Nothing nips at the Achille’s heel of normalcy quite like impending separation or divorce. A move to a new home is just that – an enormously chaotic and stressful task, but in the end, a relocation. A job change is fraught with nervy uncertainty, learning curves and new personalities — and it’s directly linked to survival, as so many are experiencing during the Covid-19 crisis — but as long as a job change doesn’t end in job loss, it involves the professional aspect of life, not all of them. You may not love your new coworkers and colleagues, but if your personal love life is intact, it’s much easier to push through professional stressors. A separation or divorce, though, usually encompasses all these aspects and more; it’s frequently a sandstorm of fear, pain, stress and emotional severings, unfamiliar decisions, diminished financial security – the list goes on.
It can be nearly impossible to see our way to the next step in such a maelstrom, let alone out of it. It’s helpful to know that this is a common experience; it is normal for life to be completely abnormal for a while, for extremes to take over, for us to be unrecognizable to ourselves for periods of time.
It is even more helpful to have a guide through the chaos, to know that there are emotional stages of separation common to all of us. Identifying these and trusting that they’re real can act like a lead rope in a blizzard, something to hang onto as we make our blinded and blind-sided way from the old doorway that is closing behind us, to the new one just opening.
Emotional Stages of Separation: Fear and Denial
We hear about fight or flight as a reaction to fear, but freezing is another, and with that response comes denial – a state of mind that so many of us are distressingly good at. Being afraid of any part of separation and divorce is understandable; it’s a rare person who can stare unflinchingly at that hydra of change and loss, betrayal, abandonment and all the other painful states of being that come with it. So, we freeze up and hide from it under a blanket of denial. We can stay under that blanket for a long time, often years, before we finally face that we need to leave a marriage.
Negotiating (a.k.a. Bargaining)
While these emotional stages of separation don’t necessarily happen in this order (and many of us cycle through repeat performances in more than one stage), bargaining or negotiating the inevitable choice usually follows denial. When we finally pull off the blanket of denial and look at the truth, we often try to bargain for a version of it that is more livable in the short-term, and less daunting. We make trades: “If he (does this) or (doesn’t do) that for the next three months, I’ll throw away the divorce attorney’s phone number,” or “If we can get through R’s recital and K’s graduation without fighting about it, then I’ll have a sign that we can make it work.”
This is the bargaining stage of separation, and it’s kind of like the lighter version of denial: you’re about to cross the Rubicon but you’re digging your heels in and looking for a way around it.
Bargaining is normal, but eventually you recognize that you’re playing a delaying game with yourself.
The anger stage of separation is where, between fight or flight, the fight response makes a grand entrance, and it is a diva in spurs.
This is where we finally recognize that it’s over and we have to make this choice and we resent it; we are angry that it didn’t work, that we have to surrender that dream, that our spouse did something so intolerable that we can’t live with it anymore. This is the stage where we sometimes let the crazy out a little, where the “hell hath no fury” rips, where we place blame anywhere besides ourselves. We throw things, over-serve ourselves during cocktail hour and beyond, and have to apologize to people for taking their heads off for innocent remarks.
Generally accepted advice during this emotional stage of separation is to let yourself feel it, provided you’re not being self-destructive or actively taking it out on the people around you, particularly your children, who are going through their own emotional response to the upheaval in their lives. Feel it and let it be vented, but with someone safe.
For women who have come out of abusive marriages or have been repressed, silenced or psychologically controlled in any way by their spouses, allowing your anger to have a voice is especially important.
But, it’s also important to remember that anger can be destructive, particularly when paired with habits that can become addictive or corrosive (i.e. alcohol, cigarettes, other drugs, shopping sprees, etc.). So, allow it, but best to find a healthy outlet for it (journaling, working out, or talking with a coach or therapist, etc.) and not let it too far off the chain.
This is the darkest part of any loss or change, and like the anger stage of separation, we’re encouraged to give it room and let ourselves feel it. Grieving the loss of a marriage, the ending of a dream, the alteration of a love to something much cooler, distant or reduced to ashes is healthy, even though it feels like we won’t survive it. Grief is awful; there’s a million ways to describe it, but boiled down to basics, it’s the stage you don’t think you’re going to survive. It is the stage that should lead you to a therapist or divorce coach (who may recommend a therapist), even if you feel like you can survive it. A professional can help you reroute your thinking and refocus, and can help you determine if your grief is morphing into a longer-term depression. In other words, allow yourself to feel it, but don’t allow yourself to wallow or stay in it too long without some support. Friends are wonderful but they are not professionals.
Altogether the very best stage of separation — even more so than the moving-on stage because of the contrast between it and the rending angst, acceptance is when your shoulders drop, your whole body sighs in relief, the sun comes out again. By now, we’ve gained some insight and perspective, as well, and while we might still miss some things, regret some things or have anger, we’ve embraced the new reality and are beginning to find the many gifts in it.
Celebration and Moving On
This is the stage where random pieces of furniture combine in geometrically fascinating ways with a hot new guy who may even make your ex-husband look like a bit of a candy-ass — which frankly, may not quite make it all worth it (for all of us), but it certainly makes us feel pretty fabulous about writing chapter two.
Jennifer Bent is a freelance writer and former journalist living on the West Coast. Nicknamed Verbose at a young age, she loves word craft but has to keep a short leash on her fondness for the profane. Jennifer enjoys her cat’s input on her rough drafts (talk about snark) and the freedom of being her own partner. Connect with Jennifer here.
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