The Five Stages of Divorce

stages of divorce
stages of divorce

If you are about to embark on the journey of separating from your spouse, you may have already gone through a few of these steps. Often at least one of the two people in a couple knows separation is looming, they just aren’t sure when. If considering a heterosexual couple going through a divorce, statistically at least 60% of the time it is initiated by the woman in the relationship.

This may be because women tend to analyze their relationships at a deeper level for one reason or another and will put a great deal of time into the decision as to whether to leave or not. Therefore, by the time she does decide, she has often already disengaged and gone through the first two steps. That said, the following stages are often referred to as The Five Stages of Divorce. They do not necessarily proceed in the order listed below, and you can flow in and out of some of them several times before the stage is final.   

Mental Separation

Mental separation is often the first stage and begins when one or both parties start to think about how their lives may look different if they were no longer with their partner. These feelings are likely to surface after a tumultuous period in the relationship or after a single large blowout. It is natural to feel disengaged after conflict ensues, but in a normal healthy relationship, after one heals, they no longer daydream about the potential life that is out there for them, without their significant other on their arm. It may be that several rounds of tumultuous periods go by before one partner truly starts to consider separating from their spouse. Once they do, however, it is likely they will begin mentally separating from them over a span of time.

Therefore, it is likely the initiating party doesn’t seem as emotional or upset about the divorce. It is because that person has already spent hours agonizing over the decision and made their way through the grief cycle (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) before sharing their decision with their spouse. Sometimes it is intentional, other times it just happens without the initiating party even realizing that they went through the grief cycle. It can then make the partner being left feel more hurt because they are not seeing their significant other grieve the loss of their life together. It begins the new normal of two individuals, who were once seen as ONE, appearing to be on separate teams. This often leads one party to seek legal counsel instead of a collaborative process, like mediation, because they feel isolated and maybe even suspicious due to their spouses seemingly easy time disengaging from the marriage.    

Physical Separation 

Physical separation is when the parties physically move away from one another. There have always been couples who decide to continue to reside together through the divorce process, which of course can be difficult. That physical separation is a big step and allows the healing process to begin. While remaining together in the same house can prolong healing and provide ample opportunity for arguments to reignite. Unfortunately, as the economic climate continues to deteriorate for so many people, having the financial means to afford two full households can be challenging to say the least.

If you are faced with the potential of needing to cohabitate for longer than you wish to, but financially have no choice, talk with your mediator about setting clear boundaries and expectations for each other while you reside together. This may present as having a very clear parenting schedule, having nights or weekends that each parent agrees to stay with a friend or family member to provide some space and allow tensions to cool, and providing some sort of separation in finances so each has their own money to spend without the oversight of the other partner. We understand that continuing to reside in one household is not ideal, yet may be necessary. Therefore, we have familiarized ourselves with a variety of ways to make the task more bearable when it is a choice that must be made.   

Legal Separation 

The legal part of the separation or divorce can be extremely contentious, full of anger, blame, and resentment in which each party tries to drag the other down. This can involve the use of their children as pawns and family and friends as co-conspirators. What we see in the legal profession on the surface is the underlying struggle of the couple trying to let go of one another while simultaneously trying to hold on. For so many, the conflict that has flowed throughout the marriage continues to flow through the divorce and the parties cannot forgive or forget the wrongs they have endured and attempt to get their revenge within the divorce process. This is a lose-lose for all involved, especially if there are children.  

There is nothing better a parent can do for their kids during such a difficult time, that will benefit them more, than choosing NOT to get revenge. Instead, choose to forgive what could never be fixed and consciously move on to create a more peaceful future for themselves and their children. Couples can create this environment by opting for a collaborative process, such as mediation. As mediators, we at West Coast Family Mediation Center, strive to help our couples focus on the future, letting go of the past, and reconfiguring what their lives will look like going forward. We foster a healing environment, rather than a contentious one.       

Spiritual Separation  

The spiritual connection two people have may be one that is never severed or maybe one that never fully matured. Often people refer to their significant other as their “soul mate.” I think it is important for people to understand and believe that just because a couple may go through a mental, physical, and legal divorce, it does not mean that every connection they ever had will be severed. Two people may continue to be spiritually connected even though they choose to divorce one another. This can especially be true when children are involved.  

Emotional Separation  

Emotional divorce is one of the most difficult aspects of any divorce. It requires the parties to un-bond romantically, physically, and mentally. For some couples, the romantic or intimate aspect of their relationship may have died long ago. For others, that is all that held them together for years. Making the decision and sticking to the decision to no longer call each other “honey” or “babe” or any other pet name is a start. But it also includes not going to them for consolation after you’ve had a hard day. Or, not leaning on them when you and your sibling get in the same fight you’ve been having for the last 15 years, because he or she knows the situation best.

And lastly, they no longer find comfort in their arms or their bed. Therefore, it helps to be physically apart, so there is no temptation to fall back into old habits. You must also un-bond your mental need to come to them for support or assistance with items or tasks they used to help you with. This is extremely difficult. You notice a leak in the roof and your husband always took care of the maintenance on the house – but now it is your house, and you don’t have another handyman lined up to help when things go wrong.

Or a very common scenario is where one party managed all the finances, and once the process is final it can be extremely overwhelming to take over that task when it was never your strong area, to begin with. Having to learn to budget and manage cash flow can be highly emotional especially when you are already in a very vulnerable state. As you can see, the emotional divorce can be the most difficult step in a divorce, and one may find themselves OK with un-bonding in some areas and cannot figure out how to un-bond in others. It is a process and will take time.

Don’t be too hard on yourself, you will get there, but it will take willpower. No one can shut down all their emotions in a day, week or even a year. But, slowly, over time, you will begin asking for help from your neighbor, instead of your ex; you will call and establish a new relationship with a financial advisor for your financial wellness, and you will learn how to clear a drain or mow your grass. Instead of looking at these new tasks as a negative aspect of the divorce, try looking at them as an opportunity for you to learn new things and become more independent in your life going forward. Don’t feel embarrassed about your inabilities, feel empowered about all you are learning and all you can do on your own. You are far stronger than you think you are – but we never learn that until we have to.

Divorce Mediation

Ready to begin the process, but need more guidance? Contact West Coast Family Mediation Center at (858) 736-2411. We can answer your questions and connect you with our trusted professional referrals.

by: Jennifer Segura

Jennifer Segura with west coast family mediation center
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