Episode 35: Why You Get Stuck in the Divorce Process (& How to Get Unstuck)

by | Last updated: Aug 28, 2023 | Podcast

You’ve made the decision to divorce your spouse. Perhaps you’ve already had the first difficult conversation about it.

But then…you get stuck. You stall and don’t file the papers. This can last for weeks, months, or even years!

People tend to think getting a divorce is a straight-lined process. And when they discover it isn’t and go into stall mode, they can beat themselves up over it.

It’s not uncommon to get stuck in the divorce process, though, and there are a couple of places that make it easy to do so. In this episode of The Loving Truth podcast, you’ll learn where you might stall, why you might not be moving on with the divorce you say you want, and how to get yourself unstuck to proceed forward.

Listen to the Full Episode:

What You’ll Learn In This Episode:

1:21 – Places where the divorcing process can break down

6:15 – The tricky in-between period of life called separation and what to do about it

11:24 – My theory for the biggest reason why we get stuck (and how to get unstuck)

15:25 – The question to ask yourself if you’re not taking the next step toward the divorce you want

18:04 – The Rings of Fire and Peace and two things to help you move through the divorce process

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Struggling to decide whether to stay or go in your marriage and you’re serious about finding that answer?

Book a Truth & Clarity Session with a member of my team. We’ll discuss where you are in your marriage and explore if there’s a fit for you and I to work together so you can make - and execute - the RIGHT decision for YOU and your marriage.

Welcome to The Loving Truth podcast, where it's all about finding clarity, confidence, and peace in the face of marriage challenges. And now, your host, relationship expert and certified master life coach, Sharon Pope.

Hello, loves. This is Sharon Pope, and this is The Loving Truth. Today I want to talk to you about how it's possible that we get stuck in the process of divorce.

So once you've made the decision to divorce, I think most people think it's this straight line between that decision and ultimately being divorced. And what I can tell you is, because there are human beings involved and there are hearts and emotions involved, it is almost never a straight line. And I see people get stuck in this process and then they beat themselves up and sometimes weeks turn into months, months turn into years, and years after you've made that decision to end the relationship, you're still not divorced.

So I want to share with you some tips that will help you navigate and move through this. It doesn't have to be fast, but if you've made that decision and you ultimately do want to be divorced, you do have to keep taking steps forward. Now that seems perfectly logical from an intellectual perspective, but it breaks down. So let's talk about the places where it breaks down.

So let's say that you've made the decision to end your relationship and then you've had that very difficult first conversation with your spouse. I call it the first conversation because that conversation where you tell your spouse that you've made the decision that for you the marriage is complete, is never one conversation. It is many, many, many conversations, especially if your partner does not want to divorce, they're going to want to have that conversation over and over and over again because they want you to change your mind.

So it's really common that you make the decision, you tell your partner, and that's the first place where I see people get stuck because you tell your partner and then the tension after a day is a heightened emotion for sure. When you tell your partner that you want a divorce, but then the next day everything sort of calms down and it gets quiet and you don't want to bring it back up, your partner is certainly not going to bring it back up.

And so a few days go by or a week goes by and you think, okay, well, nothing's really moving forward. Everything seems the same. And sometimes women seem really frustrated by that. My clients will seem really frustrated that, well, nothing has changed. I had the conversation three weeks ago and here we are and nothing has changed because this is one of the places where we get stuck. We go into denial.

One or both of us goes on to good behavior, which is essentially just being nice to one another, being kind, and doing all the things that we should have been doing for years that we stopped doing. Now we start doing them again. When our partner says, I've made the decision to end the marriage, that the marriage is no longer working for me and I can't see a path forward, now they start doing all the things.

So they go on good behavior. We keep the conversation to safe topics like the weather, the kids, the home, “how was work,” “fine,” right? And so that's how many weeks can go by and nothing will ever change. And the reason is because no one is taking any action toward that next step. First of all, it's important to understand what all the steps are, but if someone isn't moving that ball forward, it's not going to magically just start rolling downhill and things start happening. Somebody has to take action all along the way and the process of divorce in order to see it across that finish line.

Now then there are also times that we tell our spouse about our decision. And let's say that we move out and we find a place that feels really good for us and we're there for a few months and it feels like home.

I even had someone tell me recently, they said, “You know, even considering going back to my family home now just no longer fits. It's not something that I would want to do at all. My new home feels like home to me, and I totally get that. But this is how days can turn into months and months can turn into years and people can get stuck at this place for years because now it's easier. We're not in each other's faces. So every day because one or both of us have moved out, we're living apart.

And he might be hanging on and you're afraid to let go. You might or might not have told family and friends. And so you still are going to family functions together. You're still friendly with each other. He wants to try. He hasn't given up on that. The relationship could be reconciled. It doesn't mean he is doing anything. He hasn't joined a coaching program or shown up dramatically differently. He hasn't changed in big ways. It's just that everything's gotten a little bit softer and a little bit calmer.

So the pain and the upset that you were in that brought you to this place of decision, that day-to-day tension, is no longer there. It doesn't mean you're comfortable. It doesn't mean you're happy. It just means you're not in tremendous pain. And so this is why people can get stuck in this place for years. It's not uncommon that a year or two can go by. The most I've seen is probably six years. But think about that six years from when you separated and you still haven't divorced. And everyone's sort of asking, what's going on? Are you guys getting back together? Are you divorcing what's happening? And you're like, I don't know, because you're afraid to let go and your partner doesn't want to let go either.

And so then you get stuck in this in between. Now let's talk about the in-between. In-between periods of our lives can be called liminal periods of our lives. Think of it like this. The first time you were pregnant with your first child, you were carrying the baby. You're not yet a mom because the baby hasn't been born. But you're not not a mom because you are growing a human being inside you. When you got engaged, you weren't married yet, but you weren't single.

So these liminal periods are sort of these in-between periods and they can be kind of tricky to navigate. And separation is one of those periods because you're not yet divorced, but you're not exactly married either, especially if you're living apart and you're not an active part of one another's lives every single day. And so it becomes this liminal period of where I wouldn't say you're happy, I wouldn't say you're comfortable, but you're not in tremendous pain anymore either. And that is one of the reasons why I think that people get stuck here.

So let's talk. I want to share with you a story of a client of mine. We'll make this real. I'm going to refer to her as Teresa; obviously, that's not her name. She and her husband had been married for almost 22 years. Two years ago she had decided to separate after her son had gone off to college. And of course, her husband went on good behavior. She moved out and she found a place that felt warm and cozy and a good nurturing place for her to be during this difficult time in her life.

She had met with an attorney, but she hadn't made the deposit yet. She had the paperwork from the attorney. She told me, “It's sitting right there on the corner of my kitchen counter. I look at it, I walk by it every day, but I haven't signed it and I haven't paid the retainer yet. And this is two years later. Why am I not moving forward, Sharon?”

And so they stay in touch. They have dinner together every few weeks. They might text back and forth a little bit throughout the week, just kind of checking in with one another to make sure each other is okay. So there's love there, there's care there. It doesn't mean that she necessarily wants to rethink her decision and wants to be married to him again because she's not making any steps towards doing that. But she's also not taking active steps to unwind the marriage. And so she got stuck right there.

So let's talk about why this happens and then what to do about it. So the first thing I want to share with you is that if this is going to happen, if you are the one that has made the decision to end the marriage, then my friend, you are the one that is going to have to make this happen. Now, once in a while in the process, both people sort of get on board and they say, “Okay, I can see that you're not going to change your mind about this. So I have to line up with that decision.” And so then both of you start taking action steps towards unwinding the marriage.

That can be really healthy, especially if it's done in an emotionally mature way. But for the most part, if your partner is sort of hanging on for dear life and does not want this to end, then they're not going to take any steps to make this happen. As a matter of fact, you may have to drag them along on this process or invite them along on this process with you, but you are going to have to make it happen. So steps aren't magically going to be taken. You actually have to take them.

I always say you can get anywhere you want to go only seeing 10 feet in front of you at any given time. You can get anywhere just by taking small steps. It doesn't have to be all at once because when you start thinking about all the steps you have to take in the process of divorcing,

a lot of times you just get into overwhelm. And overwhelm leads to paralysis, and then paralysis leads to us beating ourselves up. And then we feel bad about ourselves, which doesn't make us want to take action and move forward. We just sort of curl up in the fetal position and start watching Netflix and eating Oreos. And so of course nothing happens.

So you don't have to think about all of it, but you do just have to think about, what's the next step? What's that next step that's right in front of me? So if things are going to happen and those steps are going to be taken my friend, you have to take responsibility for making those things happen. And I want you to be gentle with yourself in the process. There's no mad rush. And as a matter of fact, I would say slow and steady is steady. It gives people around you, friends and family, time to sort of adjust to a new normal. So we don't have to slam it into place and make it happen in three months or anything like that.

You can go slowly, but just keep your eye on making sure that you know what's the next step in front of you and what your next step is to make that happen. Now, the biggest reason why we get stuck, I have a theory, and it is that human beings hate being uncomfortable. We will do anything to not be uncomfortable. And so divorce is pretty damn uncomfortable, isn't it?

So this is a really difficult process, but once you have the conversation, and especially once you start living separately, you're not seeing each other every day. So all the tension that was there, all the pain and the hurt and the resentment that brought you to the place, that made that very painful decision to ultimately end your relationship, now you're not feeling that every day. You're like, everything's calmer. I wouldn't say that you're comfortable. I wouldn't say you're happy. I would just say you're comfortable in a sort of numb way.

You're just sort of not in too much pain, but not in too much pleasure either. And whenever it comes to human beings walking through something that is really, really uncomfortable, we need motivation to do it. And the two biggest motivators are pain and pleasure. Well, the problem is that now you're not in pain anymore. So you used to be in a great deal of pain being stuck in the stay or go decision. What do I do? How do I fix this marriage? I don't think the marriage can be fixed. I don't think I want the marriage to be fixed.

That's a lot of pain and it's a lot of emotional turmoil. And that is what propelled you to the point of coming to a decision and having the very difficult conversation, taking some of those very first initial steps; pain motivated you. Well, now you're not in a lot of pain anymore. And so now you stall and maybe you don't have great desire built up yet. You haven't started dreaming about what life will be like on the other side, about how it will be, or how you will feel when you have the kind of relationship that you really desire for yourself. You haven't given yourself permission to dream so you don't have great desire and you're no longer in great pain. And that's why you'll stay stuck in this place of numbness or pain that you've become comfortable in.

And that's why we stall out. Now, I am not a fan of you getting back into pain. If you were in great pain and you're no longer in pain, I'm not going to tell you to get back into pain. Go argue with your husband so you can prove why you made the decision you did. That's not great advice. So then the only other option is let's reach for great desire. Let's reach for dreaming about what life is going to be like, what it is that you're reaching for, why you made the difficult decision. Because this relationship helped you realize something. It helped you realize what you don't want. And anytime you know what you don't want, you automatically know what you do want.

But we don't spend a lot of time thinking about what it is that we really do want and how it's possible and what that will feel like. We don't swim around in the good stuff in our lives enough, and we certainly don't dream enough and use our imagination in the most positive ways. So what I would tell you is to stoke the flame of desire to really start dreaming a little bit about the kind of life that you want to create for yourself, knowing that anything you want is absolutely possible. Spend some time journaling, spend some time traveling, spend some time in nature just thinking about what it's going to be like and how it is that you want to feel on the other side of this; stoke desire in order to create motivation within yourself.

Now, the last thing I want you to think about is, this is a great question to ask, how is it serving me? So if you're stuck in the process of divorce and you haven't moved through that, then ask yourself, how is it serving me to keep doing what I'm doing? Why have I stayed here? For the women that have reached out to me where they're really beating themselves up for not taking action, sometimes I'll ask them, how is it serving you to continue to take no action towards the divorce that you said you wanted? And their immediate response is, well, it's not. Except it always is, our immediate reaction to anything that doesn't align with our goals.

And we say, well, how is it serving you? The answer, even though we always reach for, well, it's not, the answer is always, yes, it is. It is serving you in some way. And when you can see how it's serving you, now you can create different motivations for yourself. So think about it. Let's say you've been like my client, Theresa. Let's say you've been stuck. You've been stalled out for about two years. You're separated but you're not divorced. And how is it serving you to just stay here and not take any action, to not sign those papers that are sitting on the corner of your kitchen counter, to not make the deposit with the attorney so that you can start the paperwork process of unwinding this and moving it forward, from a legal perspective? How is it serving you to do none of that?

Well, you never have to fully let go of someone that you probably still care about. You never have to face the fear of the unknown on the other side. At least this is known, right? Even in this liminal period, in this stalled-out place, at least it's known. And we are so uncomfortable with the unknown because we assume it will be worse when, what if it's better? What if it's infinitely better? What if it's 10 times better than where you are today? But because it's unknown, and we don't like being uncomfortable, and unknown is always uncomfortable to us, then we get stuck.

So when you can start to see it's actually serving me because I don't have to face my fears, I don't have to completely let go of this man that I probably still love and care about to a certain degree. I don't have to walk through the remaining part of this. And that's why. So when you can see how it is actually serving you, then you can start to make different conscious choices for yourself.

Now, there is a phrase that I use a lot in my coaching practice when we talk about divorce. The concept is called the ring of fire, and I learned it from my mentor, Martha Beck. Think of it as two concentric circles. One small inside the other larger circle. That larger circle is what she refers to as the ring of fire. Now, any traumatic experience, any really, really difficult experience can send you into the ring of fire. Certainly, divorce can be considered the ring of fire.

And in the center of that circle is a place of peace. Everyone wants to be at that place of peace. Everyone does. If I said, “Do you want to live a peaceful life?” no one's going to say no. I mean, maybe there are a few random people, but most people are going to say, yes, of course, I want to live a peaceful life.

The problem is that we live outside of that circle. Most of us are in what she refers to as the shallows, where we're not too happy, we're not too sad, we don't take big risks. We don't do anything; if our heart really desires something but it feels scary, we don't really pursue it, stuff like that. So we live in the shallows, most of us. But we all want to have this peaceful life. We want to have a rich, deep, meaningful, but peaceful life.

The problem is that the only path to get to that piece is through the ring of fire. And most people get up to that ring of fire, they stand there at the edge of it, they might dip their toe in it, and then they back up. Cause they're like, “Ooh, that's hot. Ooh, that's scary.” That's how we'll walk up to that place of being ready to tell our partners that we want to divorce. Then we'll back up from it and then we'll wait a few months until we get hacked off at our partner again, and then we'll walk up to it because we're brave when we're angry, right? And we'll walk up to it and then we're like, “Ooh, that's hot. Let me back up.”

That's the ring of fire that you're coming up against and that's that uncomfortableness. But if you just keep taking steps through the ring of fire, you ultimately do reach a place of peace. I just don't want you to get stuck in that ring of fire. So there are two things that I want to share with you that can be helpful in this process. The first one is put together some timeline. And it can be six months out, twelve months out; you choose the timeline for when the next step needs to be completed by. But you putting that timeline out there means at some point you're gonna come up against a wall where you're going to have to make some choices if you're going to hit that timeline.

So just sometimes having a mental timeline can be really helpful if you leave it up to, oh, not today. And then the next day you wake up and you're like, eh, not gonna sign those papers. Not today, maybe tomorrow. And you just keep kicking the can. Like maybe tomorrow, maybe tomorrow, maybe tomorrow. But eventually, if you said, by March 31st those papers are either going to be signed or thrown in the trash, well eventually the day before is going to come and you're going to have to do something. So coming up with a timeline can be helpful.

What can be more helpful is you need accountability and you need community. I see this so much in my small group coaching programs as well as my membership. It is such a powerful thing to see others moving things forward, and then having to sit there and watch that when you are not moving things forward, right? Because it motivates you. I call it borrowed courage. You see other people doing really hard things and it makes you go, well, if they can do that, maybe I can do this. Maybe I can take this next step. And so having that community around you can be a really powerful thing.

But the other piece is accountability. In my small groups where we're meeting once a week or twice a week, they know if they've made the decision to end their marriage, they know I'm going to ask them, how's it going? What's the next step? Where are you feeling stuck? Or where are you feeling some trepidation? Let's move through it. They know I'm going to ask. And so many times they'll take action right before showing up to that call because they don't want to stand there and say, I've done nothing for another week. I've done nothing for the third week in a row. They don't want to say that.

And they could say that to me; it's fine. Everyone gets to do whatever they want to do, but they don't want to. So the accountability is really important. You can think of someone that you are willing to have as your accountability partner. If you're in a program, you probably have that kind of accountability and support and community that can help you move through this process. But if you don't have that, find someone in your network of people, someone that you trust and that you love, that is willing to hold you accountable, once a week or once a month, it doesn't matter. But once a week, they're going to call you, they're going to text you, they're going to check in on you, see how you're doing, and they're going to ask you how it's going, how is the process going? What's your next step? Where are you at with that?

So you have someone to answer to. And by the way, don't start ghosting them if you haven't taken action; just be like, you know what? I haven't taken action, but I know why and I know what's holding me back, and I appreciate you checking in on me and keep doing it. I want you to keep checking in on me because that will help me not get stuck in this process.

Okay? So for those of you that are considering ending your marriage and thinking that that is the right answer for your life, what I want you to know is it's not a straight line. And that at some point in that process, you might stall out. That's actually, in my experience, a normal part of the process. First of all, don't go into beating yourself up because it's not helpful and it's not true either. It's unnecessary because this is really hard stuff. Sometimes divorces are some of the hardest things that you will face in your entire life.

So if you need a moment to take a breath, to catch your breath, to get your footing underneath you in the process, that's worthwhile. But just don't stall out for months or years if ultimately what you want is on the other side of you making steps forward. All right? So that is a normal part of the process and this is why it's important for you to get equipped and have community and support and accountability around you. That can look a lot of ways.

I hope that this was super helpful for you, and I hope you know that this is difficult stuff. The ring of fire is not called the ring of fire for no reason, but if you keep making steps forward, you will get to that place of peace.

All right? Until next time, take really good care.

If you're listening to this podcast because you're struggling to decide whether to stay or go in your marriage and you're serious about finding that answer, it's time to book a Truth and Clarity session with a member of my team. On the call, we'll discuss where you are in your marriage and explore if there's a fit for you and I to work together so you can make and execute the right decision for you and your marriage.

Go to clarityformymarriage.com to fill out an application now. That's clarityformymarriage.com.

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