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Stages of Grief: Bargaining

“The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.”

Nathaniel Branden

“If only I had been home more often, we wouldn’t be breaking up now.” 
“I promise to change. We can work this out.” 

The third stage of grief, as defined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, is bargaining. Bargaining is a common reaction to the helplessness and vulnerability we experience during a period of loss, whether the death of a loved one or a divorce. If you’re grieving, it’s normal to bargain with both yourself and others in order to gain a sense of control in a chaotic situation. This may manifest as an endless stream of internalized “what ifs” you ask yourself, but could also become actual, in-person negotiating with your spouse.

Stages of grief (and they aren’t necessarily linear)

  • Denial

  • Anger

  • Bargaining

  • Depression

  • Acceptance

Part of the healing process

Bargaining is usually initiated by the person who is reluctant to let go of the relationship. Accepting the reality of divorce is difficult, and bargaining may help you maintain the illusion that the marriage is still alive. It’s also a coping mechanism that helps you negotiate your pain and question why your marriage fell apart. 

Story

“Since we didn’t have children, I now realize that during my divorce I felt really afraid of losing my ex in my life forever. So I did all kinds of things during my divorce to try to keep her engaged. I realize now I was being manipulative, and trying to keep her interacting with me because I was afraid of losing her from my life, afraid that all we shared didn’t actually mean anything to her, afraid of being alone. I wish I hadn’t behaved that way since it wasn’t ultimately productive and led to increased legal fees; I was fighting with her about stupid things that weren’t worth the cost of our lawyers. But I was grieving, so today I try to give myself some compassion for how I acted. Losing her was a huge loss, and the grief was sometimes overwhelming.”

-Andre

Why are you bargaining?

Consider why you feel the urge to bargain during your divorce. In addition to trying to keep your marriage intact, there may be other significant reasons. You may be trying to avoid the perceived stigma society may try to attach to you after your divorce. You may be working to save yourself from the emotional and legal stresses of divorce. Or you may be holding onto the relationship and pursuing your spouse simply because it’s familiar, even comfortable. You might be afraid of the unknown, which is life after your marriage ends.

No matter how abusive or happy a relationship is or was, our need for connection is as primal as it is powerful. So bargaining is a normal – and ultimately desperate – measure taken by spouses who yearn to reconcile, delay a final division, undo damage, or just get back to the way things were when the marriage was healthy.

Take this crucial step

Allow yourself to go through the bargaining stage as you grieve. As with every stage of grief, experiencing the emotions stirred up by this stage of grief will bring you a step closer to accepting your divorce and the loss and change it represents. It is important to take time to reflect on the factors that contributed to the end of your relationship. You may find yourself being focused on what you could have done differently. This is a good time to do some healthy soul searching and self-examination. 

Understanding what went wrong and what you could have done differently can be a positive growth experience and set you up to build healthier relationships in the future. Be aware that this may also lead to excessive guilt and remorse, emotional places best avoided. Remember that while self-improvement is important, it is unhealthy to become hypercritical to the point of self-destruction. The goal is to learn from your mistakes and find a healthy, positive way forward. Look inward with compassion.

Important reminder: there are two people in your relationship. It’s not all your fault. 

What bargaining is and isn’t

Bargaining usually doesn’t prevent a divorce. Nor does it fix the damage that has already been done to the marriage. Bargaining doesn’t restore what was lost. Instead, it vainly attempts to put a small bandage on a wound that needs advanced medical care. The transactional nature of bargaining — if you do this for me, I’ll change my behavior — is not love. It’s an exchange of services. For some people, bargaining may take the form of a conversation with a higher power (e.g., “If you do this one favor for me, I’ll never doubt again.”) or even with oneself (e.g., “I will change X behavior and then she will love me again.”) 

Let bargaining lead to acceptance

There is no accepted time frame for overcoming a loss like divorce and each of us moves through the grieving process differently. Give yourself time, understanding that you have a unique way of expressing, processing, and accepting this part of your life. As you do, try not to get stuck in bargaining or any of the other phases of grief. Stagnating in those emotions is unhelpful and unhealthy. Instead, allow bargaining to run its course and move you towards acceptance. Think of grief as a river, running through you. But you are the riverbed and the banks; it does not sweep you away. You are big enough to hold it.

Take the next step

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