Why your clients may need time to make financial decisions--and you may need to be patient.
Divorce is a life change and transition that challenges the emotional, interpersonal, and cognitive functioning of those experiencing it. These changes impact all members of the family--not only the parents and the children involved, but also members of the extended family such as aunts, uncles, grandparents, and so forth. As advisors, you are well aware of how life changes impact financial needs and financial planning. You are also aware of how life changes impact the way people think, feel, behave, and respond.
In our previous columns, we have focused on how people think about money and how their thinking impacts their financial decision-making. In this column, we are focusing more directly on how divorce impacts people emotionally so that we may begin to explore how people's emotions affect their perceptions of their financial position, their financial decisions, and their views on money.
Divorce is a life experience like no other. Divorce is not an event--it is a process that unfolds over a period of time. The divorce process often begins long before a couple separates, and it often ends long after the marital settlement agreement is finalized and the marriage is ended as a legal entity. In other words, the emotional arc of divorce is a multiyear process with the ending coming only after a period of tumult, coping, and adjustment to this quantum life change.
Sometimes, both members of the couple have grown distant, discontent, unfulfilled, and dissatisfied with the relationship prior to separation. Other times, one member of the couple is more discontent and begins thinking about and exploring divorce before the actual decision to end the relationship. This individual can actually feel relieved by the separation, whereas the unexpected and subjectively sudden end of the relationship may stun the other partner. In such situations, the members of the couple are in distinctly different places emotionally as the formal separation and divorce process begin--a configuration that can lead to more conflict and difficulty than when both partners are ready to separate and move on. When you are working with a client who is divorcing, it is important for you to understand whether he or she initiated the divorce or whether the partner initiated it, because this will help you to understand your client's reaction to the early stages of the divorce process.
Even when one wants to divorce (and especially when one doesn't want to divorce), divorce represents a significant loss--the loss of aspirations, dreams, goals, and hopes. The decision to divorce can be one that is traumatic, chaotic, and replete with ambivalent and conflicting emotions, including sadness, guilt, relief, and even joy. The emotions of divorce can be like a roller coaster with highs, lows, unexpected twists and turns, and periods of hanging on, waiting until the ride is over. Whatever the emotional reactions are, it is reasonable to expect a client's adjustment to divorce to unfold over a period of time--perhaps as many as five years--and to involve some stages and phases that are similar to the stages of grief when one loses a loved one.
Even when one wants to divorce (and especially when one does not), denial is an early common feature and includes thoughts such as "This is not happening to me" and "It will blow over--she'll want to reconcile eventually."
The denial stage is often followed by a period in which anger dominates. Each person's experience of anger can differ depending on the situation and the individual's emotional patterns, but this stage is one in which the risk for increased conflict and argument with one's soon-to-be-former spouse greatly increases. Things that were acceptable during the marriage now become unacceptable and even revolting. Behaviors and attitudes that one used to accept in one's partner are now objectionable. When there are children from the relationship, this period can be particularly divisive with regard to issues affecting custody and visitation. This is a period when blame tends to predominate versus being able to identify one's role in the loss of the relationship. In some people, the anger phase can present in the form of feeling victimized and treated unfairly.
Bargaining is the next predictable phase. During this phase, thoughts and even attempts to reconcile are not uncommon, even when doing so may involve compromises that one really does not wish to make. These compromises can include falling back into patterns and agreements that did not seem tenable during the relationship. Reconciliations that are the result of this phase of adjustment can be fragile and tentative, and they easily lead to disillusionment, discontent, and a renewed decision to end the relationship. Of course, when this takes place, the complex and contradictory feelings that accompany the end of the relationship can be amplified, leading to even more conflict, hurt, and upset.