The 6 Psychological and Emotional Stages of Divorce

Psychological and Emotional Stages of Divorce

Your divorce will likely be one of the most disruptive periods of your life. 

Just remember: What you’re going through emotionally is completely normal.

If you’ve put any amount of effort into a marriage (and we’re assuming you have), you will not get out of a marriage unscathed by your emotions.

Expect a certain amount of chaos in your heart and in your head.

“The problem is all inside your head, she said to me,
The answer is easy if you take it logically.
I’d like to help you in your struggle to be free,
There must be fifty ways to leave your lover.”

– Paul Simon, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover

You’ll be filled with a jumble of contradictory thoughts and feelings whether you were the initiator or not and whether you ultimately feel a sense of relief when it happens.

More than likely, you’ll experience some kind of an emotional cocktail with shots of resentment, anger, shock, betrayal, guilt, distance, numbness, decreased self-esteem, insecurity, revenge and perhaps even a small jigger of hoping to reconcile tossed in and served cold, over ice.

While you won’t escape all your feelings, in the name of healing, you can try to understand what you have already started to go through so that you can look for signs you are making progress in your life.

“I wish there was something I could do to make you smile again.
I said, I appreciate that, then would you please explain about the fifty ways.”

Everyone deals with divorce differently, but the stages everyone goes through are surprisingly similar.

It’s the duration and intensity that changes, but the emotional playbook is pretty much the same.

Let’s take a closer look at the generally accepted psychological stages of divorce you’ll deal with at some point.

6 Stages

Stage 1: Disillusionment and Blaming

This can start years before an actual divorce or it can happen in a matter of months.

You get a sense that something isn’t quite right, that your needs are not being met and that your partner simply isn’t as responsive to you as they used to be.

It’s normal for passion to fade over time, but when that passion is not replaced by a much deeper and spiritual love, you could be headed for trouble.

Instead, you might start storing up your resentment, feel that your mutual goals aren’t so mutual anymore, and you’ll first start to think about a separation strategy, considering the pros and cons of divorce.  The initial feelings of fear, anxiety, guilt and depression will also start to creep into your head.

Denial will be part of the equation as well.  You might have trouble accepting the fact that society’s view of how a husband and wife should be is simply not matching up to your own real-life version.

You will spend time trying to reconcile your inner feelings in the hopes that you can say or do the right thing and hate that you feel you don’t have control over the destiny of your marriage.  Denial is a powerful coping tool some use to keep from facing the reality of their situation

Stage 2: Dissatisfaction, Anger & Resentment

Stage 2

There is a clear line you cross over when you go from thinking about a divorce to actually talking to your spouse and to others.

What was once just an idea in your head all of a sudden becomes much more real.  You probably have had some failed initial attempts to talk to your spouse to try and express your feelings of discontent, or it may all come out in a single blowout where there is no mistaking your message.

Shock about your own actions and the response you get from your spouse is common.  “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” is normal too.

This stage is often the hardest because it is often the first time to non-initiator hears that a marriage is in trouble or may be over.

The thoughts of profound change and of the future unknown are enough to rattle most anybody.

Many liken it to one of the stages that people go through when someone dies.

There is a period of disbelief, denial for the non-initiator, anger, a suspension of reality and resistance to divorce if one of the parties is opposed to the idea.

If children are involved, parenting also suffers during this time as well.

Both spouses are often consumed by their own situation and this can further strain family dynamics in a damaging and sometimes permanent way.

As hard as it is to deal with your own situation, keep in mind that children of any age, particularly young ones, are fully invested in you as a parent.

News of a divorce may upset you, but it will decimate and completely rock a child’s entire world. (Kids are resilient, and they’ll get through it if you protect them from the conflict.)

This is the stage where some couples attempt counseling or try to change by revisiting a renewed commitment to the marriage which can produce a second honeymoon phase.

Sometimes it works…and sometimes it doesn’t.

Given time, initial shock will wear off and may be replaced by resignation or relief that things are finally out in the open.

There will also be a certain amount of tension as spouses gear up for an actual divorce and try to figure out what their lives will be like afterwards.

Stage 3: Deciding to Divorce

Once the indecision has been removed things may get ugly as each side jockeys for an advantage.

Some spouses go through this phase amicably, which is the cheapest and most direct course.

But others simply cannot get over the hump and battles about alimony, child support, custody and a division of assets can breed horrible animosity.

Psychologically, you will grow more distant and perhaps disparage the other person as part of your defense mechanisms, making it easier in your own mind to move on.

There is a finality to this stage as well.

Because it’s been thought out for some time, the hard part of reaching a decision has already been made, and the implementation, while not entirely mechanical, is predictable to a certain degree due to divorce laws and procedures that are in place.

Both sides will feel victimized and don’t be surprised if that victimization results in one or both spouses lashing out at the other.

You may also revisit the full gamut of emotions that you did when disillusionment first started to creep into your marriage.

Expect more anxiety with the added component of social interactions that can be awkward, even among well-meaning friends and relatives.

You will also be more intensely focused on financial issues and legal decisions that must be made for you to move forward.

You will need to learn lots of new things that will help you redefine your basic living issues and expenses, work out the details of a physical separation and most importantly, try to reach agreements about parenting issues.

If that sounds like a lot to handle…it is.

Overall, the best thing you can do is keep moving forward, worry about things in the right order, ask for help, don’t keep things bottled up, and try to be reasonable when negotiating the elements of your separation and divorce.

Stage 4: Acting on Your Decision (Initiating the Divorce Process)

Stage 4

It will help you a lot if you view the divorce process as not the end of the world, but the beginning of a new world.

How you position yourself psychologically will have a direct impact on how you come out of the actual divorce process on the other side.

Quite frankly, at this point, you are a prisoner of your own thoughts and emotions.

The enemy can be you if you continue to beat yourself up, or you can start to become your own best friend if you accept what has happened.

You will need your wits about you as you make decisions that will impact you for the rest of your life.

This isn’t to say that you will always be in control of your emotions (you won’t) and that emotional flareups will drop by for a visit at the most inopportune times.

You will be depressed, feel lonely, and still deal with anger and trauma.  But by now, you may also start to see the benefits of charting your own course, being responsible for your own decisions, and not being bound by the negative feelings of inadequacy or lack of love.

Being your own best friend is probably the best thing you can do for yourself while you work through the legal, financial and social issues of your divorce.

Don’t view divorce as a battle to be won, but rather as a series of problems to be solved.

Understand that negotiation is part of the process.

Keeping your emotions in check not only spares your spouse, it spares you even more.

And whatever you do, spare your children as much as possible.

If you drag them into the process and badmouth your spouse, it could backfire on you and they could resent you even more.

You may want to be the child that pitches a fit and puts full histrionics on display, but it is imperative that you keep it together and be a responsible adult and all that implies until you get through all the hurdles you will face.

Understand that you will continue to be overly sensitive to any comments and interpret ambiguous comments as criticism.

You will more than likely have trouble concentrating on tasks because you are lost in a jumble of your own feelings.  You will probably also seek out support from others but not know what kind of support you need, creating a bit of a challenge for those around you.

Stage 5: Acceptance

It may happen during the divorce process or start soon thereafter, but at some point you will gain a level of acceptance about what has happened.

You will start to accept that the marriage was flawed or broken and that at least one of you (and probably both of you) were not happy or fulfilled as much as you needed to be for the marriage to work.

You will start to experience a reawakening of sorts, either by reconnecting with people you like or doing things that make you happy.

It could be line-dancing, going to museums, bike riding, going to the gym, getting wrapped up in a hobby or taking classes or working toward a degree that you’ve always wanted to get.

They may not exactly be bucket list items, but they are things that can put you back on the path of reimagining your bucket list and taking steps to check off those items.

You’ll still feel awkward at times, but soon enough you’ll feel more in control and begin to plan for the future again, this time with a new identity and a new way of approaching life.

You are not the same person you were and that will draw you to new people, experiences and places that you may not have even dreamed about while you were in an unhappy marriage.

For many people, this is the first time in their adult lives that they have been single.

That’s both exhilarating and a bit scary.  It’s also normal.

Go slow and build your confidence.  You don’t owe anyone anything at this point until you get your own life together.  The only exception may be your children, and you will need to put time in to redefine your new relationship with them.

Stage 6: New Beginnings (The New You)

Stage 6

It could take a couple of years or more, but eventually you will fall into new ways of doing things, meet new people, live new experiences, enjoy new relationships.

While all this is happening, your intense and often negative feelings will begin to dissipate.

You may feel forgiveness, both toward your spouse and especially toward yourself.

You’ll experience a greater degree of closure as you start to regain more control in your life.

This is not to say you still won’t have some lingering anger or regret, but you’ll be able to put it on a shelf for the most part and realize that light coming at you at the far end of a tunnel is not a train like in some bad cartoon, but the promise of something better in the weeks and years ahead.

Here’s hoping your life song after divorce ends this way…

“Just slip out the back, Jack, make a new plan, Stan.
Don’t need to be coy, Roy, just listen to me.
Hop on the bus, Gus, don’t need to discuss much,
Just drop off the key, Lee, and get yourself free.”

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