If you're going through a marital separation, then you're probably experiencing a full range of emotions that you may come to realize parallel what you felt if you ever mourned the loss of a loved one. The well-known “five stages of grief,” developed by David Kessler and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, apply to separation and divorce, too. These stages, in varying orders of appearance, are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Legal stages of the divorce process will, however, happen in fixed order. Understanding the emotional and legal stages of marital separation and adopting coping strategies can help stabilize your emotions when your world has been shaken.
5 Emotional Stages of Separation
Coping with denial: Your marriage may be the most important relationship in your life, so it's no wonder you may be denying that your separation will last. It can be difficult to plow your energies into other activities when so much of your emotional energy is invested in your marriage. But the happy irony is that your life consists of other relationships and activities (work, school and community projects) that could function as an emotional life preserver as you navigate your separation.
Coping with anger: This emotion may be the most difficult of the five to keep on a low flame, and if you do, it may flare up when you least expect it. At times like these – when you feel consumed with anger toward your spouse or your predicament – you should channel anger into productive, physical activities. Try walking, running, playing sports or even blasting your favorite music and dancing until your anger wanes.
Coping with bargaining: Some hopeful souls convert their private thoughts into an actual proposal: “If I do or change such-and-such, can we get back together?” Fighting for a relationship and being willing to compromise are wonderful qualities, but many couples find that it's too late for such proposals to work. Instead of exercising futile bargaining, use your energy to develop a new and healthy post-breakup relationship, especially if you have children together.
Coping with depression: You wouldn't be human if you didn't feel lonely and depressed over your separation. And there probably won't be one way – and only one way – that will help you successfully counteract these feelings so they don't consume you. Try spending extra time with friends and loved ones. Find 15 minutes each day for exercise, which releases endorphins – the “feel good” chemical – in your brain. Treat yourself to a shopping trip or other indulgence. Or, make an appointment with a therapist. Do what feels good and right for you so you don't withdraw from life. Because, remember, you still have one to live.
Coping with acceptance: You may dislike the prospect of facing life without your partner, but at this stage, you're beginning to accept it. It's the new normal. The risk at this stage is that you'll insist on keeping life patterns unchanged. So take your time. Try to completely alter old habits. Embrace learning how to do some things for yourself, and reach out to others for help. Now is the time to make new connections and try new activities, realizing that if they don't work out, it's no big deal. Just move on to the next adventure.
4 Legal Stages of Divorce
Filing for divorce: The formal name of the document is a “petition for divorce,” which legally informs the court that one of you is seeking a divorce. Most states have a waiting period before a divorce can be finalized. Often, it's 60 days, but it usually takes both parties longer to reconcile the divorce terms.
Gathering and sharing information: A couple must disclose all their assets and liabilities and draft a parenting plan if they have children. If a divorce is going to get ugly and protracted, this is usually the stage where tone is set. In some cases, an attorney must launch an adjunct “discovery” stage, which basically forces the other party to produce documents or submit to depositions.
Resolution: For many couples, reaching a formal “marital settlement agreement” follows informal negotiations, formal negotiations and sometimes mediation. Once the agreement is reached, it must be submitted to the judge so he can sign it and finalize the divorce.
Wrapping up: Call them “details,” but they're hardly small ones, such as re-titling vehicles and properly dividing retirement assets. Bigger problems loom if one party is unhappy with a judge's ruling and decides to appeal through a “motion to correct errors.”