The Six Stations of Divorce

Dissolution of marriage is complicated because at least six processes happen simultaneously with varying intensities. These processes can be painful and puzzling as personal experiences, and society is not yet equipped to handle easily any of these six processes. The six overlapping "stations" are as follows:

  1. The Emotional Divorce. The spouses may continue to work together as a social team, but their attraction and trust for one another may have disappeared. Self-regard is no longer reinforced by love for the other. It is experienced as an unsavory choice between giving in and hating oneself and domineering and hating oneself. The natural and healthy "growing apart" of married couples is very different: as marriages mature, the partners grow in new directions, but also establish bonds of ever-greater interdependence. With emotional dissolution of marriage, people do not grow together as they grow apart. They become, instead, mutually antagonistic and imprisoned, hating the vestiges of their dependence. Each is disappointed.

    One of the reasons dissolution of marriage feels so awful is that you have been DESELECTED. Feelings are concentrated in the area of weak points in the personality, not the growing points. Healthy marital fights clarify the issues; bad fights sidetrack conflict to false issues. Often sex and money serve as camouflage for the real difficulties. Inability to tolerate change in the partner, to see the partner as he or she is, lies at the root of emotional dissolution of marriage. The natural reaction to the loss of any meaningful relationship (whether love or hate) is grief. Mourning may take several months or years. The grief has to be worked out alone and without benefit of traditional rites, because few people recognize it for what it is.
  2. The Legal Divorce. We have given the courts the responsibility for formalizing the dissolution of a marriage. This does nothing but establish a single status and the right to remarry.
  3. The Economic Divorce. At the time a household is broken up by dissolution of marriage, the legal unity of the couple is dissolved and an economic settlement must be made, separating the assets into two sets.

    Many a party voluntarily give up their rights to property at the time they become ex-spouses. Some are quite irrational about it -- "I shall not take anything from him/her!" Sometimes they think they have no moral right to it. Others, of course, attempt to use the property settlement as revenge. It seems that irrational motives such as revenge, the "buying" of freedom, or self-denial are more often in evidence than the facts of relative need, in spite of all that judges and lawyers can do.
  4. The Co-Parental Divorce. The most enduring pain of dissolution of marriage is likely to center around the children. The court takes what action it considers to be in the best interest of the children. The rights of children as human beings override the parental rights, but the court generally does not intervene in custody decisions unless the parties are unable to agree, or unless the court becomes aware of facts that indicate that the parties' determination may not be in the children's best interests.

    In dissolution of marriage, with communication reduced, the goals of the spouses are less likely to be the same. The child is observed at different times and from different vantage points by the separated parent, each with his or her own set of concerns and worries. The Co-parental dissolution of marriage creates lasting pain for many divorced persons, particularly if the ex-spouses differ greatly on what they want their children to become morally, spiritually, professionally, and physically. The child may become the living embodiment of the differences in basic values. Each parent may believe that the other is bad for the children, even if each parent has the objectivity to see that the children will not necessarily develop unwholesome personalities, but only different personalities from what they expected or desired.

    Children, like the rest of us, must have significant members of both sexes around them. Those who live in one-parent homes must learn either what a husband/father is and what he does in the home, or what a wife/mother is in such a home, and they have to learn it in a different context from children of intact homes. Children are taught to be husbands and wives while they are still children. In the one-parent home, the children have be taught actively and realistically the companionship, sexual co-parenting, and domestic aspects of marriage.
  5. The Community Divorce. All divorced persons suffer more or less because their community is altered. Friends may take a different view of a person during and after dissolution of marriage. In many cases, the change in community attitude is experienced as disapproval. Loneliness and anxiety often result from this abrupt change in accustomed living patterns. Newly divorced persons have to find new communities, often communities of other divorced persons. This is a group ready to welcome them, to explain the lore to them, to support them emotionally, to date and to love as soon as they are ready to love again. This is probably the aspect of dissolution of marriage that Americans handle best.
  6. The Psychic Divorce. The psychic dissolution of marriage means the separation of self from the personality and influence of the ex-spouse. It involves becoming a whole, complete and autonomous individual again. It is to distance oneself from the memory of the loved portion that ultimately became disappointing, and from the hated portion that led to depression and lost self-esteem.

To learn from dissolution of marriage, one must ask why one married. Ultimately most people in our society can bring their lives to a high point of satisfaction and usefulness only through marriage. Yet all too often, marriage is used as a shield against becoming whole. People too often marry their weaknesses. The path of every marriage is strewn with yesterday's unresolved conflicts of both spouses. So the question becomes: How do I resolve the conflicts that are ruined by marriage? The difficulty comes when two people so interlock their own conflicts and solutions that they cannot become aware of them and hence cannot solve them. Ironically, being a divorced person has built-in advantages in terms of working out these conflicts, making them conscious, and overcoming them. Divorced persons are people who have not achieved a good marriage, but they are also people who would not settle for a bad one.

A successful dissolution of marriage begins with the realization by two people that they do not have any constructive future together. That decision itself is a recognition of the emotional dissolution of marriage. It proceeds through the legal channels of undoing the wedding, through the economic division of property and arrangement for alimony and support. The successful dissolution of marriage involves determining ways in which children can be informed, educated in their new roles, provided for and loved. It involves finding a new community. Finally, it involves finding your own autonomy as a person and as a personality. The greatest difficulty comes from those people who cannot tell autonomy from independence. Nobody is independent in the sense that he or she does not depend on people. Life is with people. But if you wither and die unless specific people are doing specific things for you, then you have lost your autonomy.

These are the six stations of divorce. The "undivorced" almost never understand the great achievement that mastering them may represent.

Dissolution of marriage is a process that no one enters without great fear and anxiety. In the emotional divorce, people feel (1) hurt and angry, in the legal divorce, people often feel (2) bewildered. They have lost control, and events sweep them along. In the economic divorce, the reassignment of property and the division of money (there is never enough) may make them feel (3) cheated. In the parental divorce, they (4) worry about what is going to happen to the children, they may feel guilty for what they have done. With the community divorce, they may get (5) angry with their friends and perhaps suffer despair because there seems to be no fidelity in friendship. In the psychic divorce in which they have to become autonomous again, they are probably (6) afraid and are certainly lonely. The resolution of any or all of these various six stations of divorce, however, may provide an elation of victory that comes from having accomplished something that had to be done.