The Stages of Divorce


The Stages of Divorce, Divorce AgreementDivorce is far more than a court order. There are stages to divorce that much be traversed. How we do that affects not only the well-being of the family and the legal conflicts but also our ability to move on once the divorce is final.

Although divorce is no longer shameful as it once was, many people still feel guilty about their “failed” marriage or marriages. In any case, divorce is painful. It ranks just above death in the severity of stress and is often combined with other stressors, such as marital discord, serious financial problems, a move, single parenting, multiple losses, and litigation, all at once.

Divorce is an unpredictable life-cycle crisis. Unlike other transitions, there still is no social protocol for the divorcees and their friends – no greeting cards, no rules, nor role models for the spouses, grandparents, and stepparents.

This ambiguity aggravates an already stressful situation. Divorce presents a crucial period of increased vulnerability and heightened potential. The process, though difficult, can be an edifying experience when carried out with conscious awareness. This is not easy when emotions run high, but it is extremely rewarding, because, in the long run, you feel better, and secondly, you learn from the experience and don’t have to repeat the same mistakes.

The Stages of Divorce

Divorce is a process of several stages: cognitive, emotional, physical, legal, and spiritual. Although this might be the most desirable order, it is not always, or even usually, what happens. This is why we see the “Divorce Court” melodrama – couples who are trying to make the legal separation while they are still emotionally caught up in the drama of their relationship. They haven’t separated emotionally, though they may be physically apart. It is the emotional separation that is the cornerstone for transformation, which I will discuss last.

Prior to the cognitive stage, the family has lived with marital problems for some time, and often in denial. Marital discord may have increased, or it may have gone underground, while maintaining the facade of an intact family. The couple may have avoided their problem, and focused on work, a new baby, a child, or some other problem. If they didn’t seek therapy, one or both spouses began to protectively, emotionally withdraw, which upsets the family system even more. Gradually one or both spouses become willing to risk going into the unknown and pain of divorce – it appears preferable to the pain they are already in. To the extent this determination is made with emotional consciousness, that is with an awareness of their grief, guilt, and fears, the more they have begun to emotionally unbond from their spouse, and the better prepared they are to move through the next stages.

The Cognitive Stage

The cognitive or mental separation is not so much a decision to divorce, as a setting of intention. It usually long precedes the actual decision, as well as the emotional and physical separation. Generally, people set goals or a course of intent, before they are emotionally and physically ready to carry them out, such as a job change, a move, or even getting out of bed in the morning. This intent sets the keel in a direction for events to follow.

The cognitive separation may seem relatively painless, but it usually follows a long period of frustration and unhappiness. The intent to separate may or may not be expressed, or even consciously acknowledged. Some will protest that they never wanted a divorce, blaming it on their spouse, all the while precipitating or allowing the marital break-up, and provoking or permitting their spouse to carry it out. In other cases, it is amazing to see the synchronicity with which couples agree to divorce; often each silently comes to their moment of resolve, only to hear the words uttered by their spouse.

The open acknowledgment of this intention and the decision to divorce marks the beginning of the physical and legal process of separation. Once the decision is verbalized, the coping behavior and degree of crisis experienced will vary depending on the degree of preparation. Naturally, it is optimal if the family can and has been talking openly, and can problem-solve the anticipated changes and solutions without anger. If so, they probably were already in therapy, or they will manage without it. More often, there is high dysfunction and open communication never existed or has previously broken down. Where there is no talking, the fear and anger are intensified and reactivity escalates.

If the decision wasn’t gradually and mutually arrived at, the spouse left will be less prepared, and experience greater anger and depression; the one leaving feels guilty. Both still have ambivalent, though often unconscious, feelings of love and hate which intensify their reactivity. At this point, confusion sets in, old roles and rules and parenting begin to deteriorate. Read “Co-parenting After Divorce.”

Physical Separation

The stages of divorce eventually involve physical separation; however, couples may continually reunite until the emotional divorce is complete. Although some couples separate with no intent to divorce, usually physical separation is a necessary precursor to completing the emotional separation. In some cases, separation may, in fact, be a defensive reaction to the need for emotional connection – a sort of cold turkey abstinence. Often neither spouse wants to leave, and the question of who will vacate the family residence is frequently the first heated legal dispute. Both may be in denial about the actual consequences of their decision to divorce, may not have emotionally separated, and may not be prepared to undertake a new life on their own. Especially if one spouse still wants to be married and is angry or feels like the victim of his or her mate, s/he will resist any change in lifestyle, and demand: “Why should I have to move out (or lose my home); it was s/he who found someone else?” or “Just because now s/he wants to be independent, why should I give up the home I worked so hard for?” They are unaware that they also have contributed, either actively or passively, to the deterioration of their marriage.

Sometimes a court hearing has been calendared on this issue before the couple is ready to separate. The adversarial win-lose nature of the legal system often divides spouses into two camps. This is also when the divorce becomes public to family and friends, whose reactions may be supportive or may further polarize the couple. Where children are involved, the ultimate custody arrangement should be taken into consideration in deciding who should vacate the family residence, because the short-term arrangement will impact the final decision. More importantly, it is disruptive and stressful for children to move, so that unnecessary moves back and forth should be avoided.

Moreover, there are financial ramifications as to mortgage financing and whether the residence will be sold. Consequently, unless a spouse or children are in physical danger, it is preferable to continue the hearing and prolong legal intervention until their new reality has been integrated and emotional reactions are more manageable. This allows sufficient time to adjust to the idea of the physical separation, as well as to sort out these other issues.

Divorce may be the most traumatic crisis in this person’s life. Confusion, mood swings, and strong emotions, such as fear, guilt, lust, rage, jealousy, resentment and grief are “normal” during this period. Such feelings naturally obstruct the thinking process and make it difficult for a spouse to make wise decisions. Individual counseling and psychotherapy can provide support, facilitate decision-making, and accelerate a successful adjustment to the future.

Professional help is particularly indicated if there has been domestic violence, substance abuse or children are at risk, or where a spouse shows signs of major depression, such as sleep and appetite disturbances, prolonged crying, apathy, and difficulty working. Marital counseling can also be valuable, either to salvage the relationship or to help the couple achieve clarity in their decision to end the marriage, and to emotionally separate in a manner that will facilitate the legal process, stabilize their relationship, and maximize their post-divorce adjustment. In fact, whenever possible, it is advantageous to utilize other professional resources. If a spouse is confused or indecisive regarding his or her anticipated financial needs, a consultation with a financial planner or accountant is a must. There are numerous free support groups, such as Divorce Anonymous, Alcoholics and Cocaine Anonymous, Al-Anon, Parents Without Partners, Parents Anonymous (for child abuse), and others.

Upon separation, feelings generally are still ambivalent; many couples attempt to reconcile from one to three times, and sixteen percent continue to have sex. More than two-thirds would call their spouse first in a crisis. This creates a constant state of disequilibrium. With one parent coming and going, the family cannot reorganize to establish new roles and boundaries in regard to money, living space, household responsibilities, dating, and parenting. Once the family does so, the new system will resist reentry of the non-custodial parent.

Initially, some spouses may experience separation as a relief from the family tension. Parents often reverse roles. One who was over-functioning becomes irresponsible; the under-functioning spouse tries to be the perfect mom or dad. After a few months, the legal and economic realities of legal fees, maintaining two households, dividing property, and determining child custody and visitation arrangements increase the stress and emotional reactivity. In the first six months of separation, women are more prone to symptoms of depression, such as poor health, loneliness, work inefficiency, insomnia, memory difficulties, and increased substance abuse. Studies show that men feel empty, guilty, anxious, depressed, deep loss, and have strong dependency needs of which they were theretofore unaware. Although initially, the person left feels worse, over time the impact is the same on both spouses.

During the first year both parents continue to feel anxious, angry, depressed, rejected, and incompetent. Women feel more helpless, vulnerable, and have low self-esteem, while men tend to work harder, be sleepless, and function ineffectively. These feelings are more intense in older spouses and longer marriages. Both spouses have almost twice as many car accidents and three times as many traffic citations as before the separation.

Domestic disorganization continues sometimes after the first year or longer until boundaries and new rules are established, redefining a new, non-intimate, co-parent relationship between the parents and independent parental relationships with the children. The custodial parent may take on dual-parenting roles, and the children, particularly boys, challenge the new regime, especially single mothers. Children may fill in adult responsibilities. The non-custodial parent must adjust to the lost time with the children, as well as loss of control. In more dysfunctional families, the system may close out one parent entirely. This appears to be a good solution to constant conflict, but it actually causes the parents and children greater stress and depression and may have a severe impact on the children’s development.

Although stress reaches a peak at eighteen months, particularly for women, who may still experience daily mood swings, by the end of the second year, the legal and economic issues are usually settled. Adjustment will be greatest where the family has been able to establish a bi-nuclear, co-parenting arrangement. This will depend on the parent’s emotional reactivity to each other and ability to maintain a child-centered relationship. By now both spouses begin to seek sexual relationships, which is particularly difficult for the single parent of young children. When a parent remarries, it is helpful to the children if the step-parent is integrated into the parental system with the ex-spouse.

Legal Separation

The legal dissolution is the socio-economic and cultural separation. As a lawyer and therapist, it is at once apparent to me that unresolved emotional conflicts fuel adversarial posturing. The legal divorce can be a long, drawn-out battle, in which couples stay connected through their anger by breaking agreements and violating court orders, or by taking either intransigent or ever-changing positions.

Emotional Separation

Of the stages of divorce the emotional separation is the difficult period where couples get an opportunity to work through their karma – hopefully, learn lessons they need not repeat. This process may commence prior to the cognitive separation, and may not necessarily lead to divorce. In fact, if these changes are worked through as a couple, they may actually result in a more healthy and satisfying relationship. It is when the marriage is not flexible enough to absorb the changes, or when either or both partners discover that their needs will not be met by the other, that the unbonding process continues towards further separation.

The task of emotional separation involves unbonding the romantic and dependent aspects of the relationship and mourning those losses. This is the stage where the process of growth and transformation unfolds. It includes the disengagement of the couple’s games, role definitions, and family expectations. This means really understanding why they selected their partner, why they stay, and understanding the “dance” they both do over and over that doesn’t work. Growth comes from taking responsibility for participation in the marital problems, rather than blaming their mate or themselves, and, finally changing that “dance.” It may mean seeing their partner clearly for the very first time, and it means risking new behavior, some of which may be very scary. It is also risky because it will undoubtedly meet resistance from their mate, since they are changing the dance steps, and refusing to do the old routine.

It will be different for everyone, but some examples of new behavior might be for a passive spouse to get angry, or for a volatile partner to good-humoredly walk away from an argument; for each to ask for what they really want and need from the other; to do something important for themselves, even though their partner is against it; refusing to any longer tolerate some unacceptable behavior of their spouse that they’ve complained about forever; to take a solo vacation; or to refuse to do something they felt obligated to do, but have always resented. So in emotionally unbonding, people really do become different, in the sense that they have a choice of new responses and behaviors.

The emotional conflict between the spouses and these old behavior patterns really represents the inner unresolved conflicts that they carry from childhood, which get played out between them. So changing the old patterns of responding is also scary, because they were learned through interactions with their parents at an age when they believed they had no other choices, such as the risk of standing up to a toxic or abusive parent. Unresolved pain and anger toward a parent can keep a spouse tied to a similar mate. One woman kept marrying men who had affairs until she was willing to face her buried feelings towards her father, who had been unfaithful to her mother. Sometimes the behavior is directed toward the children. One couple had no complaints until the children arrived when the father began abusing the children, repeating the abusive parenting he had received. It is working through these conflicts that frees us from repeating them in another relationship.

If the unbonding process is not successfully traversed, a premature physical and/or legal separation is no growth at all. The couple’s emotional connections will undermine the attempts to separate. This stems from the struggle to separate from their parents – an uncompleted earlier task. The divorce may be their first act of that separation. These couples are highly reactive and co-dependent. Many are still “married,” years after the formal divorce, if only to maintain contact through court battles, or alternatively, ritualistically celebrating holidays together (“for the children’s sake”). Rather than go through the pain of separation, couples persist in having ambivalent feelings and repeatedly try to reconcile over many years. Such couples are deeply emotionally and sexually bonded and maintain idealized images of one another.

One couple, divorced many years, lived in separate houses on the same property, but the reality of each other fueled their continued legal hostilities and helped to keep them apart. Some couples maintain the bond by depending upon their ex-spouse for physical or emotional support. Another pair lived as neighbors, but could not separate too far, because she needed to rescue him from his depressions, and he needed to drive her around. Sometimes these spouses complain that their mates are verbally abusive, but they nevertheless maintain contact by subtle encouragement or by not setting limits. One woman clung to the hope of reconciliation, despite the fact that her ex-husband repeatedly told her how happy he was with his new mate; and despite her anger, he confided in his ex regularly, drove her to appointments, and helped her with chores.

Part of working through the emotional divorce is accepting and mourning the losses that accompany divorce. Divorce represents loneliness, change of lifestyle, imagined losses of what might have been, and of memories of what once was, as well as real losses on every front, such as a home, family, children, financial, and often friends and in-laws. It may entail a move to a different city or school, a job change, or a homemaker going back to school or entering the workforce for the first time. These changes are also stressful because the transition to the unfamiliar provokes anxiety and fears. Divorce can also shatter a spouse’s self-esteem and identity, as a wife, a husband, and possibly as a father or mother.

In order to bolster their self-esteem, some difficult spouses continue to argue, resisting compromise and escalating disputes. They are really fighting for validation because they feel disrespected or devalued. Rather than taking responsibility for their contribution to the marital break-up, which would threaten their self-esteem, they project all of the bad onto their spouse and see themselves as good and superior. Sometimes both spouses feel victimized and see the other as all bad. They act self-righteous and are unwilling to accommodate the needs and schedules of their spouse and children. Unfortunately, too often attorneys become pawns and act out their clients’ rage.

Divorce also rekindles the pain associated with past losses, such as an abortion, a death, immigration, or their own parents’ divorce. One man so idealized his father, who died when he was only four years old, that when his son reached four, he not only divorced but moved out of state. The proximity to his ex-wife was not as painful as the hidden painful memory of his father’s abandonment and the prospect of tarnishing his father’s reputation by meeting his own son’s needs. Many times, there have been both a prior loss and a lack of separation from a parent, as in the case of a woman who was overly close with her mother following the death of her father. With such spouses the threat of loss is overwhelming. They may create disputes and obstacles to settlement in order to postpone the divorce, thereby avoiding their grief, feelings of helplessness, emptiness, and abandonment. Anger helps them to separate, yet ongoing fighting is a way of staying in contact.

Often, spouses fluctuate between attachment and separation, sometimes being compliant, then resistant. They cannot cooperate without feeling they are giving up a part of themselves. For example, everything can be agreed upon but one insignificant item – one piece of art, or custody on Halloween. One couple had everything worked out; the father would pay for the children’s daycare, named in the agreement. When the facility unexpectedly went out of business, dad refused to pay for an alternative daycare and instead wanted to take custody.

This endless struggle for control over every last detail represents the spouses’ last-ditch effort to avoid the finality of the marriage and the pain of separation and abandonment. In therapy, spouses can work through their fears of separation, and earlier losses. They learn to distinguish the earlier trauma from the present and resolve their anger and grief towards their parents, which helps them to heal and move on. Much of this work can precede the physical and legal divorce and smooth the way.

The Spiritual Stage of Divorce

When a couple consciously works through the emotional divorce and unbonding, the drama subsides and the marital structure gradually falls away, although they may still esteem one another, or love each other in the spiritual sense. The spiritual stage is distinguished from the emotional separation, in that strong emotions, either positive or negative, are absent; instead, it is marked by feelings of unconditional love and caring. Generally, by the third year, most spouses have formed new lasting relationships, and emotional functioning has returned to the pre-divorce level. The non-custodial parent has become more comfortable with the children, more assertive, or has become more distant, and the custodial parent shows more consistent discipline and affection. The children return to the normal process of growing up, unless the parents are still at war, which arrests their emotional development.

During times of transition, it is helpful to contemplate the Chinese ideogram for crisis, which represents both danger and opportunity. Loosening our attachments to the things we hold most dear allows for more space and flow within us, the possibility of new experiences, and the opportunity to meet as yet unknown and parts of ourselves. Carl Jung is reported to have congratulated his friend when he was fired, saying, “Let’s open a bottle of wine; this is wonderful news; something good will happen now.”

Copyright, Darlene Lancer, 2004 Growing Through Divorce (abbreviated version) first appeared in The California Therapist, July, 1991; (Adaptation for Attorneys: Understanding the Process of Divorce – And the Perils of Family Law, Family Law News and Review, Feb., 1992)

To get tips for overcoming the pain of rejection, see “Recovering from Rejection and Breakups.” Listen to the seminar, Breakup Recovery.

See also “Divorce Do’s and Don’ts” and “Letting Go and Moving on After Divorce.” And listen to my interview and get tips for Bouncing Back from Divorce.

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