Collaborative Practice Marin
Dark Feelings During Your Divorce

Grief and Sorrow

Being sad when a marriage ends is natural. Although it’s painful, grief is a healthy emotional response to loss of an important relationship. We are hard-wired to feel it and it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect otherwise. While sorrow and grief can be very hard to handle, most people do understand and accept the inevitability of these feelings.

Research, theoretical writings, and our professional experience with thousands of couples during divorces all confirm that though the emotional impact of a divorce is as severe as that of a death in the immediate family, the grief and recovery process does have a beginning, middle, and end. Though they may seem endless, the pain and confusion surrounding separation and divorce do gradually lighten, and finally go away—for most people over a period of eighteen months to three or four years following the marital separation, though recovery  can be quicker or slower.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, pioneer in the hospice movement, first described the stages of grieving and recovering from a major trauma like death or divorce:

  • Denial— “This is not happening to me. It’s all a misunderstanding. It’s just a midlife crisis. We can work it out. ”
  • Anger and Resentment—“How can he (she) do this to me? What did I ever do to deserve this? This is not fair!”
  • Bargaining— “If you’ll stay, I’ll change” or, “If I agree to do it (money, childrearing, sex, whatever) your way, can we get back together?”
  • Depression— “This is really happening, I can’t do anything about it, and I don’t think I can bear it.”
  • Acceptance— “OK, this is how it is, and I’d rather accept it and move on than wallow in the past.”

Understanding these stages can be very helpful when it comes to talking about divorce and decision making.  It’s important to know that when you are in these early stages of this grief and recovery process, it can be challenging  to think clearly or to make decisions at all, much less to make them well. Identifying your present stage of grief and being aware of it is an important step toward ensuring that you make the best choices you can.

Guilt and Shame

Experiencing guilt and shame is also a normal reaction to the end of a marriage. These feelings arise when we feel a sense of failure—of not having fulfilled our own or our community’s expectations. In the case of divorce, people often feel guilt and/or shame because they have failed to stay married for life. That’s partly a matter of personal expectations—not fulfilling the promises made to a spouse—and also partly a matter of not fulfilling what our culture seems to expect from us. If our culture’s expectations about marriage and divorce are reasonable—if they fit well with how people actually behave in that culture—and we don’t measure up, then the guilt and shame felt at the time of divorce may be appropriate. If the culture’s expectations don’t match well with the reality of marriage and divorce as people actually live it, then the guilt and shame can be much more problematic—difficult to see clearly, difficult to acknowledge, difficult to manage in a divorce. In addition, in some marriages one or both partners have engaged in extremes of betrayal, deceit, or even criminal behavior that almost always involve feelings of guilt and shame.

For many people guilt and shame can be so painful that they change very quickly into other more tolerable feelings such as anger or depression—often without the person even knowing that the guilt and shame are there. This is why it is so common in divorce for each partner to blame the other, and why it can be so difficult for divorcing partners to accept responsibility for their own part in a failed marriage.

Very few divorcing people find it easy to see or accept their own feelings of guilt and shame. These powerfully negative feelings often remain under the radar, hidden and invisible, where they can do the most harm. Strong feelings of guilt or shame can make it difficult or impossible to take in more balanced information, to maintain perspective, and to consider realistically your best alternatives for how to resolve problems.

Guilt can cause spouses to feel they have no right to ask for what they need in a divorce, causing them to negotiate unbalanced, unrealistic settlements they later regret. Family lawyers have a saying that “guilt has a short half-life,” and because guilt is such an uncomfortable feeling, it can easily transform into anger.  People who have negotiated guilt-driven agreements often have second thoughts and go back to court to try to set aside imprudent settlements.

Similarly, shame often transforms into blame, anger or rage directed at the spouse. Bitter fights over children or property can be propelled by feelings like these, because modern divorces seldom brand either partner as Snow White or Hitler, Prince Charming or the Wicked Witch, and therefore the anger, which needs to go somewhere, goes toward fights over matters that courts are permitted to make orders about.

A full collaborative divorce team includes not just lawyers but also two licensed mental health professionals acting as coaches, whose job includes helping you and your spouse become more aware of how grief, shame, and other strong emotions may be playing an unwanted role in your divorce process.  They can also help you address those  feelings in constructive ways that leave you much more clear-thinking as you negotiate long-term divorce settlement terms.

Pauline H. Tesler, J.D., CFLS, is a collaborative divorce lawyer practicing in Marin and San Francisco.

[This post is excerpted and adapted from Chapter One of Collaborative Divorce: The Revolutionary New Way to Restructure Your Family, Resolve Legal Issues, and Move on with Your Life, by Pauline H. Tesler, J.D., and Peggy Thompson, Ph.D.]

photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.

What Happens to Social Security Benefits When You Divorce?

Questions abound about Social Security benefits when there is a divorce.  Social Security benefits are Federal benefits and are not subject to division in state courts.  That being said, under current Federal law unmarried lower earning spouses who had been married for 10 or more years before divorcing and are at least 62 years of age are entitled to ½ of the higher earning spouse's benefits under what is known as a derivative benefit or 100% of their own benefits - whichever is higher even if the higher earning spouse has remarried.  In order to receive the full ½ derivative benefit, the lower earning spouse must be at his or her full retirement age and the higher earning spouse must be of minimum retirement age or age 62.  If the higher earning spouse begins collecting Social Security benefits before full retirement age, the amount of the lower earning spouse's derivative benefit will be reduced by a percentage based on the number of months before the higher earning spouse reaches full retirement age.  In addition, lower earning spouses must be eligible to receive their own benefits, meaning they had worked a minimum of 40 credits.  One earns a maximum of four credits per year.  In 2013, one could earn one credit for every quarter one earned at least $1,160.

These derivative benefits for lower earning spouses have no affect on the benefits of higher earning spouses, their current spouses, or other family members.

If you are the lower earning spouse and are curious about whether your ex-spouse's benefits are more than 50% higher than your benefits, contact the Social Security Administration who will provide you with the benefit amounts to which you may be entitled after first verifying your relationship to your ex-spouse.  Privacy laws prohibit the Social Security Administration from providing the ex-spouse's actual Social Security Statement.

Should the higher earning spouse pass before the lower earning spouse and be fully insured (meaning having 40 credits), the lower earning spouse may be eligible to receive 100% of the higher earning spouse's benefits.  These benefits are called survivor benefits.  The survivor spouse must be at least age 60 or at least age 50, if disabled.  The survivor spouse must have been married to the ex-spouse for at least 10 years and be unmarried unless married after age 60 or after age 50 and at the time of remarriage were entitled to Social Security disability benefits. 

If at the time of divorce one legally changes his or her name, it will be important to notify the Social Security Administration.  For most people this would mean obtaining a certified copy of the divorce decree showing request for name change from the county Superior Court; providing either an original US issued driver's license, state ID card, or US passport; completing an application for a Social Security card; and delivering all items to the local Social Security office or Social Security Card Center.  The Social Security Administration notes that if mailing, original documents and certified copies will be returned with receipt.

For more information on Social Security benefits visit http://www.ssa.gov.  Or contact the Social Security Administration directly for answers to your specific situation.

Judith F. Sterling is a CPA, Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, and Collaborative Financial Specialist practicing in Sonoma and Marin Counties.  

photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.


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About Collaborative Practice Marin

CPM is a community of legal, mental health and financial professionals working together to create client-centered processes for resolving conflict.  We are located in Marin County, California. 

Why Collaborative Divorce?

“Divorce is never easy but the collaborative process made mine bearable.  I had more control and therefore less stress and anxiety because I had an active role.”

~JF

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