People in divorce go through the grieving process at different paces — which can sometimes make for even the most well-intentioned act of kindness seem cruel.
Often in my practice I see couples who want an “amicable” divorce. While this means different things to different people, at the very least, it means that they want to end their marriage in a way that allows them to function well as co-parents, and they would like to respect each other at the end of the process. That’s all well and good, and we can probably get them what they want, IF they’re both in the same emotional place about the divorce.
Divorce is the death of a relationship, or at least it’s a time when the nature of that relationship is going to change radically. Just like any other death, there is a grieving process that everyone must go through. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the leading author on this topic, identifies the five stages of grief as:
Denial: “This is not really happening – I won’t allow it.”
Anger: “How could you do this to me?”
Bargaining: “I’ll change. I’ll do anything to get you back.”
Depression: “This is reality for me and it sucks.”
Acceptance: “I can’t change what is happening, so I will make the best of it.”
It’s rare for two people will be exactly in sync when it comes to readiness for a divorce. More often, one partner has been thinking about divorce for some time and has made peace with that decision (or has moved on to another relationship) before the topic is even introduced to his or her spouse. The leaving spouse, who is in the Acceptance stage of grief, often can’t understand why his or her partner (who has known about the impending divorce for about 30 minutes) is having such a problem with the news.
It is nearly impossible for someone who is in the Acceptance stage of the grieving process to communicate well or negotiate with someone who is stuck in Denial, Anger, or Bargaining because they are perceiving different realities. And because a spouse who believes that a divorce might not happen is desperately looking for a way to keep the marriage together, everything he or she hears will be seen as evidence that there is hope for the relationship.
This is why it’s sometimes cruel – or at least counterproductive – to be kind. It keeps the party who doesn’t want the divorce stuck in a cycle of hope and disappointment. When Partner A came over and mowed the grass at the house without being asked, or brought Partner B a birthday cake, Partner B saw that as evidence that the marriage can be saved. When it turns out that Partner A still wants a divorce, Partner B is devastated all over again.
This does not mean that acts of kindness are not appropriate, or that divorcing partners have to be ugly to each other. It does mean that the partners need to clearly communicate about their intentions. Be careful about using pet names, sharing inside jokes, and acting as if everything is normal. As difficult as it might be, the partner who wants the divorce may need to say to his or her spouse, “I want to be able to be nice to you without causing you to think that we’re getting back together.” This may or may not be acceptable to a heart-broken spouse. That level of intimacy may not be tolerable to your spouse until he or she moves further along in the grieving process, closer to accepting the fact that the divorce will happen. Respect his or her wishes and limit contact to businesslike interactions until tensions subside if this is the case.
During times of extreme stress, it is always helpful to put yourself in the position of the other person before you do or say anything. This kind of empathy will go a long way toward beginning a divorce that will end without exhausting both parties’ emotional, physical, and financial resources.
About the author: Jennifer Tull is an Austin-based family lawyer and a Collaborative Divorce Texas member.