Navigating the Emotional Stages of Divorce

Navigating the Emotional Stages of Divorce

Navigating the Emotional Stages of Divorce

Divorce is accompanied by a myriad of emotions, big and small. While each divorce stirs up different emotions depending on the individual situation, there are some similarities in the stages that people will go through as a divorce is approaching and carried through. These emotions are often broken up into six stages—disillusionment, dissatisfaction, decision, initiation, acceptance, and beginning. As one navigates through a divorce, understanding the emotional impact that it will have is helpful to anticipate the emotional changes and respond constructively for themselves and their families. Each stage has challenges, but each stage is also completely conquerable and can allow a divorcee to process and move on into a new life.

Stage One: Disillusionment

The onset of this stage can be anywhere from years to months to days before a decision is made to get divorced. This stage is often marked by comparison and blame. One or both spouses will compare the current situation to the way things used to be in the relationship. They will see that they are not agreeing like they used to, that they do not have as much fun together as they used to, or that they irritate each other more than they used to. This is often accompanied by blaming either themselves or, more commonly, the other spouse for the shift in the relationship. While it is normal for the relationship to change and grow over time, disillusionment takes place when the original chemistry and spark are not replaced by a deeper relationship.

Because disillusionment can last for years before the divorce is initiated, couples will often fall into a pattern of coping. However, this stage may still be recognized by one or both spouses and is often marked by characteristics like:

  • Problems existing without acknowledgment
  • Considering the benefits and drawbacks of a divorce
  • Arguments and resentment
  • Fear of the future
  • Grief, guilt, and anger

The disillusionment stage is often accompanied by denial. The parties may feel like the relationship can be fixed, that the problems are not as bad as they seem, and that divorce is not a consideration, even though they have thought about and possibly planned to leave if needed. This will often go on until the parties acknowledge the rift between them.

Denial is the first in a series of emotions that are typically associated with grief that many couples feel as they move through the divorce. Each person will have to grieve the loss of the relationship and the finality of the end. These stages will move quickly for some and take time for others. However, it is important to understand that these feelings are a normal part of grieving a divorce. Giving each person space to process the shifts in their life that will result from the divorce is vital to ensuring that the parties will be as well-adjusted as possible when they begin their new lives.

Stage Two: Dissatisfaction

Dissatisfaction results when one of the spouses expresses their discontent to the other. It is often a huge leap between disillusionment and dissatisfaction because, in disillusionment, the thought of divorce is just that, a thought. When a couple reaches dissatisfaction, it involves one of the spouses telling the other how they feel. It can be the hardest stage for the non-initiating spouse, because it may be the first time that they hear about the issues with the marriage and the dissatisfaction of the other spouse.

This will still not initiate the divorce because it is often here where the couple will decide to give it a final try. This stage is recognized by characteristics like:

  • Marriage counseling
  • Relief that both spouses know about the issues
  • Possible honeymoon phase while the couple tries one last time
  • Ambivalence toward the other spouse
  • Tension and denial of the problems

Dissatisfaction is often accompanied by shock, typically for the party that did not initiate the conversation about the relationship. However, this shock will wear off and be replaced by a resignation that a divorce is likely. Between the shock and acceptance, each spouse will likely move through contrasting emotions, bargaining to save the marriage, and letting go.

An important consideration at this stage is any children that may be involved. While the spouses will be shocked and resigned to the inevitability of the divorce, children will likely be incredibly shocked and will likely need attention and time to recover if they are told this early.

Step Three: Decision

Once the parties have resigned to the idea that divorce is the best course of action, they have decided to divorce. There is usually no legal or official record of this decision yet, but it is usually irreversible because the parties have tried to fix the marriage and have decided it will not work. This stage may be handled amicably while the pair decides how to begin to separate, but for some couples, this stage may be incredibly competitive as they try and get out of the marriage at an advantage.

The decision to divorce marks the beginning of the end of the relationship and is often accompanied by several characteristics like:

  • Distance from one another emotionally
  • Animosity
  • Victimization and lashing out
  • Awkward social interactions
  • Physical separation
  • Impatience

By the time a pair reaches this stage, the initiator is likely at the acceptance stage of grief, while the non-initiating spouse may be at any point on the grief timeline. Children will likely be affected as parents are at odds with one another and possibly fighting over time with them. However, this stage also marks the end of indecision and provides more stability for the parties to move forward in the legal proceedings.

Stage Four: Initiation

While the emotional stages of divorce have likely been going on for some time at this point, this will be the first time any part of the process will be made official. The initiation stage begins the legal proceedings that will legally sperate the parties. This can feel like a whirlwind of decisions and discussions that may happen as the parties separate their lives from one another. It can be emotionally damaging if the parties are ill-prepared to handle all of the questions and emotions that accompany the legality of filing for divorce.

Initiating the process will often stir up emotions and make the parties feel more competitive or adversarial. This stage is marked by:

  • Emotional instability or high sensitivity
  • Going public with the decision
  • Dividing loyalties of friends and family
  • Telling the children
  • Redefining oneself

This can often be the loneliest stage for each party because as they are separating from each other, they are likely losing friends and their social circles are shifting. It is important to find one or more friends to serve as support as they navigate the legal system. It will also require each party to be self-sufficient and self-supportive. It is done best when it is not a battle, but a series of issues that require negotiation.

Finally, it is best to involve the children as little as possible in the process to spare them the potential to hear things said in anger and that may cause resentment. Being responsible and level-headed around children will help the parties keep the respect of their children as they move forward.

Step Five: Acceptance

This stage may begin during the divorce process or after as each party begins to accept and move one from the divorce. For the initiator, acceptance may be present at the beginning of the initiation process. Whenever this stage sets in, it can bring relief and stability to emotions and well-being. The parties will see the flaws and begin to acknowledge that life will likely be healthier or more stable now that the divorce has happened.

This stage is often marked by a dramatic shift in the mood of the patties. It is marked by examples like:

  • Resurrecting long-forgotten hobbies
  • Reawakening to oneself
  • Beginning to plan for the future
  • Regaining a sense of power and control

Considering the new or changed person they have become can be both scary and exciting for the parties. Three will often be an exhilarating rush to regaining control and finding independence that was not possible earlier. This new freedom can push the parties to be more conciliatory, and it is often the best time to do mediation because the parties understand that life apart will be better and more fulfilling.

Stage Six: Beginning

Viewing the end of divorce as a new beginning rather than an ending will help shift one’s mindset to achieve a more well-adjusted divorcee at the end of the process. In this stage, the divorce is finalized and the parties are free to begin their lives apart. This may take some time after a divorce, but over time, each party will build a new network and a new lifestyle that will help them to feel confident and enjoy their new life.

This stage in the process is often marked by happiness and stability, as well as other characteristics like:

  • Forgiveness toward the other party and themselves
  • Closure
  • Acceptance of new roles
  • New routines

This stage is the final stage of divorce, and it will often be subtle and take time as the parties learn to live apart. As the parties adjust to their new roles, the anger, resentment, or frustration they felt at earlier stages dissipates and they are often able to set it aside to move forward. The future begins to look brighter and life adjusts to a new normal. While it takes time, the new beginnings stage gives the parties comfort and stability to move on and forward, which is the best place for them to be.

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Emily Holland
Emily Holland is a Contributing Editor at ADR Times. She is also a recent graduate of Pepperdine Caruso Law. While in law school, Emily served as an executive editor on the Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal and had the opportunity to learn about ADR from world-class professors of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. She calls the city of Minneapolis home, and spends her free time running through the parks or searching for the best matcha from local coffee shops. Emily can be reached via email at [email protected]

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