Divorce and separation feel a lot like death

By Jennifer L. Gray, Ph.D., Federal Way therapist

After much uncertainty and soul-searching during marriage, divorce and separation are choices that some couples arrive at as a last resort.

According to divorce statistics for 2008, in the United States an estimated 40-50 percent of first marriages end in divorce. For second and third marriages, an estimated 60-70 percent of marriages end in divorce.

The dissolution of marriage is emotionally similar to the human experience of death. The loss of a relationship follows a similar pattern of grief. People experience death and the loss of a loved one with intense feelings of bereavement, not unlike the ending of a love relationship. The pain is real and unforgiving. There is a deep sense of failure. The emotions experienced during a divorce proceeding are complex and raw. Individuals are particularly vulnerable during this time and need to seek support and guidance.

There are many contributing factors to divorce such as age, education, income, ethnic and religious background, abuse, addiction and infidelity. Couples going through separation or divorce are subject to a painful, emotionally intolerable, and at times devastating process.

Divorce involves feelings of loss, grief, anger, shock and denial. Individuals having experienced divorce report feeling out of control and preoccupied with thoughts about their spouse and the events that led up to the decision to divorce. Feelings of overwhelming loss and hopelessness can quickly turn into depression for some people.

The initial process is a time when individuals need friends and family more then ever, but find themselves isolating or avoiding situations that involve socializing with others. Friends and family members tend to choose sides when a couple divorces or separates. This decision often tests loyalties and is difficult to make.

There is a power struggle for control between both parties in the process of divorce. Couples are at the whim of courts, attorneys and financial strain as they struggle to maneuver through and make sense of “the system.” A loss of control and feelings of inadequacy can lead to increased destructive behavior such as alcohol and drug abuse, which are used to cope and numb out feelings. Others may use the opportunity to seek treatment for destructive behavior that existed during the marriage. Some see divorce as a wake up call for creating change. Bargaining and negotiation on both sides can lead to resolution or a long, drawn-out court battle.

As time passes, there are opportunities for those involved to accept the circumstances they find themselves in and the events surrounding the divorce. Less energy is put into fighting change and more energy is put toward accepting the decision of disillusionment, which can lead to a renewed optimism and interest in life. This is a time to reconnect or meet someone new. This is a chance to reassess personal goals and accomplishments. Many find the final steps of divorce like a breath of fresh air with new beginnings and opportunities.

The decision to end a marriage is neither an easy decision nor a decision taken lightly. Yet, we should feel fortunate that we live in a social age where we have choices rather than feeling stuck or unsatisfied in a failed marriage. Finding emotional health and wellness during a major life change should be the priority that individuals constructively work toward. Find and make the choice that is right for you.

Jennifer L. Gray, Ph.D., is a private practice therapist in Federal Way. Contact: (253) 653-0168.

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