What to Expect When You're Divorcing
Are you and your spouse entering into the divorce process in 2019 or already in it? Are you finding the thought of it overwhelming and terrifying? This is normal and natural. For most people, the divorce process is a completely new experience because they’ve never been divorced before and it is a whole new world they have to figure out how to navigate. I hope to give you some information on what to expect in order to somewhat prepare you. Not all of it may apply to you but these are typical things I see when working with divorce. Of course, there is reading about it and then the reality of actually experiencing it.
This post will be geared more towards the person who doesn’t want the divorce. The next post will be geared towards the one who has asked for or initiated the divorce. Even if both have come to a mutual agreement that the divorce is happening, there is typically one person who doesn’t necessarily want it to happen. You may be saying or hearing statements such as, “I don’t want to stay married to a person who doesn’t want to be with me,” or, “If this is what he/she wants, I’m not going to fight it,” in these types of scenarios. This post also leans more towards the emotional process of the divorce rather than the legal and financial aspects because the emotional process is a major part of the divorce and it’s my wheelhouse!
So, what can you expect?
Emotions, emotions, emotions. And more emotions. Sadness, despair, devastation, anger, hurt, pain, humiliation, abandonment, betrayal, sorrow, heartbreak, hopelessness, fear, anxiety, isolation, shock, irritability, regret, rage, loneliness, denial, resentment, yearning, self-pity, overwhelm, and more. Emotions you’ve never experienced are likely to occur. As discussed in the post on how to support a friend through a divorce, divorce is primarily a grief process. You are losing the foundation of your life and have to grieve the loss of the current reality and the future dreams you had for your marriage and family. These emotions will shift and change as you go through the divorce process, but at the beginning, it will feel like an endless pit of negative emotions. The emotions will also change hourly at the beginning but expect the whole process to be a rollercoaster.
These feelings need to be acknowledged, named, felt, and worked through. If you are the type of person who tends to stuff emotions down, expect that you’re either going to be constantly finding ways to avoid these (which usually results in negative coping mechanisms) or they’re going to give you no choice but to face them because they are intense and powerful. And I do promise that if you try to avoid them, you’re likely to be engaging in destructive behaviors which you will eventually have to confront because the emotions won’t disappear until you work through them! It may be very confusing what you’re experiencing and others around you may be confused. You may not feel like yourself and as though things are out of control. Crying is a natural response and our body’s way of processing grief. This may be intense sobbing or tears flowing out of your eyes seemingly out of nowhere and at random times. Don’t worry, if you allow yourself to cry, you won’t cry forever. Some people are hesitant to open the tear gates because they know how deeply sad they are and they are concerned that they won’t be able to stop crying.
Feeling like a failure.
This is one I hear quite often from clients. “I am a failure” or “I failed at my marriage.” I ask clients to define what success means in regards to marriage? Most people define the success of marriage simply by the number of years they were married. Never mind the fact that a couple could be married for 40 years and absolutely miserable, to our cultural standards and values, that’s a success! I challenge people to look at it differently. No one gets married thinking that they’re going to get divorced. (Well, I shouldn’t overgeneralize… there are schemers out there, but the majority of the time, people marry because they are in love and want to spend the rest of their life with someone). Both people made vows and commitments because, at that time, they were in love and had many reasons to believe that they found their lifelong partner. And then life happened and here you are 2, 6, 10, 15, 20, 30 years later having lived a lot of life together and realized that marriages and partnership are complex and challenging. It is always a dynamic between two people and the health of the marriage does not lie on one person’s shoulders.
What were you able to accomplish over your time together? Creating and raising children together, supporting careers, taking vacations, making memories, navigating life’s challenges, having fun experiences, etc. Those are all “successes” or “wins” over the course of the marriage that need to be treasured and held on to. There is so much emotion and grief in divorce because you love someone and care about them. All of the good does not have to go out the window because the time together has come to an end. It may take a while to get to the place of being able to frame it this way, but if you can work towards valuing what was, it will help you adjust to end of this chapter in your life.
Shame and/or guilt.
Religious values often come into play with divorce. Many people will say they do not “believe in divorce” because of their religious belief system. This can lead to feelings of shame around the fact that it is happening or invigorate you to want to do everything in your power to fight for the marriage, go to counseling, try to convince your spouse to stay, and grab onto anything you can to prevent it from happening. You may feel guilty if you don’t fight it and “allow” it to happen. Shame and guilt can also be spurred by feeling as though you’re not meeting the cultural and societal expectations of staying married forever, hence you’ve failed or you’re not good enough. Or maybe as the child of divorced parents, you were determined not to repeat that and felt as though you were doing everything you could to protect your marriage and your children from experiencing the same thing.
Shame is “I am a bad person,” and guilt is “I’ve done something wrong.” If you are experiencing shame and guilt related to your divorce, I encourage you to do some challenging around these belief systems that are leading to these emotions. Are you really a bad person? Where is the evidence? Have you done something wrong? We all make mistakes in relationships. This tends to go back towards the failure beliefs described above. Work towards a place of acceptance and forgiveness – of your self and your spouse. Reach out to a counselor and leaders in your church to help you work through these topics and challenge your belief systems because staying stuck in shame and guilt will not allow you to move forward with your life.
Worry about what others will think.
Many people keep the fact that they are going through a divorce a secret. Or they put off telling friends and family members because of fear - “what will they think?” They are worried that people will judge them, not understand, be unsupportive, etc. They are concerned that people will feel sorry for them or they will be a source of workplace gossip. They try to put on a brave face that everything is ok, but it is pretty difficult to hide something this devastating. In my experience, most of the time when clients eventually tell friends and family members, they actually receive support and empathy from others. They don’t get what they feared, instead, they get a support system. Divorce is so common that we all know someone who has been divorced. We know either first hand or from observation how difficult and painful it is. People around us want to support us and be there for us in difficult times. And if you do have people in your life who are not supportive and are not going to be a positive resource for you, then distance yourself from them during this time and find others who will be.
Feel at a disadvantage.
Your spouse may have been thinking about divorce for a long time and processed things internally. Or you may have been going to counseling together and this was an unexpected outcome. Regardless of how you got here, it is common to feel as though your spouse has a lead on adjusting to the divorce. It may appear as though it is not affecting them emotionally because they are further down the road than you are. They’ve thought about future living arrangements, they’ve thought about the timeline for filing for divorce, they’ve thought about co-parenting schedules, etc. because this is what’s been playing in their mind for some time now. “Is this the path that I want and what does it look like? Can I start planning that and see imagine how that future feels?” Whereas you are just at the point in the road where divorce is now a real and serious topic and it may feel scary that they have thought about things and you’re worried they’re going to have an advantage in the legal process. It may feel as though they are rushing this along and you’re panicking that it is even happening. This can get evened out with the help of professionals such a divorce coach, a divorce/separation counselor, or attorneys that are skilled at navigating and balancing the dynamics of divorce.
Overwhelm with tasks.
Whew – people don’t realize how intertwined their lives are until they start the divorce process. There will be lots of documentation to gather. Tax returns, W-2s, pay stubs, mortgage statements, credit card and bank statements, insurance policies, retirement plans, stocks and investment accounts, documents for loans (cars, boats, student loans, HELOCs), medical debts, all expenses related to the house, and the list continues. Typically, the attorneys or team helping you with the divorce will want to look at 2-5 years of financial history.
Preparing budgets. Often times there is one person in the marriage who has managed the finances and the other has not been involved as much. Or they haven’t needed a budget or perhaps not having a budget led to marital conflict. Whatever it is, for many the idea of tracking all income and projecting their future expenses based on speculations is overwhelming and they often time want to avoid it. But it is a necessary part of this process for many reasons.
You may decide you want to sell the marital residence. This requires getting the house ready, hiring a real estate agent, making necessary repairs, putting it on the market, going through the selling process, securing a new place to live, packing up, and moving. Moving is a stressful event without the added stressor of a divorce.
All of these tasks, plus scheduling meetings with professionals and making decisions about your future are overwhelming. Meanwhile, you have to tend to the necessary daily tasks of raising kids, working, cooking, cleaning, mowing the lawn, etc. Too much!! Ask for help. Let your support system help you!
In the divorce process, you have numerous decisions to make about your future, which can be exhausting. Which legal process do we want to use – what are our options? Where do I want to live? Am I going to be able to afford it? What do we want our co-parenting time to looks like? Does he want Christmas Eve, does she want Christmas day? How do we split the retirement accounts? What do we do with investment properties? Who is going to pay for the credit card debt? Who is getting the big leather couch downstairs? What amount do I need for spousal support? And some decisions are made even more difficult by the fact that they are informed by future budgets made on estimates of expenses and you don’t have 100% accurate information. So. Many. Decisions. Take them one at a time and rely on a team of professionals to help.
Adjustment to many changes and transitions.
Everything changes when divorce enters your life. Your family system and structure get rearranged, your daily routine changes, your social circles may change (losing some and adding others), new living space, different standard of living, you may not see your kids every day or have them on all the holidays, your role and identity as a husband or wife changes, separate family vacations (or maybe you still do them together – it’s possible!), seemingly mundane things like where you work out may change… it is an entirely new landscape when you rebuild your life. And as we know, change can be difficult and most people don’t like it. Reach out to your support systems, keep your healthy coping mechanisms in place (exercise, meditation, hobbies, journaling) and if you can find anything positive about the changes (maybe your new house has a feature or room you’ve always wanted), then hold on to those elements and try to find the little joys in life.
Children will be impacted.
A question people often wrestle with and ask me before they decide to divorce or when they are discussing how to share the news is “How will my children be impacted?” or “Are they going to be ok?” My response is Yes, they will be impacted and how they respond is most importantly influenced by the level of conflict between you and your spouse before and after the divorce. The divorce is changing their entire world as well and they need to go through their own grief process. However, the negative impact can be mitigated if the adults can navigate the process with respect, cooperation, and put their children’s well-being first. Many people will say that is their intent and then act the opposite. I will go into further detail on this in upcoming posts because it is a topic all on its own but know the divorce does not have to be a long-lasting trauma in their life if you and your spouse navigate it in a healthy manner.
Don’t go through this alone. Reach out and seek support systems through therapy, friends, co-workers, family, church, divorce recovery groups, and seek qualified professionals to help you and your spouse navigate this divorce in a way that is not going to destroy your family.
The East Tennessee Collaborative Alliance is a group of professionals committed to and trained in Collaborative Divorce. We help families navigate this process in a healthy way. Even if you do not do a full collaborative divorce, choosing attorneys, financial professionals, and coaches that understand this approach can make a huge difference in your divorce experience.
I am available to provide divorce/separation counseling to the couple, individual counseling, divorce coaching, mediation, and collaborative divorce. How can I help you? I’d be honored to hear from you.