One of the great gifts of Collaborative Practice is that it provides safety and opportunity for people to process emotions as their marriage or long-term relationship comes to an end. One of the privileges of practicing Collaborative divorce is when people seek us out to help them process during such an intimate moment of their lives.
Two years ago, a client of mine walked out in the middle of her first joint session. She described having experience an overwhelming feeling of pain and that she was angry over what felt like she was negotiating the terms of a death. Fortunately, the Collaborative process recognizes that emotions like this are normal, and allowed all to take a breather so she could process her emotions. Several months later, my client was optimistic and she and her husband arrived at a settlement that made sense for them and their family.
More recently, at the very end of another Collaborative divorce, one of the clients told us attorneys how momentous that day was, when she and her husband signed the final divorce papers. She told me and her lawyer that the day truly represented the death of the dream. She then thanked us both for helping her to that bittersweet point in manner that honored her, her husband, and their son.
As these clients noted, a divorce is the end of a dream, and it in many ways it can feel like a death. The fact that half of all first-time marriages end in divorce does not change the depth and profoundness of this transition. Most all divorces involve a very real grieving process.
Psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is perhaps the pre-eminent researcher on grief and grieving. In her research, she identified five stages of grieving. Those stages are: (1) Denial (2) Anger (3) Bargaining (4) Depression and (5) Acceptance. Most grieving people go through most or all of these stages. Not everyone goes through all stages, some spend more time in some stages, and people often repeat stages or are in more than one stage at a time. Add to that the anxiety and stress in a divorce caused by fears about the future.
These stages of grief, as well as fear, are normal in divorce. No matter how overwhelming it may feel in the moment, just because you are afraid or feel anger or depression today does not mean you will feel that way tomorrow. And, it is possible to go through all the emotions without even realizing that one is are grieving, even if that is actually what is occurring. As distant as it may seem, there are and will be solutions.
Adding to the dynamics is that, in a divorce, both spouses will be going through their individual grieving processes at their own separate paces, and have their own fears. It is therefore possible that one spouse has accepted the divorce while the other is in denial. Or that one spouse is in an anger stage while the other is in a depression stage. These emotions are nearly universal.
Because of the strong emotions that grieving people experience, divorcing people have better and worse days. If you are feeling anger, is this perhaps a bad day? Anger is one of the normal stages of grief. If your anger (for example) is part of a bigger process that you are passing through, does it make sense to make important life-long decisions based on your momentary anger?
While both spouses may not be ready to discuss a divorce settlement until they have processed some of their emotions, the fact that you or your spouse may be experiencing very strong emotions does not mean that you will be unable to reach an agreement in the future. It only means that you are going through a normal grieving process. A process such as Collaborative divorce, that takes account of these normal emotions and pacing differences, can be particularly well-equipped to allow you and your spouse the time to process the normal emotions that people experience in the grief process. The divorce settlement can proceed efficiently once the emotions have been processed to the point where they are not significantly in the way.
My client who couldn’t sit through the first joint session was in an anger stage of the grieving process. By giving her a safe space and time to process her emotions, she was able to move through that phase to a better place, where she could see her future. The result was a divorced couple where both parents were really able to co-parent well, and where her husband could show financial generosity towards her and their children. The support she received in her Collaborative divorce allowed her the time and opportunity to safely process her emotions, allowing for a better future for her, her ex-husband, and their children.