When renowned Swiss-American psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published her ground-breaking book On Death and Dying in 1969, she had no idea that her theory would later be applied to many other forms of loss. However, since it’s introduction, people have recognized that after people have lost something important in life, they typically process that loss in somewhat predictable stages. Divorce, it seems, is no different. Which makes sense, because what is divorce if not the official loss of someone that you once loved, and may still care about very deeply?
As the old saying goes, ‘Knowledge is power.’ Understanding why you feel a certain way can often help you to manage, and ultimately move past, your emotional responses during a time of grieving. So we have provided a basic breakdown here of the five stages of grief as they apply to divorce, for those of you who would like an overview of what you may expect during and after this difficult time.
Some people feel numb after they are told that their spouse wants to leave them. Some struggle to internalize the facts, and carry on with life as if nothing has changed. Even for people who instigated the divorce, the shock that comes with the decision to make major, emotionally turbulent changes is often followed by a feeling of disconnection. This is called denial.
Denial is your mind’s way of protecting you from becoming emotionally overwhelmed. But while it can be a useful temporary coping mechanism, if it keeps you from moving forward and facing the truth, it can be harmful.
Once the denial has ended, however, and reality has set in, many people get angry. Angry about the fact that their spouses weren’t willing to work on the marriage, and could toss aside a commitment that was supposed to last a lifetime. This is a perfectly natural feeling to experience when you realize that your marriage is over and you’re looking for someone to blame.
Be careful, though, to not let your anger cloud your decision making. You can be justifiably mad at your spouse, but how you process that anger is going to make all the difference to your future. The more you fight with them, accuse them of being a rotten person, and treat them poorly, the harder the entire divorce process becomes for everyone, including your kids!
This stage tends to set in when the anger has been expended, and fear of the future becomes more real. It’s the period where you realize that actually you love your spouse and don’t want to get a divorce, and so you set about trying to change their mind.
Rarely if ever does this last-ditch effort bear any fruit. Promising your spouse that “things will be different this time” or that you’ll “be everything they want you to be” is almost guaranteed to fail. Sometimes it works for a while, but most people cannot sustain a complete personality overhaul, or a total lifestyle turnaround for the long haul.
Once you realize that they aren’t going to change their mind, and that there’s nothing you can do to stop this oncoming train, depression sets in. This may manifest as exhaustion, apathy, and severe sadness. You may lose your appetite or struggle with overeating. You may have a hard time sleeping, or find that you struggle to fall asleep at all.
Experiencing some depression during and after a divorce is completely normal, and most people suffer the same thing. However, if your depression feels like it’s going on for a very long time, or you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please contact a medical or mental health professional.
This is the final stage, the home stretch as it were. People who are able to accept that their marriage has ended are able to move on. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not an oncoming train! Acceptance allows people to have peace about situations and circumstances they cannot chance.
This does not mean that you won’t experience regret or sorrow when thinking about your divorce. It also doesn’t mean that you and your ex are going to be best buddies. It does mean, however, that you can put that period of life behind you in a healthy way and move on to whatever life has in store for you next.