McKay and his colleagues wrote The Divorce Book: A Practical and Compassionate Guide. While a little dated, this is an excellent book discussing the steps of divorce, the dangers at each step for the adults involved, and ways to cope.
Stages of Divorce
Stage One – Separation Shock
After partners separate and have time away from each other, they may feel numbed, panicked, or depressed, and may try to deny what has happened. However, research supports that by the time most people reach this stage, the end of their marriage is already close in sight and therapy can be of limited help.
Stage Two – The Roller Coaster
During this period, feelings of despair, anger, self-pity or self-loathing, and intense joy can occur. Separation from friends, reviewing what went wrong in the marriage and how you were responsible for part of it, loneliness, and anger at the ex-partner for their faults is common. McKay offers two chapters of practical tips and coping skills for making it through this time, from tips on relaxation to cope with anxiety, to ways to avoid the psychological traps of negative thinking and misguided behavior to cope with depression and loneliness. They even include a quiz for you to take to see the traps you might fall into.
This stage also includes making the decision to divorce, and telling this to friends and family. Disclosing to family is especially stressful, since family is so important to us and we place considerable weight upon their reactions. McKay and colleagues point out some of the traps this presents and discuss why family members respond this way:
- Thinking You are a Failure for Marrying Your Ex – One woman said her family wondered why she took so long to “see him for the loser he is.” This kind of response can make you feel foolish, and as though they are dismissing all the work you did in the marriage over the years.
- Feeling Disgraced and Ashamed for Divorcing Your Ex – “We were always so proud of you, but this….” This kind of response can make you feel you’ve lost their respect and love, and make a painful time more demoralizing.
- Dealing with Pressure to Reconcile – “He’s the father of your children; give him a chance.” Some people report reversing their decisions when family responded this way, and being more miserable for a longer period of time as a result.
- Responding to Claims You are Irresponsible or Selfish – “What has happiness got to do with it? You owe [your children] a father and a home.” This can provoke serious hurt and self-doubt, and lead you to deny your needs and lose the resolve you need to get you through the changes divorce entails.
- Coping with the Family’s Reaction to Loss and Feelings of Guilt – Some parents blame themselves for setting a bad example for marriage, for perceived failures as a parent, etc… and turn your need for support into their own need for reassurance.
- Inquisition and Invasive Advice – Some parents and family members may want to know far more about your marriage, sex life, and emotional needs than you feel comfortable discussing. Others offer intrusive and simplistic advice about what you should or could have done, and blame you for the divorce.
- Suffocating Sympathy – Some families respond with overwhelming support to the point that grieving, making sense of what has happened, and recovering your identity and independence is more difficult with their help than without it.
McKay and colleagues also discuss why families respond this way:
- Some family members stayed in an unhappy marriage and secretly are angry with you for not sharing in their misery. Discussing your reasoning with them is likely to bring up thoughts, feelings, and memories that they would rather keep buried and forgotten. It’s helpful to focus on your choices, staying clear of theirs, and discussing the difficulties that divorce, co-parenting after divorce, raise for the family.
- Some family members idealize the family and needed you to do this with them. They don’t consider personal unhappiness. You might try focusing on the harm done to the children by staying together and being miserable, fighting, and leading tense, unhappy, and unproductive lives.
- Some family members struggled as you did and did make it through; they may think any problem can be solved, based on their experience, and suggest you “hang in there” and “stick it out”. You might explain that problems are deeper and more long-standing than they may appear. You have made efforts to work it out, but they have failed, and it’s time to “call it quits” or “quit while you’re ahead” and can still think calmly and rationally about it.
- Some family members didn’t like you before and now have an obvious reason to express it.
They suggest maintaining your privacy unless you feel support from a family or friend, staying out of their conflict over the issue, avoiding requests for family and friends to take sides, keeping their fears and disapproval out of your decision making, and refraining from requests for support from disapproving and unkind kin.
Stage Three – Identity Work
After a divorce, people commonly begin to work on a renewed and redefined sense of who they are, what they enjoy, and what they are capable of doing.
Part of the work during this time requires working through being “the Leaver” or “the Left” after the divorce, and dealing with the guilt, anger, and self-reproach we tend to feel. McKay and colleagues cover working through the grief this causes in a chapter of its own.
Sometimes in my work with clients I’ve conceptualized the feelings during this time this way: During the marriage, often a partner made sacrifices, denied feelings and desires, and ignored “internal warning signs” of serious problems. While in the long run this hurt them, in the short run it may have helped. Making demands you knew would not be met, focusing on things you knew you could not get, and focusing on doubts and reservations about the marriage would have made day to day life almost impossible. Many people deny these issues simply to get through the day, work effectively, and find some moments of happiness in their lives. Often the pain and loneliness during this post-divorce period is more intense due to a “whiplash effect.” Painful feelings, when denied, become more painful, and when finally acknowledged, are more distressing and difficult to live through. I encourage people to admit that they have not been happy for a while, and that they have suffered for a while. Only now, when they are aware of this and can acknowledge all their feelings, can they begin to grieve, heal old hurts, and move on.
Stage Four – The Recentered Self
After the roller coaster of emotions and rediscovering who you are, a calmer sense of self emerges. New ideas about relationships, life, needs, and wants are common. You may seek out new romantic relationships, avoid ones that are too intense, or take up new hobbies and interests. This is normal and you should enjoy this time in your life. While it is hard to foresee this while in the midst of the previous three stages, this period of recovery and beginning anew can and usually does come after working through the painful previous steps.
Getting Your Needs Met
Getting your needs met during this time can be very hard. McKay and Colleagues suggest the following:
- Ask for what you need in clear and specific terms – if you need babysitting, ask for it.
- Appreciate the help you get – a thank you note is a good follow-up for your mom when she picked the kids up when you worked late.
- When you move, consider living nearer your family and friends, but talk openly with them first about the move and make sure they are able and willing to provide the kind and amount of support you want.
Kelly Williams in her excellent book, Single Mamahood, suggests the following:
- Keep a list of babysitters ready for any time of the day; if you anticipate a problem, ask someone to “be on call” with their pager in case you need them.
- Thank those who help you out with a special dish or a bag of goodies.
- Find other single parents who can help you out, and help them out in return.
- Hide another key to the home or apartment in case the kids loose theirs, give them pre-paid bus cards or phone cards for emergencies, and make a short list of emergencies, response procedures, and numbers for them to call in case they can’t reach you.
- Find after school programs, sports, clubs, and church groups for the kids to keep them active and help you out some too with free time and activities with your kids.
- Be sure to eat well, exercise, and have some quiet time to yourself; it will keep you calm and sane the rest of the time.