According to the ‘Holmes and Rahe stress scale’, divorce is the second most stressful life event after death of a spouse. Marital separation is third.
In 1967, two psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, surveyed 5,000 medical patients to study whether stress contributed to illness. They asked the patients about 43 different life events, each of which had a different weight for stress. The higher a patient’s overall score, and the greater the weight of the individual events, the more likely that patient was to become ill.
Times have changed since 1967 but it is still generally accepted that, for many people, divorce is one of the most stressful life events you can experience. It can make you feel as though many of the most important parts of your life are out of control. So how can you have a ‘good’ divorce emotionally? Is it possible?
I spoke to a therapist, a divorce coach and clients about what they think a ‘good’ divorce looks like when it comes to the emotional side of things.
THE THERAPIST’S VIEW
Annmarie Carvalho, integrative counsellor and founder of The Carvalho Consultancy, is an expert on the emotional side of divorce. Before training as a counsellor, Annmarie worked as a family lawyer for many years and she now delivers training to lawyers on the emotional experiences of clients going through a divorce.
Annmarie had this to say: “It might seem a contradiction to some people; the idea of a ‘good’ divorce. I think it’s easier to explain by saying what it doesn’t mean, rather than what it does. For me, a ‘good’ divorce doesn’t necessarily mean an absence of anger and tension. It doesn’t mean that the people involved won’t feel grief and feelings of loss. No, for me, a ‘good’ divorce is one where those involved are able to have those feelings, to experience the ups and downs, to recognise the feelings and learn to manage them (often with support from lawyers, mediators, therapists and coaches). In fact, I would get a little concerned if someone going through such a life change said they didn’t feel sad or get angry with their ex at times, particularly where children are involved and so there are more possibilities for disagreement and high emotion.
If parents are able to recognise and attend to the losses involved, then they will be better placed to support any children involved. One of my pet hates is the sugar coating of separation and divorce when people refer to it as a ‘family reorganisation’ and try to focus only on the positives, to the extent that it can feel that they’re trying to whitewash the negatives out. If parents don’t recognise that there has been a break and a loss and talk to their children about this then the children will be confused because the way the situation is being described to them does not fit with their own feelings and their own experience.
Finally, I would say a ‘good’ divorce is one that is handled by professionals who take a holistic approach. Lawyers should be able to advise their clients, not only on the ‘best’ outcome in legal terms but also to recognise and talk to their clients about the emotional and psychological costs and benefits of any course of action. I’m not suggesting that all family lawyers need to become trained therapists. But the job of a family lawyer is about more than black letter law and it’s a crucial aspect of the job that the lawyer be able to advise in a psychologically and emotionally-informed way”.
THE COACH’S VIEW
Emma Heptonstall, divorce coach, provides practical and emotional support to those considering, going through or recovering from a divorce. I asked Emma what she thought the main challenges were for clients who want to try and have a ‘good’ divorce and how these can be overcome. Emma said:
“A ‘good’ divorce is always a matter of perspective but most people hope to have one. When clients describe what this means to them it usually involves: a good co-parenting relationship; a ‘fair’ financial settlement; and not ‘wasting money’ on professional fees.
Often the biggest challenge clients face is accepting they aren’t going to have the divorce they would like to. That isn’t because all divorces which are not like a high profile celebrity ‘uncoupling’ are awful – it’s just that even a fairly amicable divorce can be challenging at times because we are all human. Feelings of grief, anger and sadness – because a spouse isn’t child focused or doesn’t want to be open financially - are hard. One of the biggest parts of my work is supporting clients to accept the reality of their situation. A ‘good’ divorce can come from accepting the situation as it really is.
In my view, a ‘good’ divorce cannot be defined by a settlement figure or a ‘perfect’ parenting plan. A good divorce is all about how it feels for you, the client. How you feel about divorce is huge. You live with the financial consequences but it’s not just about money: you have to live with yourself forever. Professionals can help guide you with therapy, coaching, legal and financial advice but ultimately only you can decide what a good divorce looks like for you. It is you who will remember the actions you took and the ones you didn’t, the things you said and the things you maybe wish you hadn’t.
If you are in a high conflict divorce, a ‘good’ divorce might be one where boundaries are developed and enforced. It might be a divorce where you feel empowered to say no or hold out for a settlement that works for you and your family. It might be a separation where, no matter what follows, you feel proud of the fact that you were able to leave something which no longer worked with your head held high.
Is a ‘good’ divorce easy? I don’t think so: divorce is not often easy. But you can divorce in a way that you can feel proud of: a way that is as ‘good’ as possible for you and your children”.
WHAT CLIENTS THINK A ‘GOOD’ DIVORCE LOOKS LIKE
When asked what a good divorce looks like emotionally, here are some things clients have said:
- Acceptance is important. Even if you are not the party who initiated the divorce, if you have tried to reconcile and it isn’t working, try to accept the inevitable.
- Blame can be an issue which results in lashing out. As much as you can, try to avoid that and try not to deliberately hurt the other party. It tends to make everything more complex and more painful.
- Emotionally, divorce can feel very different to the individual parties. For one it may feel like a bereavement and for the other it can feel like it leads to freedom of sorts. As much as you can, try to understand where the other might be coming from. It will help, particularly in terms of moving things forward.
- Speed seems to be important, not necessarily going as fast as possible but finding the right speed for each stage, bearing in mind that you might each be in quite different places.
- Focus on your future - don’t live in the past or believe you will be happier if you can inflict more pain on the other party - ultimately it’s self-destructive.
- Try to protect those who might be impacted by your divorce – children, family and friends. Getting people on your side can feel good for you but it can really hurt them.
- Recognise that it might hurt, a lot. There is likely to be pain: try not to cause more and try to work out a way through as soon as you can. Then you can focus on healing. Even in a ‘good’ divorce it is likely to hurt – just to try to contain it as much as you can and get through it so you can focus on what is to come on the other side.
WHAT LAWYERS THINK A ‘GOOD’ DIVORCE LOOKS LIKE
A few clients have told me recently, following conclusion of their financial settlement and divorce, that they were feeling positive about the future and looking forward to starting a new life. For me, this sums up what a ‘good’ divorce looks like at the end of proceedings
These clients did not have easy divorces by any means: there were many difficult issues to deal with. But even in the face of that they were able to keep some perspective and a clear focus on what was important to them and their family. They were able to retain some empathy for their spouse. That meant that, as other clients have suggested, no pain was inflicted deliberately during the divorce and they were able to move through the whole process faster. Now they are focusing on themselves and their future.
As Annmarie, Emma and various clients have said, divorce is painful for most people. Emotionally, perhaps a ‘good’ divorce is one where you can come to terms with that, move forward and start focusing on your future.