Divorce: The four stages of recovery

Divorce: The four stages of recovery

Rather than viewing the end of your marriage as a tragedy, you can regard it as an opportunity for personal growth.

Myra felt blown away when her husband of 16 years suddenly announced he wanted a divorce. Her reaction was a classic sign of someone going through the first stage of the emotional process that experts call divorce recovery: disbelief. Upset and shocked, she kept asking herself, "Am I sane? Will I ever be all right again?"

For Myra -- and for you -- the answer to both questions is yes. From the day you consider ending your marriage to the moment you officially become single, you go through four stages. They usually take place in consecutive order. Knowing what happens during each stage can help you deal with your intense feelings and handle each difficult situation you face.

Stage One: denial. Divorce is a traumatic shock. At first you feel numb; it's a way of protecting yourself. No matter what circumstances provoked the crisis, you want to fix whatever is wrong between the two of you. If your husband is the one wanting out, you might think a few sessions with a marriage counselor will set things right. If you're the one leaving, you might feel a few counseling sessions might help your husband understand why you've got to go. It is helpful -- and healthy -- for the two of you to visit a qualified expert together. You'll better appreciate each other's point of view and accept your own grief. Whether or not you seek couples counseling, seeing a therapist on your own will help you take control of your emotions. You will begin moving out of denial and into the second stage.

Stage Two: self-confrontation. Stage Two begins the moment you believe that the divorce is actually going to happen. As you face the truth, your emotions abruptly shift. Instead of feeling numb you feel ashamed and hopeless. If you're the one being left, you reproach yourself, thinking you did something terribly wrong. You start asking yourself, "What will people think of me? How am I ever going to get through this?" Positive self-talk is the best answer. If you're the one who's been abandoned, say affirmations like this: "Our relationship was a worthwhile experience. I'm a good person. I have much to offer a new partner and the world." If you're the initiator, tell yourself, "What I'm doing is painful in the short run but better for everybody in the long run."

Stage Three: attack and counterattack. This stage is marked by emotional scenes: crying, screaming and mutual blame. The lawyers you've each retained may egg on your mutual rage toward each other. No matter whether you litigate or engage a mediator (a neutral third party), you have to draw up a divorce and custody agreement. When you work out a fair divorce agreement -- and take responsibility for your role in the divorce -- the attacking and counterattacking finally end.

Stage Four: acceptance. Hopefully, once you get your legal decree, the emotional divorce follows. You accept your status as a single person and forgive both yourself and your ex for mistakes both of you made. You organize a new household and get comfortable living alone. By getting on with your life you bring this stage to a successful close. Gayle Peterson, MSSW, Ph.D., is a family therapist specializing in parenting, marriage and family development. She has a private practice in Berkeley, California, and is the author of several books on prenatal preparation for childbirth, including her latest, "An Easier Childbirth." She is married with two adult children, and a one-year-old grandson. Her upcoming book is entitled, "Making Healthy Families."