The impact on emotions and stress during and after divorce is important to review in order to provide appropriate therapeutic interventions. It is also important to discuss the way in which couples adapt to divorce and if resiliency plays a role in the adjustment process.
Post-Divorce Emotions Explored
Those who experience the loss of a relationship through divorce may experience a decline in physical, emotional, and psychological conditions (Frisby et al., 2012). This stress directly and indirectly affects the children, family members and close friendships of both spouses.
In some instances, symptoms may exacerbate and lead to suicide attempts, drug addiction or other self-harm behaviors. However, there are instances, when divorce leads to positive outcomes and there is an expression of relief, happiness, and freedom (Frisby et al., 2012).
Resiliency may also play a strong role in the way that people react to the stressors of divorce. Frisby et al. (2012) studied “face supportive communication early in the divorce process as a potential contextual and protective factor to enhance resilience responses in divorces during and after the divorce process” (p. 76).
Frisby quoted Bonnanno (2004, p. 20) as saying that resilience was more common than grief (p. 77). If we are able to explore divorce in the beginning stages, when the couple first decides to dissolve the marriage, and the roles that each of partner play in the decision-making process, it would provide a starting point of how to examine the risks and resilience (Frisby, 2012).
Emery and Sbarra (2002) noted that existing research indicated, “almost all spheres of adult functioning are disturbed–at least temporarily–by the dissolution of a marriage” (p. 522).
The emotions that are evoked from the dissolution of a marriage may seem overwhelming at times. Conversely, this may be used as a time for healing and individuation from the relationship and ex-spouse (DeFazio & Klenbort, 1975). This situation affords the opportunity for self-reflection and reassessment of future dreams and goals.
No matter what the reason is for divorce, the couple has decided to no longer cohabitate. With this decision may come “emotional upheaval and some social disapproval” (p. 101). These emotions must be confronted in order for healing to take place. Highlighted and discussed in the next session are three stages that one may go through during the dissolution process (101).
Phases of Therapy and Stages of Emotions
In the initial stage of divorce, the person may find themselves experiencing a sense of “disbelief, shock, confusion and loneliness” (DeFazio & Klenbort, 1975, p. 101). This occurs even if the partners are in agreement with the separation. This follows with a fantasy period where the couple may deny that they are actually going to divorce. They may allude to the fact that this is just a temporary situation and that there may be a possibility of reconciliation.
This is also a time when the couple fears rejection from their family or friends and fears telling them about the divorce. At this time, there may be an increase in anxiety or rage toward the spouse if they are the initiator (p. 102). Therapy during this time should be focused on the “concrete” details of the marriage and separation and the feelings involved (p. 103). It is important to be mindful of the fantasies exhibited regarding the divorce and move toward lessening this distortion in order to reduce the denial (p. 103).
In the second stage, after the shock and disbelief dissipate, depression and rage begin to set in (DeFazio & Klenbort, 1975). Additional underlying emotions may begin to boil underneath the surface such as unexpressed guilt, fear or anger. During this time as a therapist, it will be noteworthy to observe the children for any signs of acting out for the parent who is unable to express feelings that may be suppressed for fear of retaliation by the spouse (p. 103).
DeFazio and Klenbort (1975) articulate that “at this juncture, the therapist can become someone who facilitates the client’s experience of his self without a love object” (p. 103). It will be important to work through these feelings in order for the individual to feel empowered enough to move further along this process.
Another significant dynamic may occur during this stage. The individual may begin to act out sexually. DeFazio and Klenbort (1975) report that this may be a sign the individual is becoming resistant to therapy. It will be important to discuss this behavior and its meaning. “Dealing with the patients anger and hurt, whether it be in terms of his spouse, other significant people or the therapist himself, can free the client of some of his depression and its more paralyzing effects” (p.103).
Stage three is characteristic of how the individual is able to move through the first two stages and has gained insight and independence from their spouse with a sense of autonomy. This is not to say that they will not vacillate between wanting to be taken care of by the therapist and being self-reliant.
It will be significant for the therapist to recognize those times when they can intervene and support the individual by giving poignant examples of the emotional and psychological growth that has been attained thus far. Further therapy would benefit the individual in order to explore any unhealthy patterns that emerged in the marriage which could have the potential for coming up again in a new relationship (DeFazio & Klenbort, 1975, p. 104).
I leave you with this final quote by Coontz (2007) who paints the perfect back drop of how we can begin to see ourselves as a catalyst for change and a means of support before, during or after the dissolution of a marriage.
Researchers and clinicians can devise ways to help couples choose their mates better, overcome problems in their marriage, and reduce their risk of divorce. But short of legal, economic, and cultural counterrevolution on an unprecedented scale, we will have to accept the fact that in today’s climate of choice, divorce and its nonlegal equivalent – the break-up of cohabitating couples – are here to stay. Our research into the causes, effects, and variability of divorce must start from acceptance of that reality (p. 15).
Coontz, S. (2007). The origins of modern divorce. Family Process, 46(1), 7-16. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.proxy1.ncu.edu/docview/218871859?accountid=28180.
DeFazio, V. J., & Klenbort, I. I. (1975). A note on the dynamics of psychotherapy during marital dissolution. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 12(1), 101-104. doi:10.1037/h0086391
Emery, R.E., Sbarra, D.A. (2002). Addressing separation and divorce during and after couple therapy. In Gurman, A.S., & Jacobson, N.S. (Eds.). Clinical handbook of couple therapy (pp. 508-530). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Frisby, B. N., Booth-Butterfield, M., Dillow, M. R., Martin, M. M., & Weber, K. D. (2012). Face and resilience in divorce: The impact on emotions, stress, and post-divorce relationships. Journal of Social & Personal Relationships, 29(6), 715-735. doi:10.1177/0265407512443452
Kagan, E., & Zaks, M. S. (1972). Couple multi-couple therapy for marriages in crisis. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 9(4), 332-336. doi:10.1037/h0086781
Dr. Normajean Cefarelli is a Connecticut and New York State Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who has trained extensively in counseling individuals, couples, and families. She holds a Doctorate Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Northcentral University, Master of Family Therapy degree from Southern Connecticut State University and is a Clinical Member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).
She served a three-year term on the Board of Directors for the Connecticut Association for Marriage and Family Therapy as the Ethics Committee Chair. She has been in a private practice setting integrating eastern and western modalities since 2000. As a long-time meditator, she now integrates Mindfulness Meditation instruction into her therapy sessions.