Updated: Jun 14
Article by Brian James of C.E.L & Associates, Inc.
As part of Mental Health Awareness month, I’ve asked an expert to share his insights into the emotional and mental traumas that impact families during a divorce. Brian James is a divorce mediator with 26 years of experience in the field. If you’ve questions for Brian, you can find his contact information at the end of this article. -- Peter
In life, next to the death of a loved one, divorce is the most stressful time in someone’s life, followed by moving to a new house or new city coming in third.
Most, if not all of the people reading this blog, have experienced the loss of a loved one at some point in their lives, have a close friend who has lost a loved one and know someone who has gotten divorced during their lifetime. Though my parents divorced when I was in high school, and I moved away to college a year later, I have been happily married for 25 years, with our 2 sons in college. My father killed himself in 2002 and my mother passed away in 2019 after suffering from dementia in the final years of her life. For me, these life experiences were tragic.
Though I have not personally experienced a divorce, as a Divorce Mediator in private practice in Illinois and Wisconsin, I work with people every day who are going through the divorce process and moving at the same time.
“When working with clients, one of the first things I advise them is to be careful who they go to for advice, comfort, and information.”
During a divorce, people experience a wide range of emotions, sometimes in the same day, such as:
Shock and denial about the fact they are getting a divorce.
Pain and guilt as to what they may have done to cause the divorce.
Anger as to why their spouse does not want to be married to them anymore.
Bargaining with yourself on how to get your ex to change their mind (be nicer, lose weight, get a better job, be a better parent, etc.).
Letting go and knowing there is nothing you can do.
Acceptance and ready to move forward with your life.
Helping clients and their children with the emotional rollercoaster that is divorce is challenging to say the least, as everyone deals with their emotions differently. Throw in the fact they may be moving out of a house they raised their children in, have memories, realize they may have to downsize to an apartment and throw out personal items that are important to them, one can understand why divorce is such an emotional process.
Finding the right people to help you work through the emotions of a divorce is critical not only for your mental health, but also the mental health of your children and your soon to be ex, especially if you have children together and need to effectively co-parent for years to come.
As a Divorce Mediator, I work with clients on the “business side” of the divorce process, helping them reach parenting agreements that are good for their children and financial agreements that are equitable and make sense. If there were no emotions in a divorce, my job would be much easier. However, this is not reality in a divorce. When it comes to mental health, and how to help my clients process their emotions, though I have learned a lot in my 26 years of working with families, I rely heavily on marriage and family therapists, psychologists, co-parenting counselors, psychiatrists and religious leaders to help me help my clients.
When working with clients, one of the first things I advise them is to be careful who they go to for advice, comfort, and information. Though friends, family, co-workers, the internet, books, magazines and lawyers may all be of some benefit, friends, family, co-workers and attorneys are biased and the internet, books and magazines may have incorrect information, information not relevant to your specific situation and/or the information may not even be relevant in the state you live in. Unfortunately, these resources may only make your mental health worse. For me, this is where I rely on the professionals to help my clients during this difficult time in their lives, to help them process their emotions in a productive way, see the “light at the end of the tunnel”, help them communicate better with their soon to be ex and every other emotion they have at the time.
In my experience, the right mental health professional for my clients and their children makes a world of difference in how they are affected by a divorce. Do not kid yourself, everyone is affected in some way by a divorce. Even if it is amicable, civil, and you are both on the same page on how you will be co-parenting your children. Divorce is an ending of an important chapter in your life and there will be emotions surrounding it. You may not know how or when they will pop up, but they will.
Any time I see someone getting overloaded, having that blank stare on their face all the time, unable to focus, crying uncontrollably, or in the first 4 stages of emotions listed above, I do not hesitate to refer them to someone who can help them.
Advice for Divorcing Parents
I asked for words of wisdom from professionals that specialize in counseling families and children during divorce. Below is their advice.
All Major Losses Need to Be Mourned
One of the most important factors that I would want parents who are divorcing to be aware of is that Divorce is a major loss for them and for their children.
All important losses need to be grieved. All too often parents are focused on other emotions that accompany aspects of the divorce -- new freedoms, on built up resentment, and/or focus on the competitive adversarial conflict in their attempts to "win" in their divorce litigation -- but avoid the loss itself. When parents are distracted by these other emotions/aspects that accompany divorce they often have a hard time understanding their children's needs.
Children are much more focused on the loss and without their parents understanding and supporting them they are vulnerable to significantly more emotional pain and turmoil.
If parents can focus on the loss and seek their own support to grieve the loss of their marriage, then they can transition easier to a co-parenting relationship and be more available to help their children mourn the loss as well. I would encourage all parents to consider seeing a therapist to help them find ways to mourn the loss of their marriage.
Give Children a Safe Space
As a psychotherapist for over 25 years in private practice, it has become a commonplace to see children of divorced parents sit in front of me with looks of confusion, sadness, fear, anger and pain. The life these children imagined they would have is not at all what it is to them at that point.
I believe the most important things parents can focus is not only how they need to continue to make their children feel safe and that things will be ok, but also to do their best in getting along with their spouse throughout the divorce process.
Do not ever say or indicate anything negative about the other parent in front of your child. Do not ever involve them in the ongoing court process, emails or financials. DO talk to your kids together and during a time where there is some time to do so, like a weekend or some family time, not on a special day, holiday or birthday.
Remind your children how loved they are by both parents. Make sure the focus is on routine and change things as little as possible (such as sports activities, school activities, carpooling and so on).
It is a hard topic to talk about but being honest with your children about divorce can actually help them understand and heal. Kids are going to want to know what is happening or changing. Tell them what you can, but let them know nothing is set in stone. Let them know who will be leaving the home and when they will see the other parent.
With that being said, they do not need to know why you are getting divorced; instead, let them know that the two of you will be happier living separately, that you have tried to make the relationship better but can’t, and that the two of you will always remain friends. That may be tough to say for some, but this is a time for parents to be selfless and say things for their kids to avoid hurt.
Other Useful Resources:
If you or someone you love is in a mental health crisis due to a divorce, please do not brush it off as “they will get over it”. Get help for yourself and/or assist your loved one in finding a therapist, support group, psychiatrist, etc. If you have one, reach out to your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or obtain referrals for mental health professionals in your area. The emotions someone experiences as part of a divorce do not magically disappear once the divorce is over. With that, here are some resources you may want to access if you or someone you love is in need of help:
Better Help (online counseling services)
The Lilac Tree (Divorce Support in Evanston, IL)
WINGS (Domestic Violence Support in Rolling Meadows, IL)
A Safe Place (Domestic Violence Support in Lake County, IL)
Though this list could go on and on for multiple pages, the most important thing to remember is that mental illness does not magically go away. The only way to fight it is to seek help.
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About the Author
Brian James is an experienced Divorce and Family Mediator with offices throughout Chicagoland and Southeastern Wisconsin. The first 10 years of his professional career, Brian worked in the Criminal Justice System helping domestic violence and divorcing families resolve family conflicts and structure parenting agreements. He assisted with the healing process that took place after these life-changing events had occurred. His approach to mediation is client-driven. By aiding his clients with the resolution of their divorce issues outside of the courtroom, Brian helps create a win/win situation for all parties in a divorce. In divorce mediation, Brian helps people work through their conflicts while teaching them problem solving, empathy and self-determination, while at the same time, giving them the ability to make informed decisions for themselves. When confronted with a conflict, if Brian’s clients refer to what they learned in mediation, he believes they will be much better off and be able to resolve their conflicts on their own.
To learn more about the divorce mediation process, please contact him at his C.E.L. and Associates, Inc. office by calling (312) 524-5829 or visit his website, www.yourdivorce.org.