The Emotional Stages of Divorce

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There are several distinct emotional stages of the divorce process.  Let’s take a look at each one.  

The Denial Stage

Denial is your psyche's way of protecting you from becoming emotionally overwhelmed.  It is a useful coping mechanism, as long as it does not keep you from progressing onto the next stage.  You can experience shock or numbness.  You may refuse to believe the reality of what is happening in your life and react by acting as though nothing has happened.  You try to give the appearance of normality but you may just be going through the motions.  You may say or think such things as “This is not happening to me.  It is all a misunderstanding.  It’s just a midlife crisis.  We can work it out.”

The Pain and Fear Stage

As the denial wears off, the reality of your situation begins to sink in.  You have been hurt badly by the person you trusted the most in this world.  You have had to accept that a marriage you have worked hard at is just not going to work and there will probably be enormous changes in your life ahead.  You will feel pain at the loss of your marriage and you may feel fear for what the future holds.

The Anger Stage

Some anger is often seen during most stages.  You may feel resentment and a common response to divorce is to seek vengeance.  You might be looking for someone to blame for this terrible thing that is happening in your family and your life.  The focus during this stage is on the spouse and you will probably experience some justified anger towards your soon to be ex-spouse.  There can also be anger towards in-laws, parents, friends and even the children.  You may have directed anger against the wrong people, your children in particular.  You may also have to deal with the anger from others.  Your children may be having these same feelings and may blame you for the family break-up.  Your soon to be ex-spouse may feel angry at you if you have initiated the divorce.  As long as there are no little ears to hear your disparaging and insulting remarks about your ex-partner, feel free to let out all the pent-up anger you stuffed during the Denial Stage.  Anger and energy are part of the same cycle so anger means movement.  Anger, which needs to go somewhere, sometimes goes into fights over matters that courts are permitted to make court orders about (alimony if your state allows, child support, child visitation, child custody, property).  If the other person is portrayed as really awful, 1 can escape any responsibility for the end of the marriage.  You might find yourself thinking or saying things such as “How can he or she do this to me?  What did I ever do to deserve this?  This is not fair!”, “How will I live alone?”, “Will I have enough money to support myself?”, “Will I find someone else?”  The legal process further anger’s divorcing partners.

The Bargaining Stage

During the bargaining stage, you may try to avoid the inevitability of the end of a marriage by bargaining with your soon to be ex-partner or with yourself.

Bargaining is a last-ditch attempt at coming to terms with the decision to divorce.

You may promise to change certain behaviors if only you can have another chance.  

This is because you want to try and stop the pain you are feeling and can also be an attempt to take back some control over the situation.  You may attempt to repair and undo the damage done to your life with such statements or thoughts as “Oh dear, I can’t handle this emotionally”.  “I will negotiate anything with my ex-spouse, turn myself inside out if need be but I can’t go through this.”  “If you will stay, I’ll change.  “If I agree to do (child rearing, sex, money, etc) your way, can we get back together?”  It is an attempt to put on the brakes, stop that runaway train and get your life back.  It might not have been a great life but it was a heck of a lot better than what you are experiencing now.  The thing to remember is that the initiator will also go through the Bargaining Stage.  If you are the initiator, it is during this stage that you will either realize you have made the right decision or a mistake.  If you are the non-initiator this is the stage where you may begin to pursue your partner.  You want them back at all costs to you and your self-esteem. 

The Guilt Stage

During the guilt stage (that frequently includes shame) it is common to think about how you could have done things differently, how you could have prevented situations, how you could have made your marriage work, question the effort you made at marriage and question the effort you make at your behavior.  There is an overwhelming need to turn back the clock, to make things better.  There may be a sense of failure, of not having fulfilled your own or your family’s expectations.  For many individuals, guilt and shame can be so painful that they change very quickly to other, more tolerable feelings, such as anger and depression, often without the person knowing that guilt and shame were there.  Shame often transforms into blame, anger or rage directed at the soon to be ex-spouse.  Guilt and shame are the reason why it is so common for each partner to blame the other.  Guilt and shame are why it can be so difficult for a divorcing partner to accept responsibility for their own part in a failed marriage.  Guilt can cause spouses to feel they do not have the right to ask for what they need in a divorce, causing them to negotiate unbalanced, unrealistic settlements they later regret.

The Depression Stage

Sadness, sometimes debilitating sadness, becomes your constant companion.  Depression can actually go hand in hand with all the stages of grief.  You can find it hard to sleep even though you feel physically and mentally exhausted.  You could lose your appetite or overeat.  Being short-tempered with those close to you is also normal.  Others involved could also be feeling like this, particularly children.  Adolescents tend to be harshly judgmental of any behavior they see as immoral in a parent.  During this stage you might find yourself thinking or saying “This is really happening. I cannot do anything about it and I do not think I can bear it.”  Talk it out.  Cry it out.  Surround yourself with a good support system of family and friends.

The Acceptance Stage

Once you reach acceptance, you are no longer stuck in the grief.  If there are still feelings of grief but they are at least no longer holding you back from living life.  Acceptance does not mean you do not still have negative emotions about your divorce.  You may still feel some anger.  There may still be sadness at the loss of your marriage too.  You may always have feelings of regret over the loss of your marriage but it is regret you can live with.  At some point you will begin to accept the reality and finality of the situation.  You might find yourself thinking or actually saying “Okay, this is how it is and I would rather accept it and move on than wallow in the past”.  There is light at the end of the tunnel and life ahead.  You will realize that life has changed and that it will not return to how it was.  You feel ok and know that you can move on.  Allow yourself to believe in your ability to be resilient, to cope and to survive.  Know that you can start a new life and although that might seem scary, the experiences you have been through will help you carry on.  There is now some excitement of what is to come in your new life.

It is important to note that while each stage is distinct, they are all normal, expected and the divorce process is not linear.  So, you can expect to bounce back and forth between denial, acceptance and anger and back again.  It is also important to realize that the initiator and the non-initiator both go through these stages, just not at the same time.  The initiator may have a year-long (or more) head start on the non-initiator.  Lastly, it is a bit sad, shocking and yet understandable that the emotional stages of a divorce are surprisingly similar to the stages of grief.

Marilyn Verbiscer, MS, LMFT, BC-TMH
Couples Therapist at Thrive for Life Counseling


Kübler-Ross, E.  (1970).  On death and dying:  What the dying have to teach doctors, nursers, clergy and their own families.

Meyer, C.  The emotional stages of divorce:  What to expect during and after the divorce process

Tesler, P.H. & Thompson, P.  The emotional stages of divorce:  The emotional roller coaster of divorce.

Williams, A.  The seven stages of grief with divorce