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Surviving Divorce: The Grieving Process

The first step of the process is feeling the pain

Maxine B. Cohen, M.F.T.

There are five stages to work through. These stages are not linear; you do not start at the first and progress through them in an orderly fashion. You cycle back and forth, and you can be in more than one stage at the same time. This can be exceedingly crazy making, especially since the grieving process can take up to two years. You need to give yourself permission to take the time to fully grieve.

In the initial stage, there is shock and denial. People can neither believe nor cope with the enormity of what is happening. The changes that will so greatly effect their daily living have not yet occurred, so they cling to familiar habits. To the extent possible, they keep their daily routine just as it always was. This brings comfort and a false sense of security. It allows them to protect themselves for a while from the knowledge that life is going to be very different very soon and it allows them to function at a time when the feelings may otherwise be too scary. This is okay; denial is not unhealthy provided it doesn't go on for too long.

Feelings of anger characterize the next stage. People can be angry that their spouse has failed them, that they have failed themselves by betraying their own values, and that society and the mass media have hoodwinked them into believing a fantasy. If not acted out in a destructive way, feelings of anger can be useful. They help you begin to let go and put emotional distance between you and your spouse. This heralds an important psychological shift away from thinking of yourself as a twosome. You begin to think as one and to focus on what is good for you which is what needs to occur in order for you to build a new life for yourself.

Then there are the feelings of ambivalence which are the hallmark of divorce. The path from the event of the separation to the final dissolution is rarely straight. Typically, it is a back and forth process with roller coaster emotions ranging from high to low and back again. This can be especially crazy making because it is scary and people feel out of control. Should we get back together? Should we stay apart? Are the changes your spouse has made lasting and will they be enough to allow the marriage to go on? Studies show that no matter how bad the marriage was, most people feel a persistent attachment to their former spouse.

Next comes depression. The feelings of loss and fear can be extreme but they serve a
key purpose. They are emotions turned in on the Self. They force you to look at yourself, to face the aloneness, to confront the type of relationship you both created in the marriage, and to take responsibility for your part and stop laying all the blame on your spouse. This is the part of the journey where there is the most growth, if you allow it.

After you have been able to express your feelings and grieve, you may come to the ending with a sense of quiet expectation. The future may be uncertain but the trust in yourself that you have gained from having made it through the passage will give you a growing sense of confidence in your ability to create the life you want for yourself (and your children).

The second phase of the journey is the process of recovery.

Maxine Cohen | 949-644-6435 |
Maxine Cohen is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has worked with individuals, couples, and families since 1989. She is an expert on all aspects of the divorce transition-from how to tell the children in the best possible way, to riding the emotional roller coaster and grieving the loss, to dating and rebuilding a life that is satisfying and good. Maxine is also a writer, having contributed columns to Orange Coast Magazine and the local editions of the Orange County Register and the LA Times (Daily Pilot) for the past 10 years. She is in private practice in Newport Beach.

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