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divorce is a process

The 4 Stages of the Divorce Process

Surviving the Divorce Process, Step by Step

Divorce really starts when you make the decision to get one. Typically, this represents the culmination of a long period of problem solving, or the recognition that you are faced with an unsolvable problem. Or, perhaps, this decision has been handed to you, and you have no choice but to accept it. In any event, the decision has been made and the divorce process begins.

On most people’s minds at this point are two very complicated things: who to tell and who to hire. These are questions to ask and have answered during the main four steps of the divorce process.

Step 1: The Announcement

The announcement can be a very challenging time. For most, telling kids is a formidable task. These are the people that force you and your soon-to-be former spouse to come together at a time when you likely feel pretty distant.

Your children may react in ways that confuse you, comfort you, and maybe even concern you. They may have seen this coming long before you did, which may indicate that their grieving process is well underway. Or, quite possibly, they may not react all at once, but rather carry it with them and let it out in bits and pieces as you attempt to manage the other aspects of your life and divorce. Though your children may be your most worrisome audience for this announcement, they won’t be the only ones that you will need to tell.

Parents, friends, and co-workers will all be on the list. Some may give you the support you need during what author Abigail Trafford calls “Crazy Time.” Others may give unsolicited advice, judgment, anecdotes and the like. You may find friends taking sides or even going silent.

Typically, the announcement rolls out both feverishly and slowly. The family tree will light up instantly, but bleacher acquaintances during the children’s sports season may not know for a few months. They may awkwardly ask the whereabouts of your soon-to-be former spouse. Hearing and repeating and managing the announcement phase is typically when your divorce becomes real.

Step 2: The Separation

So, the decision has been made, the news is getting out, and talk of separation looms. Will you stay together until you are divorced and assets are distributed? Or now that you know divorce is inevitable, do you separate immediately? If so, what does that look like and how does it feel to spend that first night in bed with a half-empty closet and all that space next to you? Or conversely, in an apartment that feels empty and cold while your kids visit their other parent?

Whether it feels good, overwhelming, or a combination of both, you have begun the process of starting your newly single life and possibly redefining your role as a parent.

Step 3: The Divorce

Soon enough you will be facing the actual divorce. Whether you have chosen litigation, mediation or collaboration, there is work to be done.

For many people, taking a hard look at one’s financial life comes with new information, missing information and a huge learning curve. For others, figuring out how to incorporate time with the children becomes the daunting and overwhelming issue.

For both spouses, there will likely be pieces of the marital puzzle missing. How well you cope will be dictated, in part, by how well you both choose to behave as you put the puzzle pieces together. Much of this can depend on how you have decided to access legal and financial help, and how well those professionals are behaving. But that’s an entirely different topic altogether.

During the actual legal phase of divorce, the children, friends and family will still be adjusting. And the actual separation may still be in progress. You may have moments when you question the divorce or hope that the marriage can be saved. You may feel overwhelmed when called upon to make a financial decision that can impact your future. You may feel ill-equipped as a single parent. This is all a very natural course of events and further solidifies the basic premise that divorce is a process, not an event. You must navigate the divorce process step by step.

Step 4: The Aftermath

Once the paperwork is complete and the judge has ruled, you are officially divorced. But the divorce process continues; there is life after divorce. This represents your transition into newly single life. This may include many of the people that were with you during your marriage, or some new people you found helpful along the way.

This is the time when you figure out what your life will look like without your spouse. You may be newly employed or seeking to enter the workforce in a new or different way. You may renew some lost interests and hobbies. You may start dating. You will have, at least, a slightly different relationship with your kids that largely depends on how they believe that you are coping. You learn to leave “spouse” behind and recognize the parent of your children as your “co-parent.”

The aftermath can last a very long time. It can include remarriage, step-families, milestone events for the children, and even your own personal adjustment to a life you may have chosen — or not wanted at all.

As you weave and wind your way through a process that may seem interminable, do yourself a favor. Remember that you have a long life after divorce. Remember that you have relationships with people who can help and who need you to be strong.

Remember basic things like respect, courtesy, and the children. In marriage and in divorce, you continue to model for your children. Marriage ideally models satisfying relationships between two individual people. Divorce can be an opportunity to model resilience, grief, grace, and most importantly, the high road.

Reentering the world as a single person, with new family dynamics and financial challenges, may not be unlike the shared experiences of a widow, who must also learn about seeking professional help, making independent financial decisions, and more.

The most crucial piece of information about divorce is that it is finite. You will gather your resources, your strength, and your ability to forgive yourself for moments where strength and resources are nowhere to be found. You will look in the mirror and start to recognize the return of normalcy. You will learn the value of self-care, and you will reenter the world as a single adult with renewed goals and the joy you deserve.

[Editor’s Note: Are you dealing with a divorce and a business breakup? Check out the webinar, “Common Issues and Strategies in Business Breakups” or read “Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Surviving a Business Divorce” by Michele Schechter. A version of this article first appeared on March 8, 2016.]

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About Carrie Weiner Rosenbloom

Carrie Rosenbloom is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and attorney mediator in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She specializes in helping individuals and families navigate the complexities of divorce. Carrie also works with family businesses, helping them manage transitions, create succession plans, resolve conflict, and integrate a cohesive culture throughout family owned businesses. More information can…

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