The Emotional Sequence of Divorce

Divorce is far from being easy whether you are the one disconnecting, the one being disconnected from, or the disconnection is a mutual decision made by both parties. The combination of fear, grief, sadness, hurt, and sometimes joy creates quite the emotional roller coaster.

In their Friendly Divorce Guidebook, Steven Abel, JD, S.W. Whicher, JD, and M. Arden Hauer, JD offer their invaluable insight, direction, and most importantly “go to” information that encompasses divorce (A must book to have if you are contemplating or going through a divorce!)

A segment of their book discusses the emotional sequence of divorce, which for most people, follows a fairly typical pattern. Although the timing of each phase may vary, everyone goes through these stages.

The Emotional Sequence of Divorce

Crisis. This is the critical point in time when the relationship is coming apart at the seams, when one person has decided to leave the marriage or announces that it’s over well before the other person. The one in this position may begin to “uncouple.” However, at this stage both people could also be at the same place and feel the same way about the marriage and want to divorce.

Reactionary. By and large, this phase feels “crazy.” This phase can and often does extend over several months with its own identifiable stages.

In his book, Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends, (another great book to have!) Dr. Bruce Fisher writes about the five stages of an emotional divorce that parallel the five stages of grief, originated by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Grief is not only about sadness but about loneliness, at times anger and agitation, a sense of feeling weak, vulnerable, and feeling helpless. It can show up as feeling unmotivated to do things – things that were previously very easy to accomplish.

Stage 1. Emotional Shock. Things feel surreal. Denial. Think: “This isn’t happening to me.” During this stage, we tend to suppress the anger and hurt and deny its depth as though nothing is happening. We put on a front, our best manners. We harbor our sadness and put up walls to keep people out because the hurt is too overpowering.

The next four stages are about learning how to accept the end and letting go.

Stage 2. Anger is the predominant feeling during this next stage. Anger gets turned outward towards others. People will outwardly express how bad their husband/wife treated them and how difficult it was to be married to them. However the Catch-22 during this stage is that despite the emotional door still being open to some degree, the outward expressed anger often closes this door with little chance of reconciliation. A strong ambivalence about wanting the spouse back also presides during this stage.

Old and new life

Stage 3. During this stage, there is still an attempt to prolong the relationship. People tend to bargain and compromise and make deals with their spouse. They may find themselves over accommodating. The danger, however, in doing this is if the couple reunites, the accommodating that was previously done cannot be sustained.

People find themselves angrier than before. The accommodating may be the result of people who struggle with loneliness and unhappiness at the ending of the relationship tend to choose the lesser of two evils – the spouse.

Stage 4. This stage usually begins after a long separation. People feel “the blahs” – often exhibited through internal questioning and some depression. A person will often ask themselves, “Is this it?” “Is this all there is to life?” Despite the questions and feeling blah, there is conversely internal growth through the development of a stronger identity.

People begin to feel that life is more meaningful with a stronger purpose. But, beware of the flip side – some people recognize their hard work has resulted in the ending of the relationship and can become suicidal.

Stage 5. Acceptance. Acceptance of the loss of love yet feeling free of the pain of the grief. The end of the grief is the acceptance of the end of the relationship. Internal peace and moving on bring the transition of divorce and the feelings of grief full circle.

Although each person has their own journey and will go through the stages differently, there is benefit to going through all these stages. In most cases, though difficult and challenging, going through these stages can get you to the place you need and want to be in your life.

C. Recovery. The stage is all about healing, a sense of peace, empowerment, and moving on with your life in a healthy and productive manner.

Divorce, like marriage, is not for the faint at heart. Despite the similarities in the emotional sequence of divorce, each divorce is unique in its own right.

Everyone has their own  personal journey….

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Draw the Line in the Sand and Learn to Set healthy Boundaries

When I was about 11 years old, my mother gave me a button that read, “I just said no and I don’t feel guilty.” Geezzz. Setting healthy boundaries though needed and necessary is often a difficult task for most people.

Yet, let’s face it – without healthy boundaries, people find themselves in situations they wish they didn’t. They say yes when they really wanted to say no. All those “yes” responses means overextending ourselves. Healthy becomes unhealthy. Quickly.

How do we feel when we overextend ourselves? Exhausted, irritated, and angry. These feelings can lead us to not only engage in unhealthy behaviors and lifestyles but take our anger out on others in an attempt to quell that internal simmering anger and irritability at ourselves for not saying no when given the opportunity.

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Because I used to be one of those people, until I wasn’t (well, not perfectly but no longer have a need for that button!), I truly understand the challenges and the guilt that often accompanies saying no and standing up for yourself.

In addition to time, practice, patience, determination, and an investment in yourself, concrete action steps are necessary to setting necessary and healthy boundaries. Saying no and setting boundaries in small doses is a skill that can be developed.

1. Move yourself to the top of  list. That’s right. Honor your schedule, needs, and values. Know what they are. Equally important, know what they are not. I realize there are times times when we have to do something even if we don’t want to. We cannot escape all of those times. But even those times need limitations. Get in the habit of when asked to do something, ask yourself if this something that you want to do or feel you should do? Big difference.

2. Examine your motive. Have you thought about why you always say yes to things that you really want to say no to? Do you struggle with someone being upset with you if you set a boundary? Are you afraid they might not like you if you say no to them? Why do you continue to say yes to things?

We are all motivated and driven by different things. Find out what drives your behaviors and examine your feelings attached to those behaviors. The answer may just surprise you. Is this a fear, feeling or a fact? Most likely a fear or feeling. Think about it.

3. Hit the pause button and take five. Hit the pause button by not allowing yourself to do your usual “knee jerk” response of yes. Stop and think. Again, is this something that you want to do or feel you should do. Would it be so bad to take a few minutes and telling that person that you will get back to them once you check your schedule? Do you have to answer them at that moment? Probably not. Think about it. And then get back to them.

Giving yourself the necessary time and space to make a rational, not emotional decision is a game changer. A decision that in the end will make you feel empowered – even if it doesn’t feel that way in the moment. Eventually it will.

4. No backpedaling!. Honor your initial response of saying no and don’t change your mind based on feeling guilty because they will get used to that behavior and expect it again.

What to expect. Spoiler alert! It ain’t always pretty. 

1.) Some backlash from people who are surprised by your change in behavior. After all, you are changing the rules of the game in the middle of the game without giving them notice. Your “no” will come as a surprise. Their reaction, most likely in displayed agitation OR silence, will speak volumes about how they feel about your response. They want to keep doing the same dance with you. It serves a purpose – for them. Don’t give in.

2. Recognize that feeling bad or “guilty” for setting boundaries – especially in the beginning- is normal. Expect it, recognize it, and learn how to move past it. Initially, people feel they are doing something wrong, by not saying yes. But you are not. You are taking responsibility for your life, your decisions, your path, your time.

3. Expect the ol’ change takes time. Yes it does. Don’t expect that setting boundaries will occur naturally, quickly, or overnight. You will have many fits and starts. That’s ok. Patience is key. Staying true to your investment in this change is key.

4. Remember, when you start setting boundaries, people will be put off by this and will likely ask you again with the hope that you will change your mind. Based on your previous behaviors they probably counted you “in” before they got your official answer. Can you blame them? Don’t you do the same to others? That’s ok. Stay true to what you want to do.

Many people struggle with setting their own boundaries. When a person starts to set healthy boundaries its a reminder to those who don’t, that they don’t.

Eventually, you will get to a place where you can say, “No button needed!” and will feel more comfortable drawing the line in the sand.

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Finding Your Way Back From Financial Infidelity

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Equally damaging to a relationship as any other type of infidelity, financial infidelity weds a deep sense of betrayal and deceit with a profound loss of trust. It shakes the foundation of a relationship.

Secret purchases on credit cards, borrowing money from a bank account or credit card, stashing money, and incurring debt unbeknownst from a partner or spouse, creates the web of financial infidelity.

Yet, it’s not just about secretly spending and hiding money. That would be too easy. It is much more complicated.

To understand the present, you must understand the past.

A person’s relationship with money – what money means to them, were they raised with money, how their parents spent and viewed money, how much they have or don’t, the amount and type of debt (credit cards, bank loans, student loans), if they are a spender or a saver, their income, both past and present, how they view their disposable income (if they have it or not) and how decisions are made about purchases, both big and small is integral to understanding financial infidelity.

The deep sense of shame they feel because of their secretive behaviors is the foundation of the infidelity. Shame is a powerful and painful emotion. Shame says I am bad person. I am flawed. Its these same feelings of shame keeps a person stuck in the vicious cycle of secrecy even though they know what they are doing is wrong.

financial papers on the table

You are not alone

Research conducted in 2012 by Self.com and Today.com who surveyed almost 24,000 men and women found:

  • Almost 50% of married adults admitted to keeping money secrets from their spouses.
  • 37% of men and 56% of women admitted to lying to their partner about money.
  • 63% of men and 70% of women agreed that being honest about money was as important as being monogamous.
  • 31% of couples had committed financial infidelity.
  • 1 in 10. That’s the ratio that people admit to having hidden credit card purchases, which have played a role in their separation or divorce, according to a report by Moneysupermarket.com and reported in the article, Secret Credit Card Spending and Divorce Linked in New Survey.

Warning signs

According to Adrian Nazari, Founder and CEO of CreditSesame.com, and further discussed in the Huffington article, Financial Infidelity: What To Do When Someone Cheats, there are three warning signs of potential financial infidelity:

  • Suspicious withdrawal,
  • Changing the topic when money issues come up,
  • A partner who wants to control the finances.

A person should also look for their partner insisting on secret passwords for online banking accounts and having separate credit cards.

Discovery and Disclosure

The awareness that the financial infidelity is much more complex and destructive than first imagined becomes more real. The betrayed partner experiences rage, intense anger, heartbreak, and immediate loss of trust for their partner. They ask:

What else could they be hiding? How could you do this to us? How could I have missed this? Am I that blind? (Blaming self) How long has this been going on? How will I be able to trust him/her again?

Getting to that place of recovery, overcoming the infidelity, and rebuilding trust is often a lengthy process but there are steps that you can take to recover and rebuild.

Steps to Recover and Rebuild Your Relationship  

1.) Full Disclosure. In other words, come clean and put your debt on the table. This entails coming clean and taking ownership of the debt and the infidelity. Apologize and mean it. A person’s willingness to examine their behaviors, take responsibility for their finances AND incurred debt and infidelity, and tackle the difficult feelings – the shame and embarrassment are vital.

2.)  Create a conversation. People vary in their relationship with and behaviors towards money. Again, ask: What is your relationship with money? What affects have your family’s relationship with money affected your relationship with money? Can you separate a want from a need? The answers create a context for understanding your partner’s relationship with money and helps provide an explanation, not necessarily an excuse.

3.) Review your budget.  I remain surprised by the number of people who have no budget (read, “fly by the seat of their pants”). They have no idea on how much money it takes to run their home, take care of their bills, and what, if any, their disposable income is.

4.) Set financial rules and goals. Make time on a regular basis to discuss money, bills, expenses, and short and long term financial goals for the future. How much can a person spend on their own – no questions asked? Who will manage the money and budget? What are the parameters for making joint versus unilateral decisions?

5.) Seek professional help. It is imperative that both people have a willingness to seek outside professional help – be it a financial counselor and/or marital therapist. You will need a third party who provides an objective viewpoint and new skills and strategies you will need to get you through the tenuous times – and there will be many.

green road sign counseling divorce

Since the infidelity didn’t occur overnight, the problems will not dissipate overnight. The pain and suffering caused by one, will be felt by both. People want the bad feelings and problems to “just go away” and resolve quickly. It doesn’t happen this way. There will be a lot of “fits and starts”, improvements yet setbacks and relapses. Expect the betrayed partner to ask the same questions – more than once or even twice.

Remember that your feelings will be all over the place and will feel like you are on a roller coaster. You are.

Where there is hope

Despite the significant damage that can be caused on the relationship due to the infidelity, it doesn’t always lead down the path of complete dissolution of the relationship. Relationships recover. People forgive. People grieve the loss, hurt, and betrayal and learn how to move on from and live with the experience. Trust eventually returns.

Over time, disclosure, greater transparency, and a willingness to share feelings – both good and bad – provides the couple with not only the ability to trust again but an openness to resolve issues together before they become significant problems. The concerted effort made by both and their willingness to communicate more honestly and openly will be rewarding with hopes of saving the relationship.