Process of divorce can leave families in limbo at times

This is the sixth in a series about the ripple effect of divorce and remarriage on family systems.

Q: What are modern trends in the stages of divorce?

A: Experts Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D., and Chip Rose, attorney, widely are recognized experts in divorce mediation and collaborative law. They are employed in the Strauss Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law.

Saposnek and Rose theorize a family experiencing divorce today does not break up but rather regroups. A marriage might be disbanded, but a family continues. The family is a system in which members interact with one another at all levels. Each person has the capability of creating dysfunction in one or more other members, and a domino effect of dysfunction in a family system is not uncommon.

Sources of stress might start within the family or from the environment, from sources such as jobs, friends, teachers or professionals. For example, the adversarial legal system procedures might escalate family dysfunction.

A legal divorce occurs when the judge signs the divorce decree, but the emotional divorce is a complex process that can last a couple of years or a lifetime. In 75 percent to 90 percent of divorces, one person wants a divorce and the other does not. Women initiate divorce more often. The spouse who wants the divorce begins the emotional divorce process years before filing for divorce. The divorce papers might just start the process of emotional divorce in the spouse not seeking divorce, so when papers are served, spouses are at widely different pre-divorce stages. Generally, approximately 50 percent of people who file eventually withdraw their petitions and reconcile.

The initial stage is the pre-divorce stage, also called the deliberation stage. At this time, the dissatisfied spouse is feeling alienated, lonely and unhappy. This deliberation period can last for months or years. When all efforts to resolve marital conflicts fail, a spouse might emotionally divorce from the marriage before filing.

The spouse who does not want the divorce might use denial to cope at first, and when that doesn't work, the person might seek advice from family, friends or therapists. When everything else fails, the spouse agrees to all the things the partner has wanted before, such as counseling. Many times, the motive for counseling is to get the therapist to recommend reconciliation. When that fails, the husband partners sometimes make threats such as, "You won't see the children; you won't survive financially," or self-pity might persuade a spouse to threaten suicide. Most of the time, this threat is manipulative but can be a serious attempt.

Anger is common in the initial stage, but it usually is a cover-up for hurt, humiliation, fear, loss and powerlessness. The dynamic seems to be if a spouse cannot revive the marital relationship, the other spouse can cause the divorcing spouse enough pain to be remembered and to satisfy feelings of vindictiveness or revenge.

Next is the litigation stage or legal divorce. The spouse who files might be the one who leaves in order to establish some control of the situation, or to give a wake-up call to the other spouse. The filing starts the legal process along with moving out. Ambivalence or mixed feelings are common in this stage. Guilt contributes to indecision: breaking up the family, making the spouse miserable and damaging the children.

The spouse who wants the divorce has to work through the guilt in order to proceed with the legal divorce. Guilt can cause a person to make unwise decisions, such as, "I don't want anything. I just want out." Guilt also can change to anger if the other spouse's reaction becomes aggressive, violent or intimidating. A formerly guilty spouse then can move in the opposite direction and become resistant to visitation and excessive in demands for financial support.

What divorcing spouses share is a concern for economic survival. The attitude of both attorneys can exacerbate spousal antagonism by urging their clients to make exaggerated demands for bargaining purposes, or the attorneys can facilitate cooperation.

The next stage in the divorce process is custody concerns. Of the 60 percent of divorcing spouses who have minor children, 85 percent to 90 percent work out custody between themselves or with their attorneys. Custody disputes arise in 10 percent to 15 percent of divorcing couples. Increasingly, states are offering mediation before bringing the custody issues into court. Court decisions do not settle custody with these couples. They either violate court orders or file additional motions. Commonly, these parents return to court as often as 25 times a year.

During litigation, there are two common developments. Often a negative characterization of that spouse wanting the divorce is the first. That spouse is reconstructed by the other spouse as a totally negative person, and the spouse develops a selective memory of the marriage that substantiates the divorcing picture. Motivation for this slander might be abandonment, an extramarital affair or past violence of the spouse.

The second development is the alliance of families and friends. This is a post-divorce support system for one of the divorced spouses. These alliances can be destructive because they usually are "us against them" situations in which families and friends become polarized in their positions about the divorcing spouses.

After the legal divorce is the post-divorce stage in which ex-spouses should be pursuing independent decisions and redirection. A main role for parents is to help the children stabilize their relationships with both parents. A significant task for ex-spouses is to learn and assume the responsibilities the former spouse performed.

Negative feelings still reappear in this stage and coexist or alternate with positive feelings. The post-divorce period in successful divorces takes one to two years for ex-spouses to restabilize.

* Next week's article will discuss effects of the divorce process.

Judy Caprez is associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.