In 1969, Swiss Psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross created the five stages of grief from her work dealing with terminally ill patients. Her groundbreaking discovery became the bible; giving people a framework and comfort by helping them understand what is happening while they are going through their loss.
Divorce is a form of death that has its own stages of grief. After many years of counseling people going through transitions, including those who are in the midst of terminally ill relationships, I have created a model based on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s groundbreaking work to help people emerge from these difficult times empowered and knowing that they are here for a reason.
It has been said that denial is a human’s most predictable emotion. Divorce awakens our “stuff,” our fears, insecurities, as well as our incredible potential. These thoughts and feelings can be painful, and as human beings our natural unconscious response is to avoid pain. Consequently, we make up stories in our minds and create a false reality that we perceive as preferable to the one that we are in. We say things like “Maybe I should just stick it out,” “Maybe it isn’t really as bad as I make it out to be,” and “Who am I to think I deserve better?”
Denial is a natural stage of the separation process. By being aware that you are in the midst of this stage, you can avoid “buying in” to the tall tales you are telling yourself. Stay true to yourself and your reason for moving on.
This is the place where denial meets reality head on… ouch! The old stance of “My relationship is not so bad,” has lost most of its charm. Emotions rise and blame begins; you add up all of the terrible things about your partner, some that you have kept inside over the years.
Releasing anger in a healthy way is beneficial and a natural part of this stage, but in order to get the most out of this stage, try viewing it from a larger perspective. From this place, we can embrace the point of view that we attract our partner for a reason, and a big reason is that they are one of most powerful teachers. Shamans often refer to these types of teachers as our petty tyrants, masterfully pushing all of our buttons.
If we spend this entire stage unconsciously spewing out anger at the other person, we miss the lessons. Pay attention to the things that trigger you; watch your emotions, beautiful gifts are wrapped up inside of these feelings. Take the courage to feel and follow these emotions to a spot in your body; then sit in that place for a little while and say, “hi.”
Note: If the feelings become too powerful, give yourself the compassion to leave it alone for a while and move back into the anger, or any other stage for that matter. This is not about being perfect; it is about being fully human- awake and alive throughout this journey. Additionally, no one consciously asks for or deserves an abusive situation! If you are in one leave, get help and be strong, you don’t deserve it!
Who gets the house? Who gets the money? And what about the kids? This is the place where we use things of value against the other partner. This can be a dangerous and costly stage if not managed well. When we get caught up in the fight, it can keep us in this bargaining stage for a prolonged period of time, resulting in both financial and emotional costs.
This is a time to have both feet firmly rooted on the ground because the financial decisions we are about to make will have long lasting results. Pay attention to the following five rules:
- Know Your Balance Sheet. Not all assets are created equal. You need to understand the type of assets you have to avoid surprises down the road. In many divorces, the two largest assets are the home and the retirement accounts. These are two completely different types of assets. Don’t accept splitting one for the other without addressing the tax consequences and your liquidity needs. This is just one example of a myriad of asset types to understand.
- Consider Taxes. Income taxes play a big part of most divorces. Alimony payments are considered taxable income whereas child support payments are not. How will taxes impact your net cash flow? Who should claim the dependents? Are there any tax carry forwards from prior years to divide? This list could go on and on. The help of a tax expert in this area is critical.
- Plan Ahead. What will your post-divorce financial life look like? Do you know what your cash flow needs will be? Will there be enough after-tax income to meet those needs? Having these answers will help you negotiate for the right amount of support (if you need it) and give you peace of mind knowing what lifestyle you can afford post-divorce.
- Consider Credit Issues: Do you have credit cards in your name? If not and you are removed as an authorized user, your credit score will take a hit and make it more difficult for you to obtain your own credit cards, loans, etc. If you don’t have your own card, apply before the divorce is final. Also, be sure to pull your credit report before you settle. You are allowed one free report per year and it can be accessed at www.annualcreditreport.com. You should request your spouse’s report as well.
- Investments: Know where your investments are and how they are allocated. Find a financial advisor who has deep experience, not only in asset management, but also in working with clients going through a divorce. Of course I am a bit bias, but working with the right advisor through these challenging times can make a huge difference through the process.
Dante, in “The Divine Comedy,” summed it up beautifully when he started with the words…
“In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost.”
Here you are in the middle of the reality of your situation, saddened by the certainty of this loss, and happy that it is almost over. All of the noise and drama and fighting that kept you distracted has gone away. You find yourself in the middle of your life, in a dark place that stirs up remaining demons. You are lost and in the depth of your initiation called divorce.
When you are in the middle of your divorce it is hard, if not impossible, to see this time as having much value or as an initiation; but that is the way initiations work. Initiations come upon us when we least expect them and throw our lives into a whirlwind, leaving us feeling like we are lost and depressed. They rip you apart like the god, Kali (shown in the picture at the top of this article) in a wrathful, relentless, loving way, with only one goal in mind – to break you down so you can be rebuilt and become the person you are meant to be- in all your authentic power.
So don’t confuse depression as weakness or a permanent condition, it is a stage. You are supposed to feel lost right now. It is the only true way to your authentic self. Think about it: if you sent a young boy into the woods for a week to fend for himself as part of an initiation, like many indigenous cultures still do, and then you gave him a flashlight and a map, it would kind of defeat the whole purpose. It’s OK to be lost, trust in the path.
Although you may flow in and out of the five stages of divorce, if you pay attention, stay awake and do your work through each stage, you can graduate into this final stage of acceptance. This is where you move on with your life. You emerge as a different person, transformed and healed from old wounds and your core life lessons.
Stay awake. We all know the person who gets divorced and ends up marrying the same wife or husband a few years later with a different name. Be careful of what you attract as you re-enter into the new reality. If you see yourself attracting the same type of teacher, it is a sign that you may need to do some more inner work.
It is true; the teacher arrives when the student is ready. Mindfully attract a team of specialized experts in the field of divorce matters to help guide you through these times- an attorney, accountant, financial advisor, mediator, family/alternative therapist.
Waking up is worth it. You deserve it and the world needs you. You are here for a reason!
Larry Ford is an author, syndicated columnist, speaker, teacher, financial advisor at Conscious Capital Wealth Management, and consultant to the financial industry. He has advised thousands of people with both their finances and their spirit. The Washington Post dubbed Mr. Ford the “Shaman of Wall Street,” The Economist Magazine referred to Lawrence as a man of “two worlds,” NPR named him The Finance Guru, and the Retirement Income Journal recently called him The Spiritual Advisor.
Contributing to this article from our Westport office is William Donaldson, CFP®. He is a nationally recognized expert in the area of divorce finance and has lectured frequently on the issue of divorce taxation. Conscious Capital Wealth Management, LLC is a financial advisory firm that specializes in helping individuals through life transitions including divorce.