Dear Nick and Dear Nora:
I’ve spoken to both of you about how you’re feeling. Nick says he’s “thoroughly bummed out,” while Nora “feels like hell” and — even worse — she “can’t seem to shake it.”
You are just starting the 18th month since physical separation. On the basis of our studies of Santa Barbara divorce — and what I’ve observed in my own practice — you’ve entered Stage IV: depression.
By depression, I don’t mean a psychiatric diagnosis made from an established set of signs and symptoms. I mean the fourth of five psychological stages of the predictable, pervasive and unshakable sense of “feeling like hell” and being “thoroughly bummed out.” It’s a specific and essential part of the divorcing experience. It’s awkward, but for clarity I’ll call it “divorce depression.”
In this letter I’ll describe some general characteristics of divorce depression.
1. Timing. Because of the Yale Bereavement Study, we know the five stages appear, peak and conclude in the order predicted by the Kübler-Ross Model.
We know from the Santa Barbara Divorce Project that for “long” marriages (greater than 10 years), the average interval between separation and entry of judgment is 30.9 months. The interval for long marriages where there are no minor children when the petition was filed is 20.6 months.
For a “typical” long marriage without minor children (like yours), divorce depression should peak and resolve toward the conclusion of the 20-month Interval. You are starting the 18th month since physical separation, so your divorce depression is right on schedule.
2. Intensity. The Yale Bereavement Study was the first carefully controlled test of the validity of the Kübler-Ross Stage Model of Grief. It found that the five stages described by the model occurred in the order predicted. The probability of this happening by chance is 1:120 (or 5!).
Imagine a 9-inch horizontal line. It has a 3-inch mark and a 6-inch mark. Now imagine a smooth line forming a hump-like curve. It starts to rise at the left end of the line, reaches maximum altitude above the 6-inch mark and terminates at the right end of the line. This will give you an idea of how divorce depression begins, builds, peaks and resolves. Your experience of divorce depression started shortly after separation, but it was frequently masked by one of the other stages. Now it should be at center stage.
Bad news: You feel terrible. Good news: It won’t be long before you begin to feel less and less oppressed. Best news: The time required for divorce depression to conclude its effect is much shorter than the time it took to make you feel your worst.
3. Function. Though none pretends to be scientific, here are three explanations for the necessity of depression as a part of grief:
» 1) It’s the time when a person goes to his or her cave to recuperate from the psychic wounding inherent in the experience of separation.
» 2) If the grief process changes one’s self (and I’m becoming more and more convinced that it does), divorce depression is a chrysalis-like period during which the original John1 assimilates his post-separation emotional experiences which, for better or worse, will yield John2.
» 3) A client told me that he needed this private time to “feel his way into” what his new life would be like under the general terms of the draft marital settlement agreement.
4. Effect. I don’t rush a person whose divorce depression is anywhere near its maximum intensity. We are working on something that could have a significant effect on the way the parties live the rest of their lives; it’s crucial that when they complete their marital settlement agreement, both parties have the subjective sense that the final product represents their best efforts.
The goal is to have an agreement the parties sign because of a knowing and deliberate decision that it is in his or her best interest to do so, and each party believes they have discovered what is in their “mutual best interest.”
When either party is near the peak of divorce depression, mediation will be marginally productive. If one party is pushing toward an imagined conclusion faster than what’s comfortable for the other and the mediator doesn’t intervene, the mediation will slow down or stop for any number of reasons. I’ve seen disabling accidents, disabling illnesses, and the proliferation of issues that would not have appeared if the process proceeded at the speed comfortable for the spouse requiring the slower pace.
Nothing good can come of a mediation in which one person feels compelled to hurry the other so he can “get on with the rest of his life.” One of the most important services a mediator can provide is to make the process feel safe for both parties.
The best thing a participant in mediation can do is to “own” his or her divorce depression. A frank statement to the effect of, “I feel like hell, and I can’t shake it. I can’t do business with you right now. You have my assurance that I’m not withdrawing from the mediation process. In fact, I’m recommitting to it. It’s just that I’m worn out by the whole thing and nowhere near my best. You’ll be the first to know when I feel I’m ready to go back to work, and I won’t take one more day than is necessary.”
When divorce depression is encountered in mediation and one party expresses a lack of tolerance for the other, I express my opinion that all the stages are “systemic” and have origins in the family as a whole. The fact that one person is depressed or angry is more a statement about what’s going on for the entire family than a statement about the person who is the focus of attention. If the process is going too fast for the members of the family to make their necessary adjustments, the wife may get sick, the husband might have a car accident, or one of the children could get arrested. While possibilities are infinite, each is an undesirable event that has a paradoxically beneficial effect on the family.
I haven’t intended to suggest that divorce depression is a period of complete inactivity. It isn’t. It’s a time to do some of the most important work of your lifetime. While I’m waiting for you two to come out of your caves or cocoons, I’ll use these letters to describe the nature of the work you might be doing — and its long-term effect.
Your best friend,
[Click here for all reports, data, references and graphs generated as a part of the Santa Barbara Divorce Project.]