Divorce is not a quick process even when you live in parts of the world where the paper divorce, i.e., divorce order, is obtained quickly. Divorce/Separation is a long drawn out, complicated, process involving every member of a family, the immediate and extended, in their own process to come to terms with your divorce or separation and what it means for them and for you. People often believe that the granting of a court order saying that the parties are divorced is the “be all and end all” of getting divorced. Even in Ireland, where the court system is slow and you have to be 4 years living apart in the previous 5 to be able to apply, the complete process of divorce may not even be halfway through when the legal divorce is granted. The legal phase of the divorce is only one stage/phase and there are an identifiable six stages. While this may seem like an off-putting piece of information on one level, it is in fact enormously helpful for both clients and their lawyers to have a full grasp of each of these divorce phases. In this article, I am going to deal with the first phase which is the Emotional Divorce. The emotional divorce can be further broken down by an examination of the grief cycle. The grief cycle identifies different emotions that arise when something very important in one’s life is lost. I have written about the grief cycle previously and you can find this article at
People are not one dimensional. As well as their legal needs, they have emotional needs, financial needs, family and parenting needs, and psychic/spiritual needs. The Court can either, after a full hearing or when parties have entered into a settlement, make a full order covering the granting of the divorce itself as well as making provisions i.e., orders in relation to children, finances and property, however, the paper is one thing but the reality of implementing and living with those orders even when they are agreed, as opposed to imposed, is something else again. The practical realities and accepting them with all their limitations comprise stage three and four of the divorce i.e., the co-parenting and financial divorce. When a house is sold or changes hands from one spouse to the other, one or both parties can lose their community. This involves a divorce process all of its own and it is referred to as the Community Stage. Finally, there is the psychic which is usually the most profound change and that embraces moving from coupledom to autonomy. Another way of putting it would be accepting that you are single again. A lot of people, particularly those who go to court, can experience 4 of the six stages post the granting of the decree of divorce or separation order.
When a person comes to a solicitor for advice on divorce or separation, they are often in the first throes of emotional divorce but if you look at emotional divorce from a grief cycle perspective you can find yourself presented with a client at the beginning of the emotional stage. On one end there could be a fundamental denial that this is actually happening as well as anger with the other Spouse. For ease of reference, I call the spouse who has broken the news that the marriage is over the “Walk Away” Spouse and the one who is receiving this unfortunate news the “Left Behind” Spouse. Generally speaking, the “Left Behind” is in anger or denial and the “Walk Away” is on acceptance and let’s get on with it. Who is who is a crucial piece of information for the solicitor. On the face of it the “Walk Away” spouse is often easier to handle being in a place mentally where decisions come more easily. However, the “Walk Away” can often have little understanding of where the other spouse is at and this can make the divorce more difficult than it needs to be. When this happens, as it does in most cases, it is important that everyone understands that the ability of the “Left Behind” spouse to deal with the rational and legal aspects of divorce or separation is severely compromised. Quite often hate and anger takes over from rationality and where once there was love and affection, there is now the exact opposite. Feelings of anger can sometimes be so intense that the “Left Behind” spouse is completely overcome engaging in irrational behavior like stalking, texting angry and abusive texts morning noon and night, anger outbursts frequently in front of family particularly children, uninvited appearances at the Walk Away’s home, calls to the Walk Away’s family of origin guaranteed to alienate them and so on. All of these behaviors may affect, and if repeated or particularly bad, completely sabotage their legal case. This happens because the Left Behind’s behavior shifts the focus from what needs to be sorted in a rational way, to their behavior. Because a Left Behind spouse is unlikely to be angry all the time, even while in the emotional phase, and because emotions can shift from anger to other emotions like hope or despair and the depth/intensity of the emotions can vary, it can be very important to have an understanding of this phase even if you are smack bang in the middle of it. A Walk Away spouse can seem almost alien in their emotional detachment to a Left Behind. It is important to understand that is impression arises because the parties are communicating from very different emotional spaces. Left Behind parties will often say and mean at the time of uttering things like “He/she is no longer the person I married” or “He/she is almost unrecognizable to me” or “He/she is totally cold and indifferent” or versions of the above. This is normal at this stage and can give rise to a profound mistrust. It is important for the Left Behind party to understand that their spouse is not evil, probably not under the influence of a malevolent being, and is unlikely to be someone who hid his/her true nature throughout the actual marriage. He or she has not become evil. It is important for the professionals not to buy into the anger or hate of one party as being a factual description of the other party. A failure to recognize this phase of divorce/separation for what it is can make any form of communication going forward between the spouses less or more likely depending and can render future co-operative co-parenting well nigh impossible.
During the emotional phase, personal counseling will be of real benefit to the parties particularly the Left Behind. People often shy away from the idea of counseling thinking they can muddle their own way along, however, a good counselor can help you through a difficult time with a lot less scarring than otherwise. Solicitors don’t tend to speak emotion and their professional language can be dry and often incomprehensible whereas counselors speak and understand emotion very well and can communicate effectively with clients in this phase.
As solicitors who deal with family law, we recognize that a client’s ability, i.e., a client who is a “Left Behind” to make rational and constructive choices and decisions whilst in the emotional phase is severely compromised. A flood of emotions will quite literally cause the brain to be flooded making it possible to make one of two choices, fight or fly (I have explored this in a previous article ) A Solicitor is called upon to be professional requiring them to give objective rational advice to their clients. In a family matter, this professional requirement of the solicitor can give rise to a perception in the client’s mind that the solicitor is not on “their wavelength”. When the Walk Away client comes into the solicitor’s office he/she can often communicate as if they have it all figured out and have processed all the emotion. They often say things like “How quickly can this be done”. Those of us who are familiar with the grief cycles know that they are not in a linear progression and people can be ambushed with any or all of the emotions in one day but less so as time goes on. Recognizing this can assist to understand why on one particular day a perfectly rational client may be in a complete state on the telephone whereas totally calm the day previous. It can also help the parties themselves to see what is happening and recognize it for what it is.
As an experienced practitioner of family law, I find that people who are at the same stage of processing will do better in resolving the difficulties of the divorce process but since most clients are not on the same sheet, it is a good idea for the Walk Away to bide his/her time until the Left Behind has reached a stage of acceptance at least some of the time. The divorces/separations which are the least painful and the least, I believe, damaging to their children, are those where both parties acknowledge that the divorce was inevitable and they both have now reached the same degree of emotional detachment. This involves the Walk Away party being patient, but I believe profoundly that this is in the Walk Away party’s best interests ultimately and that patients will be well rewarded. The Left Behind party needs time to work through the emotional maelstrom and if not given that time, emotions will sabotage any attempt to resolve issues arising out of the ending of the marriage again and again. When both parties are ready, they can then make an informed choice of the manner in which they will conduct their separation/divorce. This involves making choices between various forms of Alternative Dispute Resolution methods or going the more traditional route of court. There are times when the court is the best option and times when the alternatives should be fully explored. Even, however, should you wind up in the court system, it is important to note that most case settle and a very small proportion wind up before a Judge.
It would take too long for me in this piece to elaborate on all of the Alternative Dispute Resolution methods or to talk about the court system and what is involved. A lot of this information is scattered throughout my articles already, however, on the suggestion of a client, I intend to do a combination piece outlining each process in the near future in one article. For now, I will just say that each process whether it is in the Alternative Dispute Resolution family or the Adversarial Dispute Resolution family is very distinct, while grounded on some shared core principles. It is very worthwhile to explore all of these in depth to figure out what suits you best.
Making the right process choice requires a clear head and good reliable information and is not something that you should undertake when you are in the emotional phase or you and your ex-are at opposite ends of that emotional spectrum. I will explore the five other stages/phases of divorce in succeeding articles.