Take Control Blog
The Emotional Side of Divorce
The Divorce Matters column regularly focuses on the “business” side of divorce. However, as we all know, divorce is a highly emotional process. With this in mind, I sat down Jerome H. Poliacoff, Ph.D., a Coral Gables-based psychologist, to discuss the emotional aspects of divorce.
TBK: What are typical emotional and psychological responses during each phase of divorce?
POLIACOFF: All three phases—before, during and after—can be disabling emotionally. When spouses marry they usually do so thinking they are going to be married forever. So becoming unhappy and thinking about divorce can be immobilizing. Regrets about marrying their current spouse or how to tell the kids about the divorce lead to a roller coaster of emotions. When one partner gets the courage to tell the other, the first stage is over. Then comes yet another hard part, which is the reaction from the partner who either isn’t aware or doesn’t want to divorce.
TBK: What’s the best manner to tell children about a divorce?
POLIACOFF: Probably the most important thing to do is be on the same page and tell them together. It’s vital to be honest with your kids and not critical of your spouse. This can be especially difficult when there have been hurtful events, such as infidelity, but with a little diplomacy, you can avoid playing the blame game. Give your children the benefit of an honest, but kid-friendly, explanation:
- Tell the truth. Your kids are entitled to know why you are getting a divorce, but long-winded reasons may only confuse them.
- Say “I love you.” Letting your children know that your love for them hasn’t changed is a powerful message.
- Address changes. Preempt your kids’ questions about changes in their lives by acknowledging that some things will be different now, and other things won’t.
TBK: Can you share the five stages of divorce and the associated psychological states?
POLIACOFF: The stages follow Kubler-Ross’ description of the five stages of grieving after the death of a loved one – in divorce it goes something like this:
- Denial: “This is not happening to me. It’s all a misunderstanding. We can work it out.”
- Anger and Resentment: “How can he [she] do this to me? What did I ever do to deserve this? This is not fair!”
- Bargaining: “If you’ll stay, I’ll change” or “If I agree to do it [money, child rearing, sex, whatever] your way, can we get back together?”
- Depression: “This is really happening, I can’t do anything about it, and I don’t think I can bear it.”
- Acceptance: “Okay, this is how it is, and I’d rather accept it and move on than wallow in the past.”
Understanding these stages can be very helpful when it comes to talking about divorce and decision making. It’s important to know that when you are in the early stages of this grief and recovery process, it can be challenging to think clearly or to make decisions at all, much less to make them well. Identifying your present stage of grief and being aware of it is an important step toward ensuring that you will make the best choices you can.
TBK: In cases where one is blindsided by the divorce and still in love, how should they manage the resulting emotions?
POLIACOFF: That’s not an easy question to answer. It depends in large part on who the person was before the divorce, their strengths and weaknesses, the presence or absence of a support system and how they have historically managed anger and loss. If you keep in mind that whatever you’re feeling now is not how you will feel forever it may help you get through the next moment, hour or day.