When you think of divorce, it’s natural to think of the “end”. The end of your marriage, the end of your identity as a spouse, the end of your emotional and sexual relationship, and the end of your familial unit. “The End”.
This perspective, however, is incomplete. In reality, divorce isn't as much about “the end”, as it is about transition, the process or period of changing from one state or condition to another. William Bridges’s book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, provides valuable advice on how to make the most of change in both life and work. In it, he introduces the “Transition Model”, which explores the psychological and emotional challenges that people face when navigating significant life changes. He also applies this framework to divorce to create The Divorce Journey. Read on to discover what The Divorce Journey is and how it can help you navigate divorce.
The Three Stages of The Divorce Journey
Stage One: Acknowledgement and Letting Go This stage, pictured on the left half of the diagram, often aligns with the first year of the divorce process and involves letting go of and grieving your old ways, roles, routines, expectations, and traditions. You may feel like you’re wandering in a fog. The emotions associated with this stage can be overwhelming: denial, anger, shock, fear, frustration, confusion, sadness, and unbelievable stress. You’re thrown out of your comfort zone as nearly every aspect of your life is turned upside down, and you’re trying to put all the pieces back together.
During this time of tremendous change and turmoil, you’re probably wondering, “How am I ever going to get through this?” But recognizing these emotions and getting help to sort through them is the first step to moving forward.
Stage Two: The Neutral Zone This stage, pictured at the bottom of the diagram, aligns with the period of time between separating from your spouse, and adjusting to your new life post-divorce. It tends to be a period of acceptance, adjustment, and exploration. There may still be some tug from the past, but you're also looking ahead to the future. It can feel like being caught between two worlds.
You may be taking a look at what’s worked, what didn’t, and how adjustments can be made to make things better moving forward. For example, do you need to adjust your communication, co-parenting or holiday schedule? During this time, your relationship with your ex-spouse is also morphing from an intimate partnership to a “business” partnership. It’s a time of personal exploration and discovering who you are, and how you want to lead your life. Maybe you try a new hobby, or get a new haircut!
Stage Three: Embracing Change With some distance, you’re better able to see how much you’ve learned and grown during all the changes that have taken place. You’re more comfortable with your new life and your new identity, you’ve developed new routines, and you’ve embraced some new opportunities. Co-parenting is much smoother, and while there may still be some negative interactions now and then, you are better prepared for them and their impact on you is much smaller. You’re focusing less on the past, and instead living in the present, and looking forward to your future. There’s more room for joy and fun.
Why Is This Important?
Hopefully, knowing that everything that you’re feeling is “normal” will give you a sense that with time, things will get better. Moreover, having a vision of what lies ahead will ease the sense of uncertainty, leaving you feeling more in control and empowered.
The Divorce Journey and Conflict Resolution
Understanding The Divorce Journey is also incredibly helpful in minimizing and resolving conflict with your ex. Usually one person, let’s call her Mary, has been thinking about divorce for a significantly longer time than her spouse, let’s call him Tom. Because of this, Mary has already internally worked through Stage One of The Divorce Journey: the fears, what if’s, and how to’s, . In her mind, she’s come to terms with the “ending” and may have already created a new vision of what she wants her life to look like. She has mentally and emotionally moved to the right side of the diagram and wants to get going with the process and move forward as quickly as possible.
Tom, on the other hand, may be blindsided that Mary wants a divorce, or never thought that things would get to this point. He is feeling all of the emotions outlined above in Stage One, while Mary is already moving toward Stage Three.
Can you see the conflict brewing? Mary gets frustrated because she feels like Tom is dragging his feet, when really he is just trying to process what’s happening. Tom is angry because he can’t believe Mary can move on “just like that”. Resentment builds on both sides, communication breaks down, and conflict escalates. If Mary can step back, put herself in Tom’s shoes, and give Tom some time to adjust to his new reality, she vastly improves the likelihood that the discussions and negotiations will be more productive and less antagonistic.
Understanding where you, and your soon-to-be-ex, are in your respective divorce journeys can give you insight into how to best navigate the emotional, psychological and practical aspects of this major life transition. Sometimes you need to move things forward, sometimes it’s best to slow down a little.
What stage of your divorce journey are you in? Do you find yourself feeling the emotions described above? Is your situation similar to that of Mary and Tom? As always, my inbox is open and I’d love to hear from you.