Emotional Stages of Divorce


Emotional Stages of Divorce for the Initiator and for the Non-Initiating Spouse

For many, going through a divorce is one of the worst experiences of their life. In general, people can be filled with intense negative feelings – which might include fear, hurt, pain, shame, guilt, anger, frustration, anxiety, stress, disappointment, regret, contempt, low self-worth, insecurity and emptiness.

While most experience a lot of negative emotions, the emotions and emotional stages of divorce for the initiator are generally different from the emotional stages for the non-initiating Spouse – both in terms of timing and in terms of substance.

For instance, it is not unusual for Spouse pushing for the divorce to feel relief, stress, fear, anger, impatience, distance, resentment, disappointment, shame and guilt. The Spouse not initiating the divorce might feel hurt, pain, panic, stress, threat, fear, anger, frustration, longing to reconcile, lowered self-esteem, betrayal, shock and a desire to get even.

Emotional Divorce for the Initiator In Terms of Timing – It is common for the Initiator to have completed most of the Emotional Divorce and to have worked through most of the above negative feelings before beginning the Legal Divorce. He or she has already spent much time uncoupling from the marriage before standing firm on the need for divorce. Though he or she may look cool at the time of going through divorce, it is only because that Spouse has worked though and resolved a lot of negative feelings earlier.

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Let’s look at the Emotional Stages of Divorce in detail to help you prepare yourself for what is to come. You will then be able to realize how much your own experience is fairly normal as you approach divorce. You will be better able to identify and work through negative feelings. You will be a better advocate for yourself.

1. ‘Long-term Disappointment and Frustration’ Stage

As I tell all of our clients at the Long Island Center for Divorce Mediation (as well as in my private marriage counseling practice), marriage is not based on unconditional love. If it were, we would not have a 50% or higher divorce rate in the United States and on Long Island, NY.

So what does a conditional love marriage look like? It is where each Spouse learns to satisfy the important interpersonal and intimate needs of the other Spouse. Not only that, this Spouse learns to get pleasure from the giving. When both Spouses are acting accordingly, we have the condition of ‘mutual need satisfaction’ through time – a highly successful marriage.

In this kind of ‘mutual need satisfaction’ marriage, each Spouse learns to not hurt the other and learns what the other needs to be satisfied. This meeting of needs for partnership, intimacy (emotional and sexual), respect and trust goes through changes over as the marriage evolves through it’s stages from getting started, to nesting and children, to empty nest and beyond.

What goes wrong in this mutual need satisfaction through time? Often Spouses start out with some form of mutual need satisfaction. Or one Spouse is the over-giver, the pleaser in the relationship.

Over time, as circumstances and individuals change, it takes effort to keep on learning and adjusting to what each Spouse needs – and to talk about needs while also really listening. If this adjustment does not take place, resentments begin to build up.

Soon the Couple begins to alternate times of fighting and/or distancing – with good times intermixed. There is an occasional thought of, or talk of, divorce. Resentments build but the relationship has not yet reached a breakpoint. There is still some residue of goodwill, based on the hope and good feelings at the beginning of the marriage.

2. ‘Escalation’ Stage

Usually, a precipitating event causes the emotional conflict of fighting and/or distancing to escalate. The precipitating event might be birth of a child, an affair, death of a parent, loss of a job or job change, the movement to a new location, serious illness, or financial instability.

Those precipitating stressors often stir the pot. One or both Spouses experiences increased negative feelings, judgments and lack of need satisfaction. These Spouses feel frustrated, often unloved and not understood, empty and more and more alone.

Instead of talking it out, as in a healthy marriage, the attacking and withdrawing escalates. One Spouse or both increase the amount of uncoupling.

Inner conflict over what to do as a solution, including divorce, now escalates. (Here is an example: Ben and Sheila frequently fought with each other. Over time, they became increasingly judgmental. However, neither wanted to be alone so the marriage held together. When their first child arrived, now Sheila poured her love into the child. She no longer feared to be alone because she had a connection to the child. Now Sheila did not back down when she and Ben could not work out their differences. Now divorce threatened.)

Often it is issues around children and finance that hold the marriage together even while it is reaching the Escalation Stage. Some couple elect to go to marriage counseling to get help. Others just continue the Vicious Emotional Cycle until one or the other decides to divorce.

3. ‘Deciding to Divorce’ Stage

The Vicious Emotional Cycle of attack and withdraw continues. Finally, one or the other Spouse reaches threshold and decides to divorce. As the decision becomes firmer over time, this Spouse will either ask for a mediated divorce and/or go unilaterally to a lawyer(s) to discuss the process, the costs and his or her rights.

Now that divorce mediation has become a popular means of divorce, the Spouse wanting a divorce more frequently suggests mediation. Sometimes the other Spouse suggests it in order to save money and gain some peace.

In either case, going to either a mediator or two separate lawyers, the divorce process begins – as either an uncontested or contested divorce

4. ‘Going through the Process of Divorce’ Stage – Emotional, Financial and Legal

Divorcing, itself is a painful process. It is about tearing up one’s former life. That former life was familiar and predictable, something our brains like. So even if we were the ones to want the divorce, there is anxiety and stress related to separate lives. There are three aspects to a divorce – Emotional, Financial and Legal. During the divorcing process, they often get entangled. For instance, one Spouse may feel resentful and want revenge so she or he use all legal resources (rights) to get as much financially as he or she can from the other. In another case, one Spouse may feel anxious and empty if separated from the children, so she or he fights for residential custody of the children. This same Spouse may attempt to keep the time the other Spouse spends with the children down to a minimum.

There are many articles on the web that articulate how the Kubler Ross five stages of dying can be applied to this part of the Emotional Stages of Divorce. See if these Stages apply to you, if relevant to your current situation.

  1. First there is Denial. That happens when the other Spouse asks you for your divorce or starts talking about it. In Denial, you do not think that it is possible for your Spouse to want out. You don’t believe it is happening to you.

  2. Then you wake up to Anger – anger that your life is being disrupted, anger that it didn’t work the way you wanted it to, anger at an unknown future, anger at the loss of security and finances and/or anger that your children will not have the childhood of your dreams.
  3. In stage 3 of the Kubler Ross Stages, you enter into Bargaining – maybe be offering one last time to go to marital therapy or insisting you will change. Bargaining rarely works.

  4. Depression occurs when you realize that you cannot alter the inevitable course of divorce.
  5. Finally, Acceptance, the last stage comes when you are ready to get on with your life and put the past behind you.

Not all these Stages from Kubler Ross are relevant to your life. Or they may be true for you but in a different or overlapping order. We are all different when it comes to the Emotional Divorce and it’s Stages;.


5. Aftermath Stage – Fears and Regrets and Anger

Once the divorce finally is complete, many are left with feelings of fear about the future. Many have regret and anger that the old familiar life is gone. Initiators often experience residues of guilt and shame, especially when there are children involved.

If possible, decide early on to advocate for excellent co-parenting. Here is a co-parenting article that will get you started.

6. Recovery Stage – Onto a New Life

Recovery occurs when acceptance really kicks in and you are on to planning the new life. It is a good time to head to individual therapy and make changes. You may need to work through those feelings from the past. Or you may need to make deep internal changes about how you pick a mate, or getting over rejection, or learning to be less judgmental.


Divorce is a difficult and emotional negative experience. It can continue to be draining or it can lead to a new lease on life. Divorce Mediation allows you to get through the Emotional Divorce with less stress and aggravation. It can speed up the passing through of each Stage until recovery sets in and your new life unfolds.

Call for a free consultation/first session at the Long Island Center for Divorce Mediation at 631-757-1553 or email us at info@lidivorcemediation.com.

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