The Death of a Marriage

When there is a death of a partner in a marriage, it is considered tragic by friends and family, and they gather round in support and reassurance and understanding, responding to the mourning and grief of the survivor. This seems a natural and humane part of our culture.

Strangely divorce (which could be likened to the death of a marriage) does not receive the same response from friends and family. Family members are often disapproving, shamed, embarrassed, or perhaps take an "I told you so" stance. Friends are often made uneasy or uncomfortable by your action. Your divorce in some strange way may threaten their marriages. So that they may feel very awkward around you, having difficulty finding "safe" topics of conversation. Your church may be condemning and punitive, rather than supportive and understanding. On the other hand others may see you as light-hearted and happy, fortunate to have rid yourself of a burden. None of these reactions to your state gives you a chance to grieve. There is grief, and sadness on the part of both the "leaver" and the "left", even though each may see the other as having the best part of things.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross - in her book called "On Death and Dying" - lists five stages which a dying person goes thru in his recognition of his / her mortality - as well as his /her family going through the same steps in dealing with this loss.

These steps seem particularly fitting in thinking of the death of a marriage. These steps need to be recognized, and worked through in order to be able to readjust and move toward a new and different life. The steps, as Kubler-Ross sees them, are these:

1st - The denial and isolation - the refusal to recognize the situation, and the difficulty of not being able to talk about the situation to anyone. There is a feeling of being alone in your struggle.

The second stage is anger, where the need to punish, to get even, to make him /her hurt as much as you do, all of the punitive kinds of reactions are present.

The third stage is bargaining - "I’ll do anything to please" - if only you will try again, "please don’t leave", I can’t live without you (which holds its own threat), all the ways in which we try to keep things as they were.

The fourth stage is depression - "all is lost" stage, when the feelings of loss and gain are confused. The past looks good and the future cannot be tolerated. The hurt is intolerable so that the world looks lonely and desolate. "I will never have anything" - "I will always be alone", there is nothing to look forward to, this is a bleak stage indeed, but it is a stage.

The final stage is acceptance, which is one of facing the reality of the situation - being willing to deal with this reality, moving on to the future, and making new relationships.

One of the feelings not mentioned here is guilt, which so often interferes with the readjustment and forward looking movement which follows a "healthy" mourning. Perhaps one reason for this is the difficulty in looking at oneself - and the reluctance to accept one’s own responsibility in the relationship. One vital reason for looking at oneself, and being able to accept the role I played in the disintegration of the marriage, is to not ruin future relationships. To ask or to say (as is often heard in the depressive stage) "I am doomed to failure" is to say I have no responsibility. It should be mentioned that there is a great difference in accepting one’s own responsibility in the relationship and compulsively blaming yourself for it all. This can be as non-productive or even as destructive as putting all the blame on your partner. You must be willing to want to change before any change takes place.

So that it is important to be willing to look at oneself, say "yes I was wrong", and accept one’s own weaknesses and strengths, so that the future will indeed be different from the past.

The failure to go through the stages , the failure to somehow make peace with yourself and move on from there, may indeed cause a repetition of past errors.

Sometimes it is most difficult to find a place to mourn, or to find someone who will listen, much less understand the things you may be going thru. Regardless of the feelings you may have of "what will they think" - as well as all the other feelings you have, it is important to find a place or persons who can give you support.

The mourning for the death of a marriage is a natural phenomena. If you are a student or student spouse and you need to talk with someone about your own troubles with your "dead" marriage, please contact the CWC 325-392-1575

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The staff of the CWC includes licensed psychologists, licensed mental health counselors, clinical social workers, psychiatrists, psychiatric fellows, psychiatric nurse practitioners, postdoctoral associates, psychology interns, counselor education  interns, and practicum counselors. All of our staff are generalists and see students presenting with a variety of issues. 

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3190 Radio Rd.
PO Box 112662
Gainesville, FL 32611-2662
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ph: (352)392-1575      fx:(352)273-4738