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Emotional Stages of Divorce

Some of the most emotionally troubling and difficult events that we can encounter in life include the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, and divorce. The divorce process and post-divorce path offers the potential for a myriad of reactions and emotions. However, because everyone’s participation in a divorce is different, all do not necessarily experience the same emotions, or have the same reactions. For some, divorce is an intentional and mutual ending of the marriage relationship, and for each party represents a new beginning. For others, it signifies a heart-breaking ending to a union that was valued and thought to be enduring. The emotions of divorce also visit upon the spouses differently and very much affect the children and the extended families and relationships. The key to emotionally getting through a divorce is to take personal responsibility for one’s emotional healing.

Blaming the other spouse for the divorce is not an emotional cure and causes countless problems, which appear as custody disputes over children, arguments about money and division of property. This approach ends up hurting the children and depleting the value of the spouse’s estate. The process of a divorce is simply unwinding the joined lives of two people so that they may then move ahead as individuals.

California recognized the purpose of a divorce in 1971 when the Family Law Act was passed making it a “dissolution of marriage” rather than a “divorce” and eliminating fault. While family law attorneys understand this, sometimes, due to the emotionally charged nature of the process, it is difficult for the client to understand this.

Perhaps Mitch Albom (author of “Tuesday With Morrie“, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” and, “For One More Day“) provides a purposeful explanation for the divorce or dissolution of marriage process with his quote:

“In college, I had a course in Latin, and one day the word “divorce” came up. I always figured it came from some root that meant “divide.” In truth, it comes from “divertere,” which means “to divert.” I believe that. All divorce does is divert you, taking you away from everything you thought you knew and everything you thought you wanted and steering you into all kinds of other stuff.”

~ Mitch Albom


It is not uncommon to encounter any of or all of the below mentioned emotions. The key is to acknowledge, deal with, and successfully move through or these emotions without getting stuck in their more debilitating aspects:

– Grief – Sorrow

– Guilt – Shame

– Fear – Anxiety

While some individuals go through nearly all of the extreme emotional states that we described below, others have an easier time getting through this period and will maneuver these choppy waters with more skill. The important thing to remember is that all the emotions we discuss are normal, but while those experiencing them readily acknowledge some emotions, others are so uncomfortable that it’s difficult even to admit they exist. A significant and helpful fact to remember is that emotions are data. Yes, and that data (from your emotions) is available to tell you something important, if you are willing to listen, consider, and face them. As an example, the emotion of fear could be telling you that your way forward is blocked perhaps by hurt and/or fear. By focusing on solutions toward those things that are blocking you, you will allow yourself to move forward. You might find it beneficial to first describe the emotion you feel, and then move to an understanding as to why this emotion is present. Learn to use the data from the emotions you feel to your betterment as you move through this event in your life.

The wide array of emotional states that many people experience during the marriage dissolution process can diminish their capacity to think clearly, impair their judgment, and make rational decision making difficult or impossible. Your legal representative is highly trained to focus only on the legal aspects of your divorce. It is important to trust them to position you for the best possible move forward from the event of the divorce process.

The following two quotes present constructive insights for those going through the dissolution of marriage process. They also set the stage for a productive and healthy mindset as we review the emotional stages of divorce:

“For some reason, we see divorce as a signal of failure, despite the fact that each of us has a right, and an obligation, to rectify any other mistake we make in life.”

~ Joyce Brothers

“Divorce isn’t such a tragedy. A tragedy’s staying in an unhappy marriage, teaching your children the wrong things about love. Nobody ever died of divorce.”

~ Jennifer Weiner, in “Fly Away Home”


For most, going through a significant or traumatic event like the dissolution of a marriage is a process. In going through this process it is beneficial to refer to the pioneering work of psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who first described how we navigate through traumatic events in her Five Stages of Grief Model. The Model keys in on the five mindsets that we encounter as we move through and begin to recover from major trauma, as in this case marriage dissolution:

  • Denial: “This is not happening to me. It’s all a misunderstanding. It’s just a midlife crisis. We can work it out.”
  • Anger and resentment: “How can he [she] do this to me? What did I ever do to deserve this? This is not fair!”
  • Bargaining: “If you’ll stay, I’ll change” or “If I agree to do it [money, childrearing, sex, whatever] your way, can we get back together?”
  • Depression: “This is really happening, I can’t do anything about it, and I don’t think I can bear it.”
  • Acceptance: “Okay, this is how it is, and I’d rather accept it and move on than wallow in the past.”


The two quotes below best serve as a reminder on how to frame your thoughts, feelings, and actions as you move forward from the dissolution of your marriage. They are forward focused statements that acknowledge the past, but do not dwell in the past. This mindset is a healthy and important one to master, not only for you, but also for the others affected by the divorce (children and close extended family and friends).

“I was never one to patiently pick up broken fragments and glue them together again and tell myself that the mended whole was as good as new. What is broken is broken, and I’d rather remember it as it was at its best than mend it and see the broken pieces as long as I lived.”

~ Margaret Mitchell

Painful as it may be, a significant emotional event can be the catalyst for choosing a direction that serves us – and those around us – more effectively. Look for the learning.

~ Louisa May Alcott


“A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor”

Difficulties are part of the journey, they are rarely sought after, and can be quite jarring. Our lives are shaped by significant emotional events that challenge us to our very core. How we deal with these events build character, confidence, and personal courage. The courage to push through things that you may not have thought possible, either physically or mentally.

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