Emotional Aspects of Divorce

It is fairly well known that 50% of first marriages in the United States end in divorce and that two-thirds of all U.S. divorces involve minor children. When it is your own divorce, however, that knowledge does little to reduce the sting. While few people ultimately regret their divorce and many experience it as a catalyst for personal growth, most people experience the divorce process (beginning from the first awareness that the marriage is not likely to work) as one of the most, if not the most, painful experiences of their lives. Researchers expanding on John Bowlby’s attachment theory have demonstrated that the need for bonding is a primary biological motivator, rivaling or even trumping human drives for food and sex. The need for a “secure base” from which to explore and express ourselves is not just for children; it endures throughout life. This is why the loss of a primary partner to whom we looked for comfort, familiarity, the sharing of daily trivia and a safe haven from life’s inevitable ups and downs is so devastating.

Some relationships, for a variety of reasons, develop patterns of interaction that are emotionally and/or physically harmful to the partners. In such cases, ending the marital relationship can be an act of courage and liberation necessary for personal health and growth, ultimately benefiting both partners. Because of the human need for attachment figures, however, the “decoupling” process even in such cases can be difficult and even dangerous as it triggers instinctive fear responses in one or both partners. If you are in a relationship with a history of violence or in which one partner exerts extreme control over any aspect of the other’s life, be sure to develop a safety plan and take advantage of local resources to at least educate yourself about domestic abuse before initiating the divorce process.

Divorce affects almost every aspect of our lives: financial assets and income, social affiliations and status, legal and tax status, spiritual perspectives and yearnings and, in long-term marriages, personal identity itself. Because it is such a stressful period, buffers such as social networks and nurturing self-care are particularly critical for those going through a divorce.

Divorce has been compared to the mourning process involved when someone dies. Even for those who want a divorce, the end of the marriage represents the death of a dream that they once had. One model of mourning, the Kubler-Ross model, describes a process of denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance. It is not a linear process, so it is common to feel as though you are on a roller coaster of intense emotion. For example, you may go to bed thinking that you have accepted the reality that you are going through a divorce and wake up feeling as though your divorce can only be a nightmare.

It is also common for one spouse to reach the point of no return sooner than the other. If you are the first spouse to reach the point of no return, the process is more likely to be constructive if you give your partner some emotional processing time before negotiating legal issues. If you are the spouse who has just learned of your spouse’s desire for a divorce and it is clear your partner will act on that desire, consider requesting some time to “catch up” on the emotional roller coaster while also committing to a deadline by which you will actively participate in the divorce process. Otherwise, it is likely that your spouse will grow impatient and serve you with legal pleadings, giving you little or no control over the process.

For couples who are ambivalent about whether divorce is really inevitable, please see information about relationship assessment and repair under coaching.

In many ways, divorce is a journey through a death and birth canal. If your marriage has died, it is normal to mourn. As the mourning becomes less intense, it is also likely that you will begin to have glimmers of a new life unfolding. The way in which you go through your divorce, including how you treat yourself, each other, and any children or extended family who may be involved, has an enormous impact on your unfolding new life.