Stages Of The Emotional Divorce

© 2012 Marvin L. Chapman, PsyD, LMFT, CFC
All Rights Reserved

Research shows going through a divorce is the second most stressful period in a person’s life, second only to the death of an immediate family member. In a divorce, this stress comes from many sources, including some of the following:

1. Your role as a parent, teacher, coach, and mentor to your child is changing.

2. Your self-esteem is being challenged by allegations and accusations in papers filed with the court.

3. Your financial security is threatened with legal costs and expenses. Additionally, reorganizing your family from one household into two households can be an expensive transition.

4. Your status in the community is changing.

5. Individual stressors unique to only you (disability, etc).

6. A divorce is a death of a relationship. Grieving the emotional death of a relationship is similar to grieving the death of a close relative.

A divorce is a death of a relationship. Like the death of a family member, the death of a relationship produces a grieving process. Internationally known for her studies on the grieving process, Dr. Elisabeth Ross has described five (5) stages of grieving. These stages are naturally occurring emotional reactions when a person has suffered a significant loss in their lives – a process that affects both children and adults.

These emotional stages are not mutually exclusive. This means you may go through different stages at different times. You may go through some stages more than once. And, you may go through more than one stage at one time. This means that while you are going through the legal drama of the legal divorce, you are also experiencing the emotional trauma of the emotional divorce – grieving the death of the relationship.

The five (5) recognized stated of the emotional divorce (the grieving process) are the following:

Denial – Anger – Bargaining – Depression – Acceptance


Stage: Denial

Denying or refusing to accept the reality that the relationship is over.

Adults: This stage is marked with feelings: “This is not happening, this can’t be happening – not to me!”

Children: This stage is marked with thoughts that will distract or deny the existence of the experience they feel. They will tell themselves this is just another outburst, everything will soon be back to normal.


Stage: Anger

Anger and frustration at family, friends, co-workers, yourself, your spouse, and possibly even strangers. A wall of resentment and anger rises.

Adults: A feeling of powerlessness to control the events that are happening. If it is a divorce, there will be faultfinding and “pointing the finger,” charges and counter-charges will be thrown at each other.

Children: Feelings of anger towards toward the outside world. Some children become furious at no one or nothing in particular. Outbursts at inappropriate timed and places are typical.


Stage: Bargaining

Adult: In a divorce, this stage is marked with, “I’ll change, I’ll even stop drinking, just stop the divorce.”

In a death, this stage is marked with, “If only I had…., then he/she would still be here.” Sometimes viewed as “second-guessing” ourselves.

Children: In a divorce, young children internalize the break up as somehow being their fault; such as, they may think that if only they had been better kids, their parents would not be breaking up. This leads to the thinking in some children that they can get the parents back together again, believing if the parents see them “behaving” appropriately the parents will get back together. FOURTH STAGE

Stage: Depression

A deep sadness with an overwhelming sense of loss and failure.

Adult: This is when the suffering and disorganized period starts, where the emotional and physical symptoms set in. Depression, sadness, loneliness, fear, guilt, and anxiety may become daily feelings. Chaos and uncertainty may run the daily life and time may be spent mentally replaying the relationship, both the good and bad times. Sleeping problems may become acute with either too much or too little rest; weight may become an issue–gaining to losing too much; for others, drinking, smoking, drugs, and searching for easy sexual fulfillment become appealing distractions.

Children: Typically described by children as intense pain from the realization that their world is coming apart. Some report feelings of deep sadness and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. For some, crying for no apparent reason becomes common.


Stage: Acceptance / Moving On

The reality of the death of the former relationship starts to become real. More mature decisions are being made. The commencement of a desire to move on with your life.

Adult: Focus becomes clearer and directed towards the future, not the past. Growth begins and if allowed to blossom, the new person is stronger, wiser, more independent and assured. You find yourself saying “I” instead of “We”. You know you are in this stage when you feel or see some of the following:

- Resentment subsides from an obsession to an occasional flash of anger.

- Less time is spent complaining about problems and more time is spent on solving them.

- Decisions based on personal interests are being made.

- No longer are you satisfied with the mere absence of pain, you begin to long for and strive for pleasure and happiness.

- With a divorce, the break up is seen as the best possible solution to a self-destructive relationship and not as a punishment for having failed.

Children: Children become more open and talkative about their sense of loss.

Healing Begins