The Desert Island Called Divorce—A doctor and divorce expert explains why the middle stage of divorce feels so isolating

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Dr. Mark Banschick, psychiatrist and the author of The Intelligent Divorce book series, compares the divorce process—especially the long, arduous middle stage—to the old TV show Fantasy Island, where “strange things happen to regular people” and the “normal rules of life no longer apply.”

Divorce, Banschick explains in Psychology Today, has three main stages: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The Beginning, the first stage, refers to the deterioration of the marriage when things fall apart for one or both partners. Often, there is a “leave-er” and a “leave-ee.” Perhaps something unforgivable has happened. There is tremendous pain, anger, resentment, blame, anxiety, shock, and grief as you realize your marriage is unsalvageable and inevitably coming to an end.

The End, or third stage, does not necessarily correspond to the legal end of the marriage, your divorce decree. The end “begins as the couple truly begins to let go and build new lives,” Banschick explains. The period “marks the complete reconfiguration of the family and offers the children stability and hope.” But it’s important to understand that this period can be long or short, come quickly or significantly slower, depending on how you approach your divorce. “It can happen quickly when both parties recognize that the marriage is over and remain committed to working with each other for the sake of the children, or better, for the sake of what they had that was good,” says Banschick. Or it can take years if one or both people cling to anger, resentment, and grievances, preventing them from moving forward.

But it’s what happens in The Middle—that difficult, often drawn-out second stage—that Banschick calls Divorce Island.

The middle is commonly a time of disorientation, feeling unsure; you’re navigating new, unfamiliar, often frightening territory. You’re in the process of completely reshaping your family and life. It’s a critical time in which how you handle yourself and the divorce process can impact outcomes for a very long time. This stage has no quick fix—the middle typically lasts a year or two.

Even as you go through your routine, everything feels different. You’re in transition, trying to establish and adjust to a new standard—and nothing feels normal.

Although he calls Divorce Island “a state of mind,” Banschick highlights many factors that create this very real-feeling phenomenon:

  • Friends and family may act strange, awkward, and distant as they’re unsure how to deal with you.
  • Your children may be especially needy; they require outstanding parenting when you can barely care for yourself or put one foot in front of the other.
  • You’re facing enormous emotional and logistical hurdles—sorting out finances, custody, and new living arrangements.
  • You’re struggling to find a way to co-parent while fighting big battles, and you can’t stand your ex.
  • Your life is suddenly populated with lawyers, judges, other authorities, therapists, financial advisors, maybe even law enforcement.
  • Everything is heightened and charged: feelings, hurts, offenses, stakes.
  • Most likely, neither you nor your ex are your best selves. It’s common to experience regression, says Banschick. “Regression is when stress drops us down to a lower level of functioning…. anxious people become needy. Self-centered people become narcissistic; narcissistic people become more manipulative; sad people may become depressed; angry people may tip into violence, and suspicious people may become paranoid… It is temporary, but in the case of divorce, temporary can last a few years.”
  • It’s full of pitfalls and hazards—it’s all too easy to make big mistakes in the middle.
  • You feel lost and alone—like being stranded on a desert island.

Here are some tips on how to cope during this difficult time:

Take comfort. Eventually, you will leave Divorce Island! But while you’re there, there are things you can do to help yourself and prevent common mistakes, Banschick advises:

Keep it as amicable as possible. For everyone’s sake, look for ways to de-escalate. Consider collaborative divorce or mediation. Seek trust and goodwill. Do damage control. Stay businesslike and dispassionate.

Find a therapist. It’s wise to have a neutral third party to talk to, a shoulder to cry on, an objective ear, and a trained professional who can help if you’re experiencing depression.

Focus on your children. Make sure the kids get the support they need, perhaps therapy. Offer as much stability and routine as possible. Encourage time and relationship with the other parent.

Surround yourself with support. Seek out a good community: trusted friends and family, support groups, religious institutions, and recreational activities. Don’t let the loneliness of divorce island dominate your life.

Aim to forgive. “Acceptance is the end stage of grief, and that is the work of divorce,” says Banschick. Look to the life ahead.

The veteran family attorneys at SFLG understand how difficult divorce is and how lost you can feel. We’re here to help you navigate every stage of your dissolution gracefully so you can move on to a fulfilling new life. Contact our Inland Empire, Beaumont or Yucaipa divorce attorneys today for expert guidance in your divorce.

By Debra Schoenberg

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