Growing Through Divorce
Friday, November 13, 2009

By: Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

Divorce ranks just above death in severity of stress and is often combined with other stressors, such as marital discord, serious financial problems, a move, single parenting, multiple losses and litigation, all at once.  It’s a life cycle crisis that presents a crucial period of increased vulnerability and heightened potential. With consciousness, the process can be edifying.  Although not easy, it’s extremely rewarding, because, in the long run you feel better and learn from the experience, so you don't have to repeat the same mistakes. 

Divorce consists of several stages: Cognitive, emotional, physical, legal and spiritual.  This order isn’t usually what happens, and explains the "Divorce Court" melodrama - couples making the legal separation while they are still caught up in the drama of their relationship.  They haven't separated emotionally, though they’re physically apart.  The emotional separation is the cornerstone for transformation and is my focus.

Usually, the family has lived with marital problems for some time. Discord may have increased or gone underground to maintain a cordial facade.  Gradually one or both spouses become willing to risk the unknown and pain of divorce - it appears preferable to the pain they’re already in. 

The cognitive or mental separation isn’t so much a decision to divorce, as a setting of intention, usually long preceding the actual decision. Generally, people set goals or a course of intent before they are emotionally and physically ready to carry them out, such as a job change or a move. The cognitive separation follows a period of frustration and unhappiness.  Once the decision is verbalized, the coping behavior and degree of crisis experienced will vary depending on the degree of preparation.  Naturally, it’s optimal if the family can talk openly and problem-solve the anticipated changes and solutions.  More often, there is high dysfunction and open communication never existed or has previously broken down.  Where there’s no talking, fear and anger intensify and reactivity escalates.  If the decision wasn't mutually arrived at, the spouse left is less prepared and experiences greater anger and depression; the one leaving feels guilty. Confusion usually sets in, and roles, rules, and parenting deteriorate.

The physical separation is simply that; however, couples may continually reunite until the emotional divorce is complete. 

The legal dissolution is the socio-economic and cultural separation.  As a lawyer and therapist, it is at once apparent that unresolved emotional conflicts fuel adversarial posturing. The legal divorce can be a long, drawn out battle in which couples stay connected through anger by breaking agreements and violating court orders, or by taking either intransigent or ever-changing positions, reflecting their inner conflict and inability to separate - trying to hold on, and at the same time let go.

The spiritual connection is ephemeral, without time or spatial reference.  Some suggest that once established, it’s never severed, and remains following the emotional separation. Strong emotions are absent; instead, it’s marked by feelings of unconditional love, caring, and vulnerability to the other person. 

The task of emotional separation involves unbonding romantic and dependent aspects of the relationship, and mourning.  This is the stage where growth and transformation unfold.  It includes disengagement of games, role definitions, and family expectations, and understanding why you selected your partner, why you stayed, and the "dance" you do over and over that doesn't work.  Growth comes from taking responsibility for the marital problems, rather than blaming, and finally changing that "dance."  It means seeing your partner clearly and risking new behavior, which will undoubtedly meet resistance from your mate, since you’re changing the dance steps and refusing to do the old routine.  It is different for everyone, but some examples are a passive spouse getting angry, or a volatile partner good-humoredly walking away from an argument; asking for what you really want and need; doing something important for yourself despite your partner’s objections; refusing to tolerate some unacceptable behavior of your spouse that you've complained about forever; taking a solo vacation; or refusing to do something you felt obligated to do, but have always resented.  So in emotionally unbonding, people really do become different, in the sense that they have a choice of new responses and behaviors. The drama subsides and marital structure gradually falls away.  Ideally, the physical and legal separation can then follow more smoothly.

If the unbonding process not successfully traversed, the emotional connections will undermine the couple's attempts to separate.  Many couples are still "married" years after the formal divorce, if only to maintain contact through court battles, or alternatively ritualistically celebrating holidays together ("for the children's sake").  One such couple, divorced many years, lived in separate houses on the same property, but maintained sufficient distance through legal hostilities.  Another lived as neighbors, because she needed to rescue him from his depressions, and he needed to drive her around.

Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Santa Monica, with a broad experience, working with individuals and couples for more than twenty years. Her focus is relationships and career goals, helping clients lead fuller lives. Formerly an attorney in the corporate and private sectors for 18 years, she's familiar with career challenges and transitions. Both in private practice and as a Senior Mediator in Los Angeles Superior Court, she mediated Divorce and Child Custody and Visitation Disputes.She's also worked extensively in the field of addiction and co-dependency at numerous hospitals and treatment facilities. Helping substance abusers and their families find recovery has been a rewarding part of her practice. She's familiar with 12-Step Programs, but has a client-centered philosophy, encouraging each person to determine his or her own abstinence and treatment goals.