According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 2.7 out of every 1,000 married people divorced or had their marriage annulled in 2019. While the divorce rate in the United States declined steadily between 2000 and 2019, the death of a marriage remains an extremely difficult life event to overcome.
When a couple goes through a divorce, emotions can be overwhelming and sometimes uncontrollable. They will differ depending on who initiates the divorce. The emotions of a man won’t be the same as those of a woman since viewpoints, values, and perspectives are all part of a divorce.
The emotional stages of divorce are similar to those you go through when someone you love passes away. These emotions are known as the grieving stages of divorce. It’s also important to note that the severity and longevity of these emotions can vary greatly depending on the reason for the divorce.
What are the emotional stages of divorce?
Most people will go through different emotional stages when coping with divorce. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross defined the stages of grief in the late 1960s in her book On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross was very specific in stating that the stages are not linear and can happen at any time, even simultaneously.
The emotional stages of divorce are:
Let’s take a closer look at each of them.
Both the initiator and their partner will be in denial. The initiator thinks, “There’s no way this marriage can be saved, so why try?” The receiver feels, “How can this marriage be over? I won’t believe it!”
One refuses to acknowledge the divorce and will ignore the situation. They may attempt to find ways to fix the problems in the marriage. The other believes there’s no hope for reconciliation and denies there is any way to fix the problems.
Remaining in a state of denial when faced with a divorce can be very harmful. Denial can cause financial and legal issues and affect the children’s wellbeing. By moving forward and participating in the process, you essentially protect yourself and maintain some power over the outcome of the situation.
Divorce can come as a shock. Anger is a normal response to this. You have been in a relationship, providing care and feeling affection. A divorce is an unexpected change in everything you’ve known. Intense anger is one of the body’s natural reactions to this change.
It’s important to remember that you are only responsible for your emotions. You can control your own anger, not your spouse’s. Take steps to learn how to respond instead of reacting to your spouse’s anger during this time.
You may feel your anger is justified, but you can’t allow it to control you. Seek counsel if you cannot control your anger and reach out to an attorney or mediator to help you resolve important issues without this harmful emotion getting in the way.
In grief, bargaining is used to achieve a different outcome. You change your behavior or offer something in exchange so your loved one can be saved. This same bargaining happens during the emotional stages of divorce.
Since denial and anger didn’t help to heal the marriage, a person will attempt bargaining with their spouse. They feel they have lost control over the situation, so bargaining is an attempt to regain this control.
In bargaining, a spouse may change behaviors, alter their appearance, or give in to what they think their spouse wants. This occurs in many divorces where infidelity has happened. However, attempting to alter who you are as a person just to stay in the marriage is unhealthy. You have to find a way to move through the bargaining stage because being stuck there can derail your healing process.
Divorce depression can be the same as the depression you succumb to when someone you love has passed away. This is the toughest and, most often, the longest-lasting emotional stage of divorce. Usually at this stage, the divorce is final or nearing that point.
Your friends and family may be encouraging you to move on with your life, but as you reflect on your broken relationship, the feelings of sadness can be overwhelming. This sadness can be worse if you spend a significant amount of time without your children in the home because of joint custody.
While it can seem easier to isolate yourself, this is a time when you need support from others. Journaling can be helpful during this stage as it will allow you to process your sadness. You may find relief and help through a divorce recovery group or by reaching out to a trusted friend for weekly talks.
The last emotional stage of divorce is acceptance. You’ll begin to think that “the divorce wasn’t okay, but I’ll be okay.” You’ll start to have more good days than bad and find yourself enjoying things in life again. You may be willing to move out of your comfort zone because you’ve survived a painful season in your life and feel up to a new challenge.
You recognize that your marriage can never be replaced. You also understand that you have to be amicable with your ex-spouse so your children can become well-adjusted adults. You’re willing to put yourself out there and see what the world has to offer and what you can give of yourself.
Men and divorce emotional stages
Men can be hit with a tsunami of emotions during a divorce. They can be overwhelmed and unprepared for what’s next in their lives. Since society tells men they need to “suck it up,” the tendency is for them to hide their emotions, which can lead to long-term health problems.
Men actually experience more emotions during a divorce than most people think. Men need just as much support during a divorce to know their emotions are real. They need these emotions to be validated and know it’s okay to ask for help in dealing with them.
If the man isn’t the one who initiated the divorce, they may experience deep feelings of rejection and self-doubt. Feeling like they’re just a “weekend-only dad” or like they could never trust another woman can really hurt a man’s ability to move on. Journaling and counseling can be very effective for a man attempting to heal.
Women and divorce emotional stages
Women will go through the same emotional stages of divorce, but they tend to stay in the anger stage for longer. Since this tends to be the strongest of all the emotional responses, especially if infidelity leads to a divorce, a woman will feel her anger is justified. She may use this as a reason to harm her ex-spouse financially or use the kids as leverage to get what she wants.
Women also hold onto their anger so that they don’t have to move forward and experience the sadness that comes with divorce. It seems easier to stay mad at your ex-spouse and place all the responsibility for your feelings on him. In the long run, however, anger only makes it harder to go on with your life. A woman should seek help dealing with anger to move forward into acceptance.
Emotional stages of the divorce initiator
When a person initiates a divorce, they may experience different emotions, including:
Except when it is warranted, such as in cases of domestic violence or substance abuse issues, the divorce initiator often blames their spouse for everything gone wrong in the marriage. They put all the responsibility for the marriage failure on the other person. This can lead to resentment, especially when serious talks about finances, child custody, and the split of the marital property happen.
The initiator may feel like they are being treated unfairly by the court system or that the process is taking too long, which leads to feelings of impatience. They have probably been planning the divorce for a while, and they just want it to be over with.
Once the divorce is final, feelings of guilt can kick in. Not being there for your kids all the time and missing out on family gatherings, holidays, and school events can cause this guilt. It can also happen if the initiator begins to feel depressed and wonders if they made the right decision.
All these feelings are normal for the divorce initiator to have. There is just as much need for them to build coping skills and seek counseling if necessary so they can move on.
How the emotional stages of divorce affect kids
Younger children won’t understand having 2 different homes. Little ones will tend to get angry and act out, hoping their parents will stop shuffling them back and forth. They may feel that since their parents don’t love each other anymore, they may stop loving them, too.
School-age kids may feel they are to blame for the divorce, possibly thinking that if they behave better, the divorce won’t happen. They will bargain a lot, hoping for a different outcome. This can lead to depression, which is extremely harmful at this tender age.
Teens will have an angry response to divorce. They will cast blame on one or both parents and become extremely resentful of them. It is imperative that teens receive family counseling during this time, otherwise, their own relationships as adults can be severely impacted.
Here are some practical tips on helping your kids cope with divorce:
- Learn to peacefully co-parent with your ex-spouse and don’t put your kids in the middle of any divorce-related matter.
- If you have more than 1 child, make sure you’re spending quality time alone with each one, reassuring them of their individual value and of being loved no matter what happens.
- Practice consistency in discipline, schedules, and home routines. Don’t fall into the fun parent/boss parent trap— be equal in how you parent the kids.
- Teach your kids coping skills, and if you don’t feel emotionally capable of doing this, get them counseling.
- Keep an eye on your kids, no matter what their ages. Look for any warning signs of depression, substance abuse, or self-harm and take action to help them.
It’s been almost 10 years since my own unexpected divorce. Some days, a wave of 1 or more of these emotions will hit me. These waves don’t knock me down like they used to, but their effects still hurt. It’s important to recognize the signs of post-divorce depression and seek help if the waves of emotions keep crashing into you, making you feel like you’re drowning.
Not dealing with your emotions during a divorce will make it harder for you to get through, move on, and succeed in life. As you learn how to cope with divorce, the strength of your intense emotions will lessen. Healing after a divorce is possible. It requires hard work to process all the emotions and be willing to let yourself feel them.
Divorce is hard on everyone involved, including the kids, but families can come out on the other side with positivity and hope by recognizing what helps and what harms.