Divorce ranks just above death in severity of stress and is often combined with other stressors, such as marital discord, serious financial problems, a move, single parenting, multiple losses and litigation, all at once. It's a life cycle crisis that presents a crucial period of increased vulnerability and heightened potential. With consciousness, the process can be edifying. Although not easy, it's extremely rewarding, because, in the long run you feel better and learn from the experience, so you don't have to repeat the same mistakes.

Divorce consists of several stages: Cognitive, emotional, physical, legal, and spiritual. This order isn't usually what happens, and explains the "Divorce Court" melodrama - couples making the legal separation while they are still caught up in the drama of their relationship. They haven't separated emotionally, though they're physically apart. The emotional separation is the cornerstone for transformation covered in "Divorce - A Transformation Process."

Usually, the family has lived with marital problems for some time. Discord may have increased or gone underground to maintain a cordial facade. Gradually one or both spouses become willing to risk the unknown and pain of divorce - it appears preferable to the pain they're already in.

The cognitive or mental separation isn't so much a decision to divorce, as a setting of intention, usually long preceding the actual decision. Generally, people set goals or a course of intent before they are emotionally and physically ready to carry them out, such as a job change or a move. The cognitive separation follows a period of frustration and unhappiness. Once the decision is verbalized, the coping behavior and degree of crisis experienced will vary depending on the degree of preparation. Naturally, it's optimal if the family can talk openly and problem-solve the anticipated changes and solutions. More often, there is high dysfunction and open communication never existed or has previously broken down. Where there's no talking, fear and anger intensify and reactivity escalates. If the decision wasn't mutually arrived at, the spouse left is less prepared and experiences greater anger and depression; the one leaving feels guilty. Confusion usually sets in, and roles, rules, and parenting deteriorate.

The physical separation is simply that; however, couples may continually reunite until the emotional divorce is complete.

The legal dissolution is the socio-economic and cultural separation. As a lawyer and therapist, it is at once apparent that unresolved emotional conflicts fuel adversarial posturing. The legal divorce can be a long, drawn out battle in which couples stay connected through anger by breaking agreements and violating court orders, or by taking either intransigent or ever-changing positions, reflecting their inner conflict and inability to separate - trying to hold on, and at the same time let go.

The spiritual connection is ephemeral, without time or spatial reference. Some suggest that once established, it's never severed, and remains following the emotional separation. Strong emotions are absent; instead, it's marked by feelings of unconditional love, caring, and vulnerability to the other person.

The task of emotional separation involves unbonding romantic and dependent aspects of the relationship, and mourning. This is the stage where growth and transformation unfold. If the unbonding process not successfully traversed, the emotional connections will undermine the couple's attempts to separate.

For more on emotional unbonding, see Divorce - "A Transformation Process"

Copyright Darlene Lancer, MFT 2010

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Author's Bio: 

Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and life coach with a broad range of experience, working with individuals and couples for more than twenty years. Her focus is on helping individuals overcome obstacles to leading fuller lives, and helping couples enhance their communication, intimacy, and passion. She is a speaker, freelance writer, and maintains private practice in Santa Monica, CA.