Lesson 4 of 7  - optimize your relationships

Q&A about Divorce,
Re/divorce, and
 Divorce Recovery

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this 2-page article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/qa/divorce.htm

Updated 02-18-2015

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      This is one of a series of Lesson-4 articles on improving your relationships. It proposes brief answers about psychological and legal divorce which significantly stresses millions of average adults and kids, and depletes our society. Each answer includes links to more information.

      This brief YouTube video highlights some of what you'll find in this Q&A article:

      This Q&A article assumes you're familiar with...

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

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4

  • perspective on primary relationships; and..

  • premises about solving relationship "problems,"

      Before reading further, pause and decide if your true Self is guiding you. Scan all the questions first, and then follow any links of interest. Do you know why you're reading this?

      These questions and answers are in two groups:

  • divorce and all families, and...

  • re/divorce and stepfamilies

      Recall: underlined links will take you to a new page, so close it to return here.

  Q & A about divorce and divorce recovery

1)  What is a "relationship," a "pseudo relationship," and a "committed primary relationship"?

2)  What needs do typical partners hope to fill by committing to each other? See this.

3)  What is divorce?

4)  What is divorce recovery?

5)  Why do so many couples eventually divorce psychologically or legally?

6How does the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle affect the odds of eventual divorce for typical couples and their families?

7)  How do current state and local laws promote the U.S. divorce epidemic?

8How does courtship relate to possible future divorce?

9)  Are there common courtship danger signs that partners and their supporters should be aware of?  Yes.

10)  How can clergypersons and churches help courting couples guard against possible future divorce?

11)  Does cohabiting before marriage affect the odds of eventual divorce? See this.

12)  When does divorce begin and end?

13)  How long does divorce "take"?

14)  What are typical effects of divorce?

15)  What is a successful divorce?

16)  How can I choose an effective divorce attorney?

17)  Why can't typical couples problem-solve?

18)  Is redivorce different than first divorce?

19)  How can concerned people help to reduce the odds of divorce in (a) their family and (b)  their community, region, or nation? Commit to a version of these three steps.

20)  What are the phases of normal divorce recovery, and how long do they usually take?

21)  How can typical adults tell if an adult or child has recovered from a family divorce well enough?

22)  How does psychological or legal divorce affect typical minor kids and their grandparents?

23)  How does divorce affect a typical biofamily's developmental phases?

24)  Do extra-marital affairs mean divorce is inevitable? Not necessarily.

25)  How can concerned relatives and friends best support divorcing adults and kids?  

26)  How can troubled partners select effective professional relationship mediation?

27)  What are traits of an effective divorce-recovery support group?

Redivorce and Stepfamilies

28)  Why are stepfamily mates at special risk of re/divorce?

29)  How can typical courting partners with prior kids minimize the odds of eventual re/divorce? Why and how should they select effective pre-re/marital counseling?

30)  What does redivorce usually indicate about each partner and their family?

      The answers below are based on my professional research since 1979, and clinical experience with over 1,000 typical divorcing and re/married Midwestern-US women and men. Use these answers to clarify what you and important others believe about these questions.

Q1)  What is a "relationship," a "pseudo relationship," and a "committed primary relationship"?

      Premise - two people have a relationship if one or both of them is significantly affected by the existence, beliefs, expectations, attitudes, and/or behaviors of the other. Significantly is a subjective judgment.

       A primary relationship is one which a partner consistently values above all others except in some  emergencies. In a committed primary relationship, each partner vows to keep the relationship primary despite inevitable stressors and temptations.

      Traditionally, marital partners pledge "For better and for worse, 'til death do us part." Some modern couples - specially after prior breakups - commit conditionally, as in "I commit to you as long as I get my main relationship needs (below) met." They may or may not admit this limitation to themselves and/or each other.     

      A pseudo relationship is mostly dutiful, intellectual, and/or strategic (a means to an end), and is based on one or both partners pretending respect and concern in order to fill some covert needs. Typically, such partners deny the pretense and their denials. Their pretenses imply...

  • they inherited significant psychological wounds in childhood; and...

  • they fear revealing some shameful truth to themselves and/or other people,

Some psychologically-wounded people must pretend to relate (care) because they can't form genuine bonds with some or all other people. 


Q3)  What is divorce?

      Try saying your definition out loud. Then compare it to this...

      People often say divorce and divorced without really appreciating what these terms mean. Depending on the context, divorce can be...

a personal, social, and/or legal event,

a dynamic multi-year process,

a shameful religious sin,

a cause of complex sets of losses (broken bonds) and grief,

a source of relief and renewed hope

a cultural (sociological) event and trend,

a reason to hit true personal bottom and break long-held denials

a source of significant personal and parental regrets, guilts, and shame

a personal and family identity trait ("I'm a divorced Dad" / "We're divorced"),

a symptom of adult wounding and low childhood and current-family nurturance,

a personal and/or parental "failure,"

a psychological trauma and tragedy requiring personal and family recovery (grieving, acceptance, and adjustment)

      Most people associate divorce with a legal process between two spouses involving attorneys, settlements, and decrees. Typical Catholics also associate it with annulment.

      The legal process is the end phase of months or years of psychological divorce - the gradual loss of love, respect, and bonding between two partners. Millions of uncounted couples tolerate psychological  divorce, but never file to end their legal partnership obligations or status.

      Awareness of which meaning of divorce is relevant in your situation promotes effective discussion, decisions, grieving, and problem-solving. For perspective on the unremarked  American divorce epidemic, see this.


Q4)  What is divorce recovery?

      It is a complex long-term process that includes...

  • understanding, accepting, and adjusting to a web of personal, family-system, and social changes; and...

  • adults and kids admitting (vs. denying) and grieving broken bonds (losses) over months or years; and...

  • forgiving themselves and each other for divorce-related hurts, failures, and betrayals. 

      Divorce recovery is a multi-level, multi-year personal + environmental process starting with shock, moving through predictable phases if conditions allow that, and ending with stable mental + emotional + spiritual acceptance of significant divorce-related losses (broken bonds) in all affected people.

      Full acceptance allows resuming normal life goals and activities, including selectively forming new bonds. Divorce recovery often takes many years for all affected adults and kids to reach full, stable acceptance. That may never happen, if some affected adults and/or kids are significantly wounded and lack the requisites for healthy mourning. See Lesson 3 for more perspective.

      To help evaluate the degree of divorce recovery in yourself and/or another person, use this worksheet. For effective divorce prevention options, see Q8 below.


Q5)  Why do so many couples eventually divorce psychologically or legally?

      Because their unaware, wounded society currently denies, condones, and promotes the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle. That includes condoning...

  • unqualified child-conception and ineffective parenting - partly due to impaired mother-child bonding, so kids don't get their developmental needs met well enough; and...

  • to survive, poorly-nurtured kids automatically develop two to six psychological wounds; and when they leave home...

  • typical wounded, needy, unaware young adults choose the wrong people to commit to, for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time; and...

  • typical couples are unaware of grieving, wound-healing, and communication basics, and can't avoid or resolve significant relationship problems. Therefore, their relationship needs are unfilled too often, and eventually, weary, hopeless partners divorce psychologically or legally; and...

  • unless divorcing, needy adults intentionally reduce their unawareness and wounds, they often unconsciously repeat this sequence in midlife or later - specially if they choose to join or create a complex, alien stepfamily.

       Does this explanation of widespread divorce seem credible to you? If so, consider acting to prevent divorce by choosing some version of these three steps - starting in your family.


Q6)  How does the pervasive [wounds + unawareness] cycle affect the odds of eventual divorce for typical couples and their families?

      The cycle steeply increases the odds of eventual psychological or legal divorce by...

  • promoting wounded, needy, courting partners choosing each other despite danger signs (Q9) and denying their respective wounds and what they mean; and by...

  • typical partners denying, minimizing, rationalizing, and avoiding significant relationship problems (unfilled needs), and...

  • partners' false selves not wanting to learn how to admit and resolve such problems effectively as true teammates; and...

  • couples avoiding appropriate supports, and/or not using supports when offered; and the [wounds + unawareness] cycle...

  • promotes significant personal, school, and social problems for any dependent kids, which stresses the kids, the co-parents' relationship, and their family system.

      These cycle-effects combine to raise the odds of divorce, because typical lay adults and most mental-health professionals aren't aware of them or don't know what to do about them..

      See this article for effective options to help break this toxic cycle.


Q7)  How do current state and local laws promote the U.S. divorce epidemic?

      Most states require an exam to get licensed to operate a vehicle, practice law, dentistry, sell food, prepare taxes, parent foster kids, and to provide various personal and home-repair services. To my knowledge, most U.S. states require an official blood test and no other meaningful requisites for legal marriage. In other words, ancestral tradition puts the responsibility for wise commitment choices on the couple, not the state - despite the major stresses that divorces and inept child care put on our society.

       Typical churches may offer voluntary pre-marital counseling and sanctify marriages, but make no effective attempt to assess and stop ill-prepared (unqualified) couples from committing to each other and potentially passing on the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle to their vulnerable descendents.

      From this point of view, current civil laws and church traditions are unintentionally promoting the tragic U.S. divorce epidemic, which spreads the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle. The voting public passively permits this, so far. If you want to stop this enabling and protect future generations, consider these practical action options.


Q8)   How does the courtship process relate to possible future divorce?

      When one or both courting partners are psychologically wounded and unaware, they risk choosing the wrong people to commit to, for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time. These reactive, unwise courtship-commitment decisions combine to steeply raise the odds of future psychological or legal divorce - even if one or both mates divorced before. This is specially true where one or both partners have minor and/or grown kids from prior unions.

       Restated - typical needy, love-dazed courting partners aren't aware of - or ignore - clear danger signs that they're making unwise commitment choices. From this perspective, divorce starts in courtship.


Question 10)  How can clergypersons and churches help courting couples guard against future divorce?

      The first line of protection for typical needy, unaware couples is any clergyperson they ask to sanctify their union who knows about the unseen [wounds + unawareness] cycle and its toxic personal, marital, and parental effects. I suspect that few ordained men and women have this vital knowledge now.

      For practical options that clergypersons of any faith have to alert and protect engaged couples with or without prior kids, see this article.

      Note: popular (re)marriage-prep programs like Prepare/Enrich, FOCCUS, and Relate are helpful within limits, and presently do NOT adequately assess engaged couples for the five common hazards proposed here. See these quizzes, and study this free, self-improvement marriage-prep course.


Q12)  When does a divorce start and end?

      Many people say "It begins when one mate calls a lawyer." I propose that psychological divorce starts much earlier, when one partner admits significant relationship discomfort - i.e. anxiety, hurt, anger, frustration, distrust, irritation, and disrespect. A purist may say that divorce really starts when an unaware adult makes uninformed, need-driven commitment choices.

       The (legal) divorce process ends only when the adult or child who is slowest at adjusting to personal and family changes regains their personal balance, finishes grieving and forgiving, and fully resumes stable focus on their present and future life. It can be hard to assess this - specially if anyone is repressing and denying divorce-related feelings. See this worksheet for perspective after you finish here.

      Implication - because many psychologically- wounded couples divorce and their families are unable to grieve well, their divorce-adjustment phase may not truly end until the adults hit bottom and admit and start to reduce ("recover from") their wounds. This delayed adjustment may manifest as significant "depression," addictions, promiscuity, obesity, health and/or parenting problems, and impulsive remarriage and/or cohabiting.


Q13) How Long Can Divorce Take?

      Divorce "adjustment" refers to the process required for all affected family members to grieve their losses and stabilize changes in their roles, identities, relationships, rituals, activities and assets. Research suggests that full family adjustment can take typical kids and adults many years after a divorce decree is signed. If the pre- and post-legal phases of the full divorce process are included, the process may easily take average kids and adults a decade or more to stabilize.

divorce period
+ legal-divorce

adjustment period

<- - - - - - -  10 or more years  - - - - - >

      This suggests that it's more realistic to describe family members as divorcing, vs. divorced at any point in this long process. This adjective can guard against the need to deny or minimize the uncomfortable causes and impacts of divorce as soon as possible, which can hinder healthy grieving.

      Many (wounded) young adults marry too soon and later divorce psychologically or legally, for several reasons. The net effect is: the three phases of divorce (Q20) probably stress more American lives than AIDS or cancer. What's your opinion?


Q14)  What Are Typical Effects of Divorce?

      Realistically, identifying the "impacts of divorce" must include how the months or years of pre-legal psychological-divorce stress affect the wholistic health of each extended-family adult and child. This effect can be generalized as:

  • divorce-stress promotes psychological wounding in some or all family members, which...

  • lowers the nurturance level of the divorcing family a little to a lot.

      In my professional experience since 1979, a high percentage of typical American couples cohabit or re/wed too soon after mate death or legal divorce. They do this from unawareness + neediness + an unconscious desire to avoid the pain of full divorce recovery.

      After 36 years' study, I believe many researchers, clinicians, authors, and divorcing people over-focus on the impacts of the legal divorce process and event, and minimize or ignore the psychological wounds + unawareness + incomplete grief that cause it.

      Many learned studies, laws, and lay books and articles focus on the “effects of (legal) divorce” - and overlook or discount the underlying psychological wounding that starts early in the ex mates’ childhoods. I've seen no studies of the developmental and social effects of psychological (non-legal) divorce on persons, families, and our society - have you?

      Typical impacts vary by person, family, and circumstance, but some impacts are common:

  • gradual shifting from marital and family hope and optimism to pessimism, anxiety, frustration, and possible despair (loss of key dreams and expectations);

  • prolonged periods of anxieties, confusions, guilts, frustrations, hurts, and resentments among adults and kids, including concerned relatives and key friends;

  • complex sets of tangible and invisible losses (broken bonds) that require months or years for each affected family adult and child to grieve well;

  • temporary or chronic loss of self-respect and/or mutual respect in some family members;

  • one or both divorcing partners - and maybe their parents - feeling significant regret and guilts for various reasons. Unresolved guilts may lower self-respect and hinder grieving, parenting  team-work, and forming new bonds.

      And the three-phase psychological > legal divorce process can promote...

  • major shifts in, and disputes over, financial security and asset ownerships. One or both ex mates and dependents' financial security may drop significantly for many months after marital separation; and...

  • family members and key friends may form adversarial groups, which reduces support and adds conflicts for some or all adults and kids; and...

  • possible lose-lose legal battles over property and parenting settlements, which inexorably amplify original disputes and barriers to child-care cooperation; and another effect is the...

  • psychological wounding of minor children, possibly slowing or blocking their normal development; and creating a group of difficult adjustment needs which they don't understand, and need informed adult help to fill; and divorce causes...

  • unquantifiable stresses in local and our larger society; and...

  • situational stressors unique to each family and community.

      If you have divorced, or know someone who has, can you identify other significant personal and social impacts of marital and family dis-integration? 


Question 15) What is a successful divorce?

       Would you agree that some divorces are less stressful and more successful than others? Try saying your definition of "successful divorce" out loud, and notice your thoughts and feelings. Do you know a family who has achieved that, in your opinion? See how your definition compares to this:

      A successful legal divorce...

fills most adults' and kids' primary needs well enough, in their own opinions; and...

clearly raises their overall life quality (security, productivity, serenity, and health) over time; and...

helps all affected people learn important things about themselves and relating to others effectively; and...

restores realistic hope for, and steady interest in, the future.

      Fills what needs? Each family adult and child has a different mix, but some are common. We'll looks at minor kids' needs in some detail below. See if you would edit this checklist of needs

      As your relationships, roles, identities, and routines change and stabilize over time, each family member usually needs to

feel that they and their loved ones are psychologically and physically safe enough during their family reorganization process. This includes trusting your judgment, and the good will of your mate and others involved.

feel respected enough about your values, choices, and actions by (a) yourselves and (b) key other people. Restated: you each need to maintain your dignity and integrity as your divorce evolves. To do this, you all need to...

Be aware, and think, communicate, and compromise effectively when your needs, perceptions, and values conflict. That includes...

  • identifying your primary (vs. surface) needs,

  • asserting them firmly, and...

  • feeling heard and accepted well enough by each other, best friends, and key relatives and professionals.

  Lesson 2 can help with this.

      And divorcing family-members all need...

to feel free enough from other people's interference, like lawyers, judges, and relatives, to make their own decisions about how to fill their daily and long-term needs; and...

to help each other identify and grieve their many losses – i.e. to maintain pro-grief environment inside their skins and home/s. This includes safely expressing normal grief confusion, anger, and sadness. Online Lesson 3 provides a framework; and…

to reduce any significant feelings of shame, guilt, resentment, hostility, jealousy, and revenge. That means that each divorcing person needs to learn to want to forgive themselves and each other for causing prior and current pain. And you each need…

enough psychological, mental, and legal support, while this complex, daunting process goes on a day at a time. This includes spiritual support, and reorganizing and stabilizing your friendships. Can you hear your “still small voice”?

      And as you divorce, each of your kids and adults needs…

to rest once in a while, and do all your other responsibilities well enough, like jobs, and school, and taking care of each other; pets and plants and homes; managing assets and belongings; and your bodies and spirits; and you need…

to balance your life with other activities as your process unfolds, so it doesn’t consume you.

      and finally you each need…

to sustain enough credible hope for a better future.

      Each family system is unique, and will probably have special needs that aren’t included above. Do you see any needs that don’t apply to you all? This list is less important than your staying aware of your and your kids’ needs, and working steadily to fill them well enough, as you reorganize and restabilize your family system.


More answers to questions about divorce, re/divorce, and divorce recovery...