children into the dispute. In other words, do not fight in front of or around the children (covertly or overtly), and do not try to convince the children of the righteousness of one parent's particular position (do not create a "good" parent versus "bad" parent scenario). Third, each parent needs to support the other parent's positive and continuing good relationship with the children.

While there are children of divorce who are able to surface from the experience unscathed, we do see two clearly distinctively different patterns of adult interpersonal behavior emerge for those that are not as fortunate. First, as adults, their family of origin experiences are reflected in their over-awareness of the need to “make it right”. They have a clearly identified reluctance to allow their own marriages to end up like that of their parents. They want to protect their own children from the same trauma they experienced. They tend to be more conservative about "conventional morality", emphasizing for themselves "a good marriage, commitment, romantic love that lasts, and faithfulness."

A second view and resulting pattern of behavior is seen in the gun-shy approach to relationships. These adult children of divorce often carry the baggage of their parents' divorce and their distrust of relationships with a significant other into their own courtship and marriage. They tend to view, consciously or unconsciously, relationships and marriage as temporary, unstable and threatening. They are often simply waiting for betrayal and rejection by their partner or spouse. Because of those fears, they often completely avoid a potentially permanent, committed relationship and end up either simply alone or going through a series of uncommitted, shallow relationships.

Most of your clients, although going through extremely stressful and crazy times, are able to manage their situation. Little will be required of you other than to simply understand where they are in the process and provide a therapeutic relationship so that their transition through the divorce is significantly eased. However, there have been and certainly will be again, those clients who are in true distress. These clients need help. Their resources of validation, i.e. their work, play, and primary relationship are circling down the drain and they are left with a huge void, making them most vulnerable and at risk. In such instances, the most therapeutic thing you can do is get them professional help; a psychologist, a psychiatrist, social worker, priest, pastor, rabbi, someone who is trained to assist them in dealing with issues of failed relationships and failed lives. Know when your clients have reached this critical stage. (The Client Assessment Scale developed by Dr. Merrill is found in this Articles section.)






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