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Divorce and the Grief Cycle

by admin on April 19th, 2010

Scott A. Holzman, PhD
Licensed Psychologist, Divorce Coach, Child Specialist,
and Parent Coordinator
11055 Little Patuxent Parkway, Suite 201
Columbia, Maryland 21044
(410) 491-6316


The Truth About Children and Divorce: Dealing with the emotions so you and your children can thrive by Robert E. Emery, PhD (2004)

Collaborative divorce: The revolutionary new way to restructure your family, resolve legal issues, and move on with your life by Pauline H. Tessler, M.A., J.D., and Peggy Thompson, PhD (2006)

The following outline is adapted from Robert Emery’s book.

A.        The Grief Cycle of Divorce

  • Divorce-related grief does not move in a straight line in one direction.
  • People tend to cycle repeatedly through a three-part phase consisting of love, anger, and sadness.
  • Typically, love, anger, and sadness are experienced intensely and only one emotion at a time though in sequence.
  • Over time, the intensity of the feelings begin to lessen and the cycles of each emotion begin to blend.   
  • The overlapping of emotions results in a more realistic, less emotionally painful view of the divorce.
  • When the blending of emotions does not occur, people get stuck in one emotional cycle or another.
  • Someone who gets stuck on love may deny the reality of the breakup and pine for reconciliation.
  • Someone caught up in anger will act out of vindictiveness and a need for revenge.
  • Those who are mired in sadness will assume an exaggerated and unrealistic sense of responsibility for what has occurred.

B.        The Many Functions of Anger

  • Anger as an emotional cover-up.
  • Anger helps us deal with pain.
  • Anger can cover up fear.
  • Anger can be a way of keeping people in contact, of trying to bring them back together.

C.         The “Leaver” and the “Left”

  • From a time standpoint, the leaver is often significantly ahead of the one left.
  • The leaver usually has a vision of the future, a future outside the marriage.
  • At a more comfortable pace, the lever has already begun cycling through the love-anger-sadness of divorce grief and may be beyond the most dramatic ups and downs of individual emotions.
  • The partner being left has not emotionally begun to take the first step on the divorce cycle of grieving.
  • The leaver and the left are literally in different places of their grief.

 D.        The Crucial Work of Setting Boundaries

  • Boundaries are the rules of relationships and managing the relationship with a partner with whom you are separating from necessitates setting new boundaries.
  • Boundaries prevent confusion by letting people know where they stand in a relationship- where in your life they may enter and where they may not.
  • Frequently, starting with a more “businesslike relationship” can be a way to start new and safe boundaries.
  • The most cooperative coparenting relationships have very clear rules.
  • They remain cooperative relationships because the parenting partners respect those rules and each other’s boundaries.

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