The Emotional Stages of Divorce

By:  Jodie Haferbier McGill

I have assisted clients through hundreds of divorces.  During that time, I often see that the individuals of the divorcing couple are in different emotional stages of their divorce.  The stages of divorce are often likened to the stages of grief.  It is common for people to move back and forth through the stages.  Some stages may be easier for some to move through than others.  Often the emotional stage that one litigant is in will dictate how quickly or slowly that person wants the divorce to proceed.  In collaborative law, we can recognize that someone may be stalling the process or pushing for the process to speed through because of the emotional stage that he/she is experiencing.  During the process, we can discuss why one party is pushing or stalling, if necessary.  A discussion about the different emotional stages of divorce can also assist parties in attempting to understand why their spouse is acting in a certain manner.

The Different Stages of Divorce:

Denial:

The first emotional stage of the divorce process is denial.  During the denial stage, the party doesn’t believe that their spouse really wants to go forward with a divorce.  Individuals in the denial stage may continue to attempt to find solutions for the marital problems, send gifts to their spouse, and/or believe that the other spouse will come around and drop the whole proceeding. I’ve had clients tell me that they think that they and the other party will eventually get back together.  Because they are sure to get back together, they don’t want to proceed with the divorce.  It can be hazardous to be in this stage during litigation if you are not represented.  There are specific time frames during which certain things must be completed.  For example, you need to file an Answer or other responsive pleading to the Complaint within 30 days of service.  If you are in the denial stage, it is important that you still protect your rights and get things completed and/or on file in a timely manner.  During this stage, the lawsuit may feel as though it is moving way too fast.  In collaborative law, because we are not preparing for trial, we don’t have such regimented schedules and can work with the parties determine a pace that can work for both parties.

Anger:

The second emotional stage during a divorce is anger. People in the anger stage feel intense anger, shock, and fear.  Often people in this stage feel extremely overwhelmed about the future and the amount of change that is imminent.  People in the anger stage have a difficult time focusing on the possibility that the divorce could be a positive for their future and focus on how horrible the divorce is at that time.

Bargaining:

People in the bargaining phase have days where they feel really good about the divorce and the possibilities that the future holds and days where they are filled with negative emotions and feelings.  This stage is sometimes referred to as the roller coaster stage.  People in the bargaining stage often have difficulty settling their feelings and thoughts.  People often experience a great deal of mental re-hashing during this period.  Sometimes people become almost obsessed with the end of the marriage.  It is referred to as the bargaining stage as often people will try to bargain with their spouse, themselves or even God to save the marriage.  Bargaining is often met with a reevaluation of the relationship and whether divorce is the best option.

Depression:

The depression stage almost goes without explanation.  People are extremely sad, sometimes to the point of debilitation.  If someone is hit hard with the depression stage, it’s best that expert advice is sought.

Acceptance:

During the acceptance stage there is an acceptance that the marriage is over and a greater focus on the future.  People in the acceptance stage are often more willing to forgive the faults of their spouse/ex-spouse and take responsibility for their part in the breakdown of the marital relationship.  Once in the acceptance stage, people often are happy with the decision to end the marriage and are hopeful for the future.  Sometimes people reach this stage prior to the divorce and other times it takes years before one or more of the parties is able to move forward past the relationship and focus on life without that person.

No matter the stage, being part of a collaborative team can be extremely beneficial for you, your spouse and the divorce process.  Being able to talk about what stage you are in and what stage your spouse is in assists the parties in their communication.  With the assistance of the divorce coaches, the team can make adjustments to the speed of the process to better serve the parties.