As a family law lawyer, one of the most common questions I am asked at the initial stages of a separation and/or divorce is how long the process is going to take. My response is typically that the duration of the process is entirely dependant on if and when both partners will agree to resolution of the legal issues arising from their separation, once the necessary information has been exchanged, which in turn is usually determined by the degree of complexity associated with the legal issues to be resolved and level of conflict between the spouses, which is unique to their particular circumstances. Legal issues arising from separation generally entail parenting, child support, spousal/partner support and/or property distribution. If both partners will not agree to settlement or attend mediation to facilitate agreement, then their legal issues must be determined through some other process, such as arbitration or litigation, or otherwise be left unresolved.
In family law matters, non-legal factors can be key to reaching settlement of the legal issues arising from separation. Emotional readiness is often that elusive factor that influences when resolution is reached. To complicate matters further, both spouses usually are not at the same stage of emotional readiness at the time of separation, nor do they progress to attain the requisite level of readiness at the same pace. Commonly, one partner has been contemplating separation for some time and is emotionally ready or far more advanced in their progression towards readiness because he/she did so during the relationship, prior to separation, whereas the other spouse may not have been aware and therefore somewhat left behind at the very beginning or early stages of relationship transition.
According to Yuval Berger MSW, RSW, there are five stages of relationship transformation post-separation:
- Disintegration – Chaos in dissolution of we into separated I;
- Rebuilding separate selves – External differentiation;
- Reconnection – ‘Moving close – moving away’;
- Team up as parents; and
- Moving closer – ready to heal our emotional wounds through deeper connection.
Stage 1: Disintegration begins as soon as the idea of separation is introduced and is characterized by deep hurt, rejection and/or guilt and accompanied by a lack of empathy for a partner’s emotional needs and self-protection.
Stage 2: Rebuilding separate selves is essentially the start of developing a new identity apart from the relationship and is characterized by the need to draw attention to the differences between spouses, including personality traits, together with rigid boundaries, desire for autonomy, in addition to impulsivity and defensiveness. Both develop separate friends and activities and both feel victimized by the separation.
Stage 3: Reconnection is when partners begin to collaborate in relation to children or other common purpose, acknowledge differences in personal experiences and emotional needs and seek to balance the need to heal wounds from the past with the need to move forward for the future.
Stage 4: Team up is essentially where partners are able to move beyond the limitations of prior stages for the purpose of co-parenting, which in turn advances the relationship and builds trust, cooperation and understanding of the differences in parents’ values, styles and expectations.
Stage 5: Moving closer begins when spouses are ready to work together to heal emotional wounds related to issues of trust and betrayal and consider the relationship for support and emotional sustenance, which transcends parenting responsibilities, and each are appreciative of the other.
Emotional readiness for settlement does not usually develop until stage 3: Reconnection, since people tend not to have the capacity to do so at stages 1 or 2. Settlement is often solidified at stage 4: Team Up. Most people never attain stage 5: Moving Closer.
It is generally understood that the process can only progress at the pace of its slowest member How do we foster emotional readiness? Patience. Finding suitable temporary or interim solutions to any pressing matters can allow a spouse time, space and sufficient opportunity to reflect, digest and progress through the stages at his/her own pace. Counselling, with a qualified professional, such as a psychologist or social worker, can be instrumental is assisting a partner work through the stages of relationship transformation. Divorce coaching for one or both partners can assist in navigating the emotional undercurrents necessarily entailed in the process as well as providing strategies to communicate and deal with the other more effectively to get closer to resolution.
Acknowledgement and understanding of each other’s process needs should make the process more rewarding and less frustrating for those involved.