Lesson 4 of 7  - optimize your relationships

Checklist: Symptoms of
an Unfinished Divorce

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member, NSRC Expert Council


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/mates/divorce_wks.htm

Updated 02-05-2015

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      This brief YouTube video provides perspective on this symptom checklist:

      This is one of a series of lesson-4 articles on how to evolve high-nurturance relationships. This series extends the concepts in Lessons 1-3, so study them first.

      This is one of several worksheets designed to help courting couples make three wise commitment choices for themselves and any dependents. The worksheets exist because over half of recent U.S. marriages fail legally or psychologically. Up to 70% of divorced people commit to new partners - some before they're finished adjusting to their losses.

      This worksheet assumes you're familiar with...

  • The intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4  (Parts 1 and 2)

  • these Q&A items on divorce and divorce recovery

  • this video on improving relations between divorcing parents, and...

  • this summary of typical minor kids' adjustment needs


      Divorce is a multi-phase process that starts either in a mate's low-nurturance childhood, or when one or both needy partners make unwise commitment choices. The process becomes evident well before one mate leaves, and lasts for some years after any legal decree is filed.

      Divorce is a complex, multi-year family-system reorganization, not just the ending of a relationship commitment and bond. The complex divorce process "ends" psychologically when every family adult and child significantly affected by the process (in someone's opinion) has...

  • clearly grieved all their major divorce-related losses (broken bonds), and has...

  • stabilized their inner and outer lives after changes in each person's personal identity, names, family roles, rules, and rituals; finances; spirituality; childcare; work; and key relationships; caused by the divorce.

      Depending on many factors, these two divorce-recovery processes can take many years after a desertion, separation, and/or legal divorce. This is specially true for divorcing parents with one or more minor children.

      A study by psychologist Judith Wallerstein concluded that some families can take over 10 years to adjust and stabilize to legal divorce. Each family member progresses at their own pace in these two concurrent tasks, which can be slowed or blocked but not sped up.

      Family members' language can be a recovery-status clue. If they say "John and Mary are divorced," it implies the speaker doesn't appreciate that the two divorce-recovery processes above may not be not finished. A more realistic option is "John, Mary, and their families are divorcing" - even after the decree is granted.

      If a suitor commits to a partner whose family is not well along in these two adjustment tasks, the couple risks committing too soon and encountering serious relationship problems. This is specially likely if there are kids involved.

       Implication - when one or both courting partners have ended a prior primary relationship, each partner needs to judge honestly how each divorcing family (not person) is doing in the two recovery processes above. This means that each partner needs to...

  • be usually guided by their true Self, or be committed to working toward that;

  • _ clearly understand the three-level grieving process, _ know the common signs of  incomplete grief, and _ what to do about it. For more perspective on this, see Lesson 3;  

  • be able to describe the two divorce-recovery processes above in some detail.

      And each partner needs to...

  • know (a) when family members need professional help in recovering from divorce-related changes and losses, and (b) how to select qualified supports. (Option - search online for "divorce recovery" resources).

       Many needy couples don't (want to) know they need these four factors, or they do know, but ignore or minimize them. Psychologically- wounded partners are at high risk of distorting reality without knowing it to meet current short-term needs. Divorce strongly suggests mates are unaware of - and significantly affected by - the lethal [wounds + ignorance] cycle.

      Note the reality of psychological divorce. Though partners may choose to endure a loveless independent relationship, each partner has losses to grieve (like hopes and dreams) - unless they never bonded in the first place.

Symptom Checklist

       Premise - incomplete divorce adjustment has recognizable behavioral symptoms. The more symptoms a family has, the more likely their members have not fully adjusted to divorce changes and losses. This checklist is illustrative, not comprehensive - each family may have unique symptoms.

__  1)  One or both ex mates shows significant behavioral signs of psychological wounds, and is not genuinely committed to personal healing.

__  2)  One or both ex mates are often hostile, critical, disrespectful, distrusting of, and/or dishonest, codependent, and/or seductive or sexually intimate with the other.

__  3)  Ex mates often avoid direct contact with each other, specially if they are parents. If so, each may justify this by blaming their ex ("S/He's just impossible to deal with.")

__  4)  One or both ex mates and/or one or more children are...

  • probably or surely addicted to...

    • chemicals (including sugar, fat, and nicotine), and/or...

    • activities (e.g. gambling, working, exercising, traveling, eating, Web-surfing, worshiping, pornography, shopping, etc.); and/or...

    • excitement, and/or...

    • a relationship (codependence); and...

  • their family denies or minimizes the addiction/s and their toxic personal and family effects, or...

  • the addicts and any co-addicts (codependents) (a) have not hit true bottom, and/or (b) are not genuinely committed to achieving and maintaining sobriety.

__  5)  The legal divorce process has not been finalized for at least 12 months.

__  6)  There are significant recurring disputes between ex mates about money; property, asset and debt ownership; values; co-parenting agreements; child-custody; and/or other personal or family conflicts.

__  7)  One or both ex mates have recently or chronically threatened to take the other "back to court" over some issues.

      More typical symptoms of a psychologically-unfinished divorce...

__  8)  One or more children of the divorce are significantly _ angry, _ "depressed," _ have chronic physical, sleep, and/or eating complaints; are _ "hyperactive" or _ "have trouble concentrating;" and/or _ feel overly responsible for a parent, sibling, or troubled relative.

__  9)  There is significant antagonism, hostility, distrust, disrespect, and resentments among some relatives of the divorcing couple - specially parents and/or siblings.

__  10)  One ex-mate and/or one or more family members (a) have recurring unrealistic fantasies about the couple and their family reuniting, and/or (b) they are compulsively trying to make that happen despite clear evidence that it's not possible.

__  11)  There are one or more stressful relationship "cutoffs" among family members that seem to relate  to the divorce's causes, process, and/or impacts;

__  12)  one or more family members chronically avoid...

  • talking about divorce causes, losses, conflicts, and/or impacts; and/or...

  • physical or emotional reminders of the divorce (e.g. places, music, mementos, pictures, rituals, holidays, etc.); and/or...

  • speaking honestly about their divorce-related opinions, feelings, needs, and reactions; 

__  13)  One or more family members show signs of significant guilt and shame about the causes, process, and/or effects of the divorce process. These are usually symptoms of inherited psychological wounds, not just incomplete divorce recovery.

 __  14)  One or both ex mates are isolating and avoiding normal contact with family, friends, and their religious community, if any; or one or both are compulsively busy and avoiding solitude.

+ + +

      Do you feel that these are probably reliable clues that a family-system divorce adjustment isn't finished yet? Can you add any symptoms?


      From my professional research and clinical experience with hundreds of typical divorcing and remarrying couples and families since 1979, this checklist offers common symptoms of a psychologically-unfinished divorce. That is, symptoms that ex mates or other members of the divorcing families have not yet...

  • grieved and accepted all their major divorce-related losses (broken bonds), and/or have not yet...

  • stabilized their inner and outer lives after adapting to members' changes in personal identity, names, family roles, rules, and rituals; hopes, goals, finances; spirituality; child-care; work; and key relationships; caused by the divorce.

      Each symptom in this checklist suggests that one or both ex mates and their families are affected by the lethal [wounds + ignorance] cycle - and they probably don't (want to) know that or what it means.

      Also see these other common courtship danger signs, and courtship-questions potential partners need to discuss.

  A well-respected divorce-recovery book is Rebuilding - When Your Relationship Ends," by Bruce Fisher and Robert E. Alberti. There are many recovery resources accessible now by Web search.

      Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Is there anyone you want to discuss these ideas with? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

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