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Step 5: Grow Through Grief During Divorce (12 Step Divorce Recovery)

By Lisa Brick

The death of a marriage brings the loss of hopes and dreams, the loss of family life as we knew it, a loss of our sense of self, significant financial loss, and often the loss of friends and community. Recovery from these losses so we can accommodate, use this new place to grow and even thrive, takes feeling and processing the pain involved.   

Everyone going through divorce, regardless of if you are the person who decided to leave or the person who had divorce thrust upon you, is emotionally impacted by divorce.  How effectively you can accept and feel the emotions involved and process through them determines now only how healthy you emerge but also how likely you will be able to create a healthier set of circumstances than the situation you are leaving.   

Those who are unwilling or unable to feel and process these emotions are doomed to recreate the issues that upended their marriages in future relationships and end up equally dissatisfied.  The way that this pain is valuable is if it is used for your ultimate benefit by feeling and processing it thoroughly.  

Feeling pain is not the same as from acting out of it.  Feeling white hot fury at discovering a betrayal is quite different from calling up your spouse and screaming at him or her.  Feeling rejected is different from telling your spouse that if he/she goes ahead with this divorce you will take him/her for everything he/she’s got. While these examples are extremes even less dramatic behavior can still make your divorce more expensive emotionally and financially. Learning how to feel your feelings in your body, step back to breath and regain a sense of balance, and then taking the time you need to respond in a way that will benefit you rather than damage the situation will allow you to keep divorce drama to the minimum. 

Knowing what you can expect while navigating through divorce allows you to prepare for what you will experience.  There is a universal process that human beings experience when processing a loss and which you will experience during the process of divorce.  This experience has been studied extensively, most famously by Swiss American psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the first to describe the process of grieving in her seminal book On Death and Dying published in 1969. In it she outlined the five stages of grieving as:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Depression  
  • Ambivalence 
  • Acceptance

These stages are not in order of their appearance.  They are all part of the process and can occur simultaneously or individually at any time as you process the emotions that arise due to the major changes you are experiencing.

The stage of denial occurs as the mind attempts to protect itself from having to deal with change when it feels overwhelming.  It is a useful temporary protection mechanism.  It is a devastating long term strategy.  While this is an understandable initial response, it suspends your ability to be proactive, to begin to position yourself strategically to make your divorce process as smooth as possible with as beneficial a settlement as possible. When you find yourself in denial understand why you are there and be compassionate to yourself.  

As it becomes evident that denial does not change what is happening the emotions that denial temporarily suppressed take hold, the stage of anger arises.  After all, life was not supposed to turn out like this.  Anger and it’s companion resentment are emotional gatekeepers that  block the deeper and more painful emotions of loss, sadness, fear, and guilt until you are ready to experience them.  

There comes a time when all of the emotions of the divorce process are in play, as well as the changes and added demands that come with it.  The result is a temporary slowdown or shutdown due to overwhelm.  This is commonly recognized as the stage of depression.  For the time being the feelings, the added responsibilities, the inability to know what will happen or when, the ricocheting moods and actions of those around you, are too much to manage and your “operating system” slows down considerably. This is not a sign of weakness.  This is a stage any complex system experiences when it is experiencing too much input at one time. With understanding support depression is a temporary phase of the grieving process.  Just as a computer needs more computing power to be effective at increasingly complex tasks the human being needs additional computing power at such times, best accomplished by opening yourself up to a select group of others who are able to tune into what you need, believe in you, and support you as you need to be supported.  

Ambivalence is a confusing stage.  Emotions are all over the place.  It is a time when you are experiencing simultaneously conflicting thoughts and feelings about your situation.  It’s an unavoidable human reaction that accompanies complex life changes.  As you cycle in and out of this phase you may feel anger and relief, hope and despair, hate and love, fear and a sense of liberation, sadness and joy.  During this phase you both think and feel everything and don’t know what to think and feel at the same time. There are actually aspects of what is happening that do not fit neatly into the categories of good and bad. It is here too that your support system is important to remind you that you are not crazy, that this is an unavoidable phase of the grieving process, and it too is temporary.  

Acceptance is where the confusion begins to subside and adaptation becomes evident. There could not be acceptance without the other phases.  Acceptance is not only acceptance of the situation but the deeper emotions that come with it, the feelings of fear, deep deep sadness that come from surrendering the original hopes and dreams you held for your relationship, your family, and your future.  Feeling emotions allows for their release.  Releasing them frees up space within to begin seeing where you are and what resources you have to begin anew.  It is not giving up or giving in.  It is recognizing what is real, surveying what you have to work with, and eventually beginning to build a new present and future for yourself and your family.  

While it would be nice and predictable if the grieving process was linear, if it started with anger and worked through to acceptance, it is not so clean.  Anyone grieving a loss can anticipate moving back and forth between the five stages for as long as it takes to process each emotion underlying the stages thoroughly.  Unfortunately, resisting the pain of loss prolongs how long you suffer and prevents you from moving on.  

No two people grieve in the same way. There is no “one size fits all” approach to recovering from the grief of divorce. This is why it is important that you have healthy support while you are going through this process, however long it takes.  Having a support team helps you  to:

  • accept the ups and downs, 
  • keeps you from diving too deeply or staying too long in unhealthy perspectives,
  • reminds you of what’s real vs what your fears are, and 
  • keeps you focused on what you can do to mitigate the challenges and optimize possibilities.  

A failed marriage is an opportunity to learn about yourself, what you didn’t see and why, and how you can move into the future with new skills and perspectives to improve your life and the lives of those around you.  The grieving process is the route to get from where you are to a healthy next place, even if it hurts.  

Enroll in the 12-Step Divorce Recovery Course NOWWe invite you to open your mind and heart to the concepts, tools and perspectives put forth in this guide. No matter what stage of divorce you are in, each step offers valuable wisdom to navigate your divorce in a clear, present and responsive manner while transforming yourself and your life.





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