If you're among the one-third of Americans who have divorced, you're likely bearing deep emotional wounds.
Even if you're escaping a terrible situation, the effects of divorce can be devastating. Is there any hope for healing? Psychologist Thomas Whiteman, co-author of Starting Over (with Randy Petersen, Piñon Press, 2001) identifies six stages of divorce recovery. We've expanded the stages, adding some suggestions for moving through them. As you complete each stage, you'll be one step closer to recovery:
- Denial. Pretending the divorce never happened or downplaying its importance. While "denial" sounds bad, it's much like physical shock after an accident: The body shuts down until it can better deal with the pain. At this stage, you may need individual counseling with a minister or a professional counselor. Counseling can help you come to terms with the pain step-by-step as the initial shock of the divorce wears off.
- Anger. Perceived or real injustice about the divorce; it can either be a controlled burn or out-of-control rage. Once you're past the initial pain, being angry about your situation or at others involved is normal. It may even be justified (was the ex-spouse abusive or did he or she cheat?). That doesn't mean, however, that it's any less destructive. You need to control your anger and channel it toward healing. Maybe it's time to train for a marathon or paint the house! If you can't find a healthy outlet for your anger, seek counseling.
- Bargaining. Desperately trying anything to gain back the spouse (jealousy, a makeover, promises to never do something again, a vacation together, etc.). At this stage, you might benefit from a support group. Check out local churches to find one near you. People who have "been there, done that" can remind you in a supportive way that it's probably too late for quick fixes at this point. They'll help you realize that bargaining will likely set you up for a fall when a reconciliation doesn't work out (and the group will be there to catch you if you do fall or to help you put the pieces together after the landing).
- Depression. An empty emotional tank; commonly displays itself in physical ways (sleep disturbances, changed eating patterns, irritability, exhaustion, etc.). Again, it's a normal part of divorce to grieve the loss of your marriage. At this stage, you might want to find an accountability partner — of the same gender — who will listen. You're looking for someone who won't say, "Snap out of it!" but who'll encourage, "Just get through this day or this week, and I'll be here for you." This might be an established friend or it might be someone new you meet through your support group.
- Acceptance. Recognizing the past is past; it's time to live in the present, and perhaps get ready to step forward into the future. This step occurs like a "light bulb" moment. It's an internal realization not easily brought about by outside influences. Yet a support group might help if you feel stuck in a previous stage and can't accept what's happened.
- Forgiveness. Releasing animosity toward the ex-spouse and establishing new relationships with healthy patterns and effective boundaries. For this final stage, a support group can be invaluable. Again, the "been there, done that" characteristic of a group can help you make sure the new relationship with your ex-spouse is a healthy one, grounded in the present (not trying to put the relationship back together) and aiming toward the future. This is the deep-cleaning stage, and a group can lift you up if you have feelings of emptiness (a resignation that the divorce is final) or renewed anger (if your ex-spouse doesn't accept your apologies).