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What Are the Emotional Stages of Divorce?

When most people think of the “divorce process,” they think about the legal aspects of divorce, such as serving the petition and possibly going to court before a judge. But there’s a lot more to divorce than that. In fact, much like there are legal steps to take, there are emotional stages to work through.

If you’re in the midst of a divorce or see divorce on your horizon, understanding what to expect during these emotional stages of divorce will make the process much easier to manage.

Stage 1: Shock and denial

Although the writing is often on the wall for couples on the verge of separation, divorce often catches people off guard. During this initial emotional stage of divorce, many people feel stunned and confused. Often, people protect themselves from the emotional pain of divorce by living in denial.

You may feel shocked as you receive the paperwork from your soon-to-be ex, or you may find yourself simultaneously hiring a lawyer and telling yourself you’re going to work things out with your spouse. Whatever you’re feeling, don’t panic; it’s normal. Preparing for divorce is difficult, and it’s okay if you aren’t emotionally ready just yet.

Although you may not feel like sharing the news with everyone, this is a great time to loop in key members of your support system so they can comfort you as you begin divorce planning. It’s also a good time to seek additional forms of support, like therapy or a divorce support group.

Stage 2: Fear

Once the initial shock of your situation wears off, another emotion will likely set in: fear. This feeling can take its toll on you if you’re not prepared.

Fear is common in the early stages of the divorce process because there are so many unknowns. You might worry about where you’ll live after the divorce or how you’ll pay the bills alone. You might panic over custody arrangements and how the divorce will impact your children. There’s so much to worry about!

It may seem counterproductive, but the best course of action here is to put a pin in those fears and leave them for another day. Instead of worrying about all the “what ifs,” focus your energy on what you need to accomplish in the present moment and take things one day at a time. You can’t control what happens down the road, nor can you control the actions of your soon-to-be ex. So, focus your energy on what you can control, and leave the rest alone.

Stage 3: Anger

Regardless of who filed for divorce or why your marriage ended, many people experience some form of anger as they process the divorce. This is understandable and normal. Our brains feel better when we can place the blame somewhere, whether it's justified or not.

Unfortunately, anger often gets in the way of the collaborative divorce process for couples. So, as much as you may want to channel your anger toward your ex and double down on your demands, it’s often not the best approach. If you let your emotions take the wheel, it’ll just take longer to finalize your divorce and make the experience more painful for everyone.

Instead, let your anger motivate you to work through your divorce planning so you can reach an agreement everyone is happy with as soon as possible. Also, look for healthy ways to release your anger: exercise, journaling, art, music, or other emotional outlets. 

Stage 4: Bargaining

Even after your anger subsides, you may not have totally accepted the fact that divorce is imminent. In fact, you may notice that your divorce emotions are pulling you in a completely different direction: bargaining.

A lot goes through a person’s mind during this stage of divorce. You may wonder if reconciliation is possible now that you’ve both had time to calm down. You may start to examine what part your behavior played in the erosion of your relationship. You may feel like you should give in to your partner’s demands or make sacrifices for the sake of salvaging what’s left of your marriage.

Here’s the thing, though: Last-ditch efforts to save a marriage rarely work and bargaining can backfire, leaving you with less than you deserve at the end of your divorce process. 

So, although it’s hard to do, stick to your guns as you navigate divorce. Remind yourself that there’s a difference between collaboration and bargaining, and it’s important to make that distinction. This is also a great time to take advantage of the a la carte services Hello Divorce offers, such as consultation time with an attorney or mediation services by the hour.

Stage 5: Guilt

Eventually, the rapid cycle of emotional turmoil takes its toll during a divorce. You may now see the light at the end of the tunnel, but you may also feel like this mess is entirely your fault. When that starts to happen, you have moved into the guilt stage. 

Although it may not seem like it during this emotional stage, the reality is that both partners are usually at fault when things fall apart. Placing the blame entirely on yourself isn’t healthy, and it won’t solve anything. 

For this reason, it’s important to check the facts on any automatic or self-critical thoughts that pop into your head. Inspect the validity of what you tell yourself. Also, finding ways to work on your self-esteem and practicing self-care can be helpful as you near the finish line in processing your divorce emotions.

Stage 6: Extreme sadness and grief

At some point, you will likely experience extreme sadness over the end of your marriage. This stage, often referred to as depression, affects everyone differently. Some people experience sadness and cry. Others feel empty and unmotivated. Whatever way your depression and grief manifest is okay.

During this time, take care of yourself and your emotions. Seek counseling or other treatment options if your depression makes it difficult to perform normal daily tasks. Remember, this phase will eventually pass.

Stage 7: Acceptance

While it takes time, you will eventually begin to feel like yourself again. You'll realize that divorce happens, and you are probably better off without your ex. Life may still look different, but at least you've found peace. 

Remember not to let this phase go to your head – there's still work to do. Healing from divorce takes time, and you may find yourself experiencing some of the previously mentioned divorce emotions from time to time, even after you've reached a place of acceptance.

Understanding divorce from an emotional perspective

Most people know what to do to feel prepared for the legal battles that crop up during a divorce. But there's an emotional side to the divorce process that most people don't even know exists until they’ve immersed themselves in it for a while. It's just as important to understand divorce's emotional stages as the legal ones. Having this information will help you cope with every phase of your divorce so you emerge stronger on the other side.