Terri Bly, PsyD, LP
Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. Most of us recognize these as the 5 Stages of Grief, introduced into the cultural zeitgeist by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. While there’s some debate as to whether everyone goes through these 5 stages, or in what order, Kubler-Ross’s model continues to serve as a helpful guide when processing events like the loss of a loved one, or dealing with a dire medical diagnosis.
But what about divorce? Do we go through these same 5 stages of grief? And does the person initiating the divorce go through the same stages of grief as the person who doesn’t want the marriage to end?
The Losses that Come with Separation and Divorce
First, let’s take a moment to identify the losses that come with divorce. Obviously there’s the loss of a marriage, but we are also grieving our own future. No one gets married expecting to get divorced; rather, we anticipate spending our entire future with that person. We make financial decisions based on a shared vision of our future, we create shared friend groups, attend the same church, get close to our partner’s family. All of this is based on an assumption that we are building a lasting future together as a couple. For those of us who have children, we plan to raise those children together, celebrating this family we’ve created. We talk about where we want to live when our kids leave the nest, what trips we want to take, what hobbies we might pursue together, we imagine ourselves growing old next to that person we vowed to love ‘till death do us part.
And now that future is gone. Granted, we may still have a future with that person, especially if we are co-parenting with them, but it’s going to look a lot different than we previously envisioned, and probably not in a good way. So when we talk about loss as it relates to divorce, we are talking about the loss of plans, dreams, hopes, and expectations. On top of that, many of us also experience the loss of financial security, mutual friends, and our partner’s family. If we’re coparenting, we also lose time with our children. That’s a lot of loss, which means there’s a lot to grieve.
What Do The Stages of Grief Look Like in Divorce?
For the person initiating the divorce, they will have gone through much of the grieving process before telling their partner they want a divorce. What that looks like will vary from person to person, but the 5 stages of grief can usually be found somewhere in there. For example, there is usually a period of time when they may Deny that they are no longer invested in the marriage by keeping busy at work or with friends, or stating they want to go to couples therapy but then making little to no effort outside of therapy to work on the marriage. They may start to show Anger toward their spouse for not being the kind of partner they wanted, becoming hypercritical, leaving their partner to feel as though nothing they do is right. The Bargaining stage can take any number of shapes. I think affairs often fall under this heading, as an attempt by the person to find happiness without having to leave the marriage (“If I can just find a way to be happy without getting divorced, maybe divorce won’t be necessary). Same goes with getting a new job, or spending more money on trips and possessions, or moving the family to a new city: all can be attempts to find happiness within a marriage that is effectively already over. Depression is typically what leads them to therapy, and Acceptance is when they tell their partner the marriage is over. The grieving process does not end there, however, and I’ll say more about that in a moment.
For the person who does not want the marriage to end, grieving begins the moment their partner announces they want a divorce. That said, in my observation the Denial stage usually begins well before that moment, albeit outside their conscious awareness. Most unhappy spouses are quite vocal about their marital dissatisfaction for months, if not years, before announcing the divorce. For whatever reason, however, their partner could not hear it for what it was, and are then legitimately shocked to learn the marriage is over.
Once the unhappy spouse initiates the divorce process, however, the grieving process begins in earnest for the rejected spouse, starting (or continuing) with Denial. The rejected spouse may refuse to go to mediation or hire an attorney, they won’t sign any papers or tell their parents that the marriage is over. They still plan family vacations and try to act as if none of this is actually happening. The Anger stage can be the scariest one for the partner initiating the divorce, for reasons that make national headlines on a regular basis. Thankfully, most rejected spouses are just angry, not dangerous, though it can still be an acutely painful and scary time for the leaving spouse and any children who get caught in the mix. Bargaining is also more straightforward with the rejected spouse, who may insist they will make all the changes the leaving spouse has requested in the past, in order to save the marriage, only to find their promises have come too late. Depression is the second most worrisome stage of the grieving process for the rejected spouse, as this is when we see spikes in suicide, especially among men, who are far more likely to be the rejected spouse in heterosexual divorce situations. As for Acceptance, it can take the rejected spouse a long time to get to this stage. I’ve seen rejected spouses cycle through the previous four stages for months or years – sometimes even decades – after the divorce is final.
Will You Find Acceptance After a Divorce?
Returning to the spouse who initiated the divorce, many will feel a tremendous sense of relief following their decision to leave the marriage. Often, they will take this as a sign that they made the right choice and are ready to move on, having Accepted that the marriage is over and taken the first and hardest step toward making it official. Rarely does this play out as expected, however. Because the divorce process itself can be so emotionally challenging, and as they witness the fallout from their decision and the losses become more real, the leaving spouse will often go through a second grieving process, one they did not necessarily anticipate.
At this point you may be wondering, Do people ever get to the Acceptance stage after divorce? The answer: Usually, but not always. Most of us know people who have been divorced for years and still talk about their ex with the same bitterness they had when it was fresh. So what does Acceptance look like? Initially, I believe it looks like indifference. Once you’ve let go of all your big feelings, accepting that the relationship is over and you will be moving on with your life without that person by your side, you may feel indifferent toward them. From there, as you continue to heal, you may notice some positive feelings emerge, as you incorporate both the negative and the positive parts of your history together, forming an adaptive and holistic narrative that allows you to move forward with your life, maybe even a little stronger and wiser than you were before.
Finding Support Through a Divorce
If you are struggling to get to this final stage of grief following your divorce, I would encourage you to reach out to a therapist with experience working with divorcing and divorced individuals. There are also support groups for people affected by divorce, which can help mitigate the loneliness and feelings of isolation that often accompany divorce. With the right supports in place, I believe anyone can learn to accept their divorce and move forward with their life, no matter the circumstances.
Terri Bly is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist on a mission to help her clients pursue an intentional, values-driven life, while gaining the insight and tools they need to overcome the obstacles that inevitably arise along the way. A big fan of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Terri also incorporates mindfulness, solution-focused therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Motivational Interviewing into her practice, while maintaining a strengths-based perspective. Terri is also a firm believer in the mind-body connection to health, working with her clients to identify lifestyle changes that will help them feel and function better (translation: she is going to ask you about your sleep and technology habits – probably more than once).
Terri works with adolescents (12+) and adults, and has experience with a wide range of issues, including depression, anxiety, ADHD, managing life stressors, grief and loss, coping with physical health problems, parenting, marital/relationship difficulties, religious trauma, Reunification Therapy, divorce, and co-parenting after divorce.
Outside the office, Terri exercises her creative muscles as much as possible, and enjoys acting, singing, dancing, writing and photography. Most of her free time, however, is spent parenting her two lovely teenage daughters and their 80-pound goldendoodle, Norman.