Divorce and the Stages of Loss

t-divorce-marriage

An Interview With Norman Wright.

Norman Wright, an expert in helping people recover from the losses of life, has addressed the pain and loss that divorced people experience. In the following interview, he explains to CaringChurches what divorced people go through and the special challenges they face.

Why is there so much pain for those going through separation or divorce?

WRIGHT: Well, when anybody separates or divorces, it’s like the shattering of dreams. The hopes that this [marriage] is going to be life-long are no longer there. There is a tremendous amount of pain. Part of this pain is due to the fear of the unknown. What is going to happen? There are so many loose ends. Plus, you’re out of control in a sense. And being in control is something that people want to have as part of their life, especially for men. Being out of control is one of the greatest stressors for a man. If he’s involved in a divorce and it’s not of his liking, not of his desire, then this is a tremendous pressure on him.

What types of losses are there for those going through a divorce?

WRIGHT: Well, to begin, you have the loss of a dream, the loss of a hope, the loss of a companion. There is even the loss of your friends. Some of your friends don’t know how to respond to you. Your social group begins to diminish and fade away.

There’s the loss of roles, the loss of financial support. Then there are the children-all the losses that occur in terms of your time with them. There is also the loss of other family involvement as well. You might have bonded well with your partner’s parents, but now that could be a strain. It’s like each day you discover new losses that you never planned on. One day you wake up and think, “Oh my partner’s going to be picking up the laundry.” No they’re not. That’s your job now.

Which of these losses are the hardest to deal with?

WRIGHT: That’s difficult to say. It depends where the greatest attachment was in the relationship. The loss of the person and the realization that I’m now going to be divorced are difficult. Also there is the loss of face as I would call it. What will other people think? What are they going to believe about me? And then there could even be a loss of faith. Where was God through all this? What’s going to happen to me now spiritually? Those are all factors.

In your writings you have stated that divorce is sometimes a harder loss to deal with than the death of a mate because there isn’t any finality or closure. Explain that.

WRIGHT: That’s right. When you lose a loved one in death, you go through various stages, and gradually you see that there is stabilization and closure. You come to the place where you can remember the person, and there’s not that clap of pain that accompanies each memory. Well, the divorce process itself is often very difficult. There’s a lot of hurt that occurs and a lot of anger that comes out.

Then there are the children. They keep you involved with that other person for the remainder of your life. One man shared with me that he had been divorced for thirteen years, and once a month he would have the children for the weekend. He said, “Norm, when I take them back on Sunday night, it’s like I’m experiencing that loss fresh all over again, and I have to breathe.”

You discussed the stages a person goes through in dealing with the losses of divorce. What are they?

WRIGHT: The first stage that we go through in any kind of loss or crisis is shock-a feeling of numbness. I think it’s there to protect us from the sharpness of the pain that we’re going to experience. The shock could last two or three days. It could last two or three weeks. And it might even come back again. But once the shock lifts, then we’re plunged into the actual sense of grieving where we experience all the emotions. They come like a jumbled web intertwined with one another. One portion of the day you could be feeling down and depressed. And then there’s the anxiety, and then the anger, and then the fear comes. And once you get through that, often you move into blame. With blame, you start to look for somebody who is responsible other than yourself. You might realize that “Yes, I did some things that weren’t the best, but somebody else is really responsible.”

And so you want to get the anger out on them, whether it’s the person, whether it’s friends who interfered, or in-laws. It could be God himself. And when anger gains a foothold, then we’re going to be dealing with resentment, that feeling of ill will towards the other person. And we might want to see something actually happen to them. Stubborn in our response, we then become bitter. The problem with resentment is that we’ve allowed the other person to take control of our emotions or our feelings.

You have identified some mistakes people often make during the grief and blame stages. Let’s talk about each of these. First one on your list is compulsive behaviors. What is that?

WRIGHT: Compulsive behaviors-any kind of behavior that begins to take control of us. For example, eating. We just continue to eat and eat and eat. Drinking is also often a problem that can occur at this time. The person who has a tendency toward any kind of compulsive behavior or addiction might see this behavior come to the forefront even more so because of the trauma they are going through at this time.

Another mistake you have identified is generalizing. What is that?

WRIGHT: Oh, that’s so easy to do. For example, “All men are animals.” Or “Can never trust another woman.” It goes back to our self talk. Our self talk begins to move into a negative vein. This one experience contaminates the rest of our life. I talk to a lot of people where this occurs.

You have also mentioned self-fulfilling prophecies.

WRIGHT: Oh, that’s a classic. We create these things that we don’t want to have happen. It’s like saying, “I’m not sure that I can trust another dating relationship, because they’ve got it in for me.” And so the suspiciousness actually could cause us to behave in certain ways that bring about the very thing we fear the most.

We could actually do this with the children in the first marriage. We know the kids aren’t really going to be with us a lot, and so when they come we are very harsh in our discipline and inadvertently push our own children away. Then we say, “They don’t like to come here because it’s not fun to be with mom or dad.”

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Another mistake is unrealistic expectations. How is this a factor?

WRIGHT: We sometimes have expectations for our self or for another person. Maybe the expectation is negative, maybe it is overly positive. I have talked to people who’ve gone through a divorce who say, “You know, I’m sure that this will never happen again, because I’m looking for this type of a person and I’m going to be so careful.” The expectations that they have are for an individual who’s like Superman or Superwoman. But they just don’t exist out there.

Another mistake is wallowing in self-pity. What is that?

WRIGHT: Well, I think whenever anyone divorces there is that tendency to feel sorry for yourself. In self-pity, you’re focusing just on the deficits, the negatives, and the pain. And pretty soon you come to believe that self-pitying statement. You begin to feel as though you are a victim and martyr. That is going to affect how you receive other people and how you respond to them as well.

Another mistake you describe is something you call revenge loving. What is that?

WRIGHT: Revenge loving is going out with a number of other people and flaunting it before your partner. Letting him know how many individuals are taking you out. Or you’re taking them out. Unfortunately, it sometimes means getting involved way too soon or becoming promiscuous. It’s actually to the person’s own detriment when they become involved with this behavior.

Is this what is commonly called rebound relationships?

WRIGHT: With some of the people I counsel, they’ll say, “Norm, when can I start dating?” And they’re not even divorced yet. And I’ll come back and say, “Well, in the eyes of the state, and in the eyes of God, are you single or married?” And they kind of stall around and say, “Well, you know, technically I’m still married, but for all good purposes, it’s over.” And I come back with a question again, “Are you married or single?” And they say, “Well, no, I’m married.” “Ok, do married people date other people? No. Wait until you’re divorced and then give yourself at least one year until you even consider dating. Otherwise, you will tend to contaminate the next relationship with all the pain and the issues that are occurring in this relationship.”

Next mistake on your list is idealization. What do you mean by that?

WRIGHT: Well, when you start to date again you could look at somebody and project into them traits that aren’t there. You could look at somebody and say, “Why didn’t I have somebody like this the first time around? They’re so gracious and generous and sensitive and caring.”

Well, is it that we want to find those traits there, or are they really, really there? That’s why the best type of relationship, whether it’s getting married for the first time or the second time, is one that generates out of friendship first and then moves toward the romantic type of relationship.

What about the goodbye stage?

WRIGHT: Well, the goodbye is something that’s a recurring experience. You might think that you’ve said goodbye to a person and all of the sudden memories come in. You visit a restaurant you used to go to together and here comes the grieving all over again. And whether you lose a person by death or divorce, you will be ambushed by grief, and you have to allow for that. You see, when you lose a close loved one in death, the normal length of time to recover is about two years. If it’s a tragic death, it could go up to three or four years. So, it’s hard for me to say you will recover in a year or two years, or three years, because it depends upon the depth of the relationship, the history you had, and whether you wanted the divorce to occur or not.

In order to say goodbye, you have to work through all of your feelings-especially anger. Now, this is where I really encourage people to write non-mailed angry letters that are not edited. I mean just pour out your heart. Just get it out. Sit in a room and have an empty chair in front of you. Put the person’s name there and read that letter out loud. You might need to do this several times so that the anger is driven out of your life.

Another thing I have them do is write a letter of forgiveness. It might be, “Dear So and So, I forgive you for the way you betrayed me.” C.S. Lewis was once asked the question, “How do you know you’ve forgiven another person? And I love his answer, “You know you’ve forgiven someone when, in your heart, you begin to wish them well.” I think it helps to write a goodbye letter and read it out loud. Sometimes people send these. Sometimes it’s just the writing of it, the reading of it, and the giving of it to the Lord asking Him to relinquish and release this person. It’s when the goodbyes are said that you can turn the corner and begin to move ahead.

Describe the stages of rebuilding and resolution.

WRIGHT: Rebuilding and resolution go hand in hand. It’s when you start to look forward to your life again in a new way. You are more forward looking than backward looking. And there’s a sense of hope that yes, there’s meaning in life. I can go on with my life. And in spite of the fact that I am caring for the three children myself and I’m exhausted most of the time-yes, there is hope. I have a sense of direction for my future. That’s what those last two stages are really all about.

Some may not see any hope for getting to that stage. What would you say to them now if it looks bleak?

WRIGHT: Well, I think that’s a very normal response. They feel like, “Hope, for me? I’m going to be stuck here.” And it’s true, they will feel that way. But it’s almost like you develop a new criteria of measuring progress and growth and hope. If yesterday, I had an hour where my hopes were not dominated about this issue-where I was able to look around and enjoy the flowers, when last week I didn’t even have one hour-we have a start. We begin to build and then the next week there’s two hours, then three hours and then a whole day. This is the way you begin to measure that progress.

Originally seen at ChurchInitiative.org.

Copyright © 2003 by the author and/or CaringChurches.com and The Church Initiative, Inc. unless noted otherwise in the text of the article above. Used with permission.

Norman Wright is the author of Recovering from the Losses of Life, Always Daddy’s Girl, Making Peace With Your Past and many other books. He is founder and director of Christian Marriage Enrichment in Tustine, California. Dr. Wright is a popular seminar speaker.

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