Manual > 8 - Psychology of Divorce > Emotional Stages of Divorce

Emotional Stages of Divorce

The decision to end a relationship can be traumatic, chaotic, and filled with contradictory emotions. There are also specific feelings, attitudes, and dynamics associated with whether one is in the role of the initiator or the receiver of the decision to breakup. For example, it is not unusual for the initiator to experience fear, relief, distance, impatience, resentment, doubt, and guilt. Likewise, when a party has not initiated the divorce, they may feel shock, betrayal, loss of control, victimization, decreased self esteem, insecurity, anger, a desire to "get even," and wishes to reconcile.

To normalize clients experiences during this time, it may be helpful to know that typical emotional stages have been identified with ending a relationship. It may also be helpful to understand that marriages do not breakdown overnight; the breakup is not the result of one incident; nor is the breakup the entire fault of one party. The emotional breaking up process typically extends over several years and is confounded by each party being at different stages in the emotional process while in the same stage of the physical (or legal) process.

It is also quite normal to do different things to try to create distance from the former partner while divorcing. Unfortunately, this distancing often takes the form of fault finding. Not to be disrespectful, but it's not unlike the process one goes through in deciding to buy a new car: somehow every flaw in that favorite old car needs to be noticed and exaggerated in order to feel okay about selling it. Also, if the other person is portrayed as really awful, one can escape any responsibility for the end of the marriage. A common response to divorce is to seek vengeance. When parties put their focus on getting even, there is an equal amount of energy expended on being blameless. What's true is that blaming and fault finding are not necessary or really helpful. Psychologist Jeffrey Kottler has written a very helpful book on this subject entitled Beyond Blame: A New Way of Resolving Conflicts in Relationships, published by Jossey-Bass.

Another normal rationalization is that the marriage was a wholly unpleasant experience and escaping it is good. Or the marriage was unpleasant and now the other partner must make this up in the divorce. Thinking that the marriage was wholly unpleasant is unfair to both parties and can hinder emotional healing. Both stayed in the marriage for as long as they did because there were some good things about it. There were also some things that did not work for them and these are why they are divorcing. 

Much of your clients' healing will involve acceptance, focusing on the future, taking responsibility for their own actions (now and during the marriage), and acting with integrity. Focusing on the future they would like to create may require an acknowledgment of each other's differing emotional stages and a compassionate willingness to work together to balance the emotional comfort of both parties.

The following information on the emotional stages of ending a relationship is provided to help parties through the emotional quagmire of ending a relationship and assist in their personal healing. 

I. DISILLUSIONMENT OF ONE PARTY (sometimes 1-2 years before verbalized)

A. Vague feelings of discontentment, arguments, stored resentments, breaches of trust
B. Problems are real but unacknowledged
C. Greater distance; lack of mutuality
D. Confidential, fantasy, consideration of pros and cons of divorce
E. Development of strategy for separation
F. Feelings: fear, denial, anxiety, guilt, love, anger, depression, grief

II. EXPRESSING DISSATISFACTION (8-12 months before invoking legal process)

A. Expressing discontent or ambivalence to other party
B. Marital counseling, or
C. Possible honeymoon phase (one last try)
D. Feelings: relief (that it's out in the open), tension, emotional roller coaster, guilt, anguish, doubt, grief

III. DECIDING TO DIVORCE (6-12 months before invoking legal process)

A. Creating emotional distance (i.e., disparaging the other person/situation in order to leave it)
B. Seldom reversible (because it's been considered for awhile)
C. Likely for an affair to occur
D. Other person just begins Stage I (considering divorce) and feels denial, depressed, rejected, low self-esteem, anger
E. Both parties feel victimized by the other
F. Feelings: anger, resentment, sadness, guilt, anxiety for the family, the future, impatience with other, needy

IV. ACTING ON DECISION (beginning the legal process)

A. Physical separation
B. Emotional separation (complicated by emotional flareups)
C. Creating redefinition (self orientation)
D. Going public with the decision
E. Setting the tone for the divorce process (getting legal advice and setting legal precedent: children, support, home)
F. Choosing sides and divided loyalties of friends and families
G. Usually when the children find out (they may feel responsible, behave in ways to make parents interact)
H. Feelings: traumatized, panic, fear, shame, guilt, blame, histrionics

V. GROWING ACCEPTANCE (during the legal process or after)

A. Adjustments: physical, emotional
B. Accepting that the marriage wasn't happy or fulfilling
C. Regaining a sense of power and control, creating a plan for the future, creating a new identity, discovering new talents and resources
D. This is the best time to be in mediation: parties can look forward and plan for the future; moods can be more elevated (thrill of a second chance at life)
 

VI. NEW BEGINNINGS (completing the legal process to four years after)  

A. Parties have moved beyond the blame and anger to forgiveness, new respect, new roles
B. Experiences: insight, acceptance, integrity Comparing Mediation and Litigation

Why is mediation a compassionate and appropriate venue for helping people in divorce? On the average, it takes family members approximately four to eight years to recover from the emotional and financial expense of a bitter adversarial divorce. In an adversarial divorce, there is no possible resolution of the emotional issues, only decreased trust and increased resentment.

A litigated divorce can cost each party $5,000 to $35,000. The focus is on assigning blame and fault and skirmishing for the most powerful position (changing locks, freezing bank accounts, getting temporary custody of the children). Communications between parties break down. Negotiations proceed through attorneys and are strategic and positioned. Attorneys have an ethical responsibility to zealously advocate for the best interest of their client. Often there is no consideration of the best interests of the children or recognition for the need for parties to have an ongoing relationship because they have children, friends, extended family, and community together. Going to court is an expensive risk; someone who does not know you makes decisions for you that will affect your whole life.

Mediators may save clients thousands of dollars in immediate and future legal and counseling fees. Mediators can focus parties on creating their best possible future and help parties resolve their emotional issues for the best interests of their children and their own psychological well being. Mediators can help parties feel understood, accept responsibility for the failure of the marriage and, when there are children, begin to reshape their relationship from one of partners to coparents. Mediators can empower clients by helping them be at their best (rather than their worst) during a challenging time in their lives, enable them to have an active role in their separating (creative choice vs. court imposition), create a clear and understandable road map for the future, make informed decisions, and to look back at their behavior in the mediation of their divorce with integrity and self respect.