September 18

What are the Stages of Divorce?

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dealing with divorce, divorce advice, divorce blog, divorce process


Person with bag over head and a confused face standing in front of a chalkboard with arrows on it pointing every which way.

Divorce sucks for a whole lot of reasons, not the least of which is that you have no idea what to expect. So much of what happens in divorce seems unpredictable and unfair. Yet, as every divorce professional knows, even though every divorce is different, there are definite stages of divorce.

Once you understand those stages, dealing with your divorce becomes way more manageable. It also helps you get through your divorce with less anger, frustration, and conflict.

The Many Stages of Divorce

Before you can start to understand the various stages of divorce, you first have to remember that divorce is not just one thing.

Divorce is a legal process. It’s a financial reorganization. It’s also an emotional roller coaster overlaid with a good dose of grief.

Each one of those different aspects of divorce (legal, financial, emotional, and grieving) has its own very distinct, and very different, stages. What makes divorce so challenging is that all of those different stages of divorce are happening at the same time.

That means that, at any given moment, you can be in one stage of the legal process, a different stage of the financial process, and a separate stage of the emotional process. On top of that, you can be grieving, too.

To complicate matters even further, while the legal and financial stages of divorce tend to move in a fairly linear fashion, the grieving and emotional stages of divorce do not. You can bounce back and forth between the different grieving and emotional stages of divorce many times before you finally (hopefully) end up at acceptance.

Because all of these different stages of divorce overlap so much, it’s easy to get confused about where you are at any given time. Step one in clearing up that confusion is understanding the various stages of divorce and how they relate to one another.

Graph showing the stages of grief in divorce.

The 7 Stages of Grief in Divorce

Divorce is like death. In a very real way, it is a death. It is the death of your marriage. It is the death of your dream of having “the perfect family.” It is the death of life as you knew it to be.

It’s not surprising, then, that while you’re going through a divorce, you’re grieving. That grief overlays everything else you go through while you are getting a divorce. What’s more, it’s never over until it’s over.

You can’t shortcut grief. It’s going to happen. It’s also going to run its course on its own timeline.

To a large extent, the stages of grief in divorce mirror the five stages of grief that you experience when a loved one dies. Divorce, however, has a couple of extra emotional stages that come from the fact that, even though your marriage may have died, you still have to deal with the person who was once your spouse.

The stages of grief in divorce are:

Denial

In this stage, you are in shock. You may not really believe that you are going to get a divorce. You may not have thought getting a divorce was something that ever could have happened to you.

If you are the one who is contemplating divorce, you may find yourself bouncing between wanting a divorce and thinking that your marriage is really not that bad. If your spouse is the one who dropped the divorce bomb on your marriage, at this point you will feel shell-shocked, numb, and confused.

Pain/Fear

As your initial shock wears off, reality sets in … and you are terrified! You have no idea what you are facing. Everything about your life seems upside down and uncertain. As you think about what the future holds for you, you’re terrified.

You are also in serious pain. Whether your spouse betrayed you, or whether you are simply trying to wrap your head around the fact that the marriage you thought you would be in forever is now over, your pain is off-the-charts bad, and you feel it 24/7.

Guilt

In this stage, you feel guilty about your divorce – whether it was your decision or not!

You may feel guilty for cheating. You may feel guilty about what you think you could have or should have done differently in the past to save your marriage. Most of all, you also feel guilty about hurting your kids and ruining their family.

Closeup portrait angry young woman blowing steam coming out of ears, having nervous atomic breakdown, screaming isolated grey wall background. Negative human emotion facial expression feeling attitude

Anger

Once you have gotten past the shock, fear, and guilt of divorce, you start to get mad. You look for someone to blame.

You may blame your spouse, your spouse’s job, your spouse’s new lover, your in-laws, or anything else you can think of.  Whoever or whatever you think contributed to the downfall of your marriage becomes the target of your rage.  You’re also mad at yourself. You’re mad about the mess that your life is in. In short, you are mad about pretty much everything.

Bargaining

Once you can start to see past your anger, you are going to want to negotiate your way out of your pain. You will start bargaining with God, the Universe, your spouse, or whoever you think is in charge here to give you your life back.

You may try promising your spouse that you will give up drinking, smoking, or some other behavior if s/he will just give your marriage another chance. Or, you may try making a deal with God. At this point, you would negotiate with anyone, just to go back to the way things were.

Depression

When you realize that divorce is inevitable, you may begin to feel depressed. You may not be able to get out of bed, or function normally at work. You cry a lot.  Your entire world seems dark. You either can’t eat at all, or you eat everything in sight.

While this kind of situational depression is completely normal, if your depression becomes severe, or lasts for a long time, you may need to seek professional help to get past it.

Acceptance

After you have ridden through all of the emotions listed above (probably several times), you will eventually get to a point where you start to accept your situation. (NOTE: When you first start going through your divorce, you will think that you will NEVER get to this point. Just hang on. You will.)

As you start to accept that your life has changed, you will no longer dream about going back to life as it existed on your wedding day. Slowly, you will notice that you are not always in pain anymore. You will start to create a new life. You will start to be happy again.

Graph of the 5 emotional stages of divorce.

The 5 Emotional Stages of Divorce

Like the stages of grief, the emotional stages of divorce happen over time. Sometimes, they happen over a LONG time.

They also don’t necessarily follow a neat linear progression. A couple can bounce between disillusionment and dissatisfaction for years (sometimes decades!) before one of them gets to the decision stage. Even after one spouse decides to divorce, it may take him/her years before s/he finally acts on that decision.

Here are the 5 emotional stages of divorce.

Disillusionment

The disillusionment stage of divorce begins when one party starts feeling vaguely discontent and disconnected from his/her partner AND the couple doesn’t work to resolve those feelings. A couple may start arguing more. They may start to have more problems. They may also start to sweep more problems under the rug.

During the disillusionment stage, the disillusioned spouse may start fantasizing about life without his/her partner. Depending upon the couple, the disillusionment stage of divorce can start anywhere from 1 – 2 years or more before the disillusioned party even mentions the word “divorce.”

Dissatisfaction

During the dissatisfaction stage, a couple’s discontent with each other grows. One (or both) spouses generally starts openly telling the other spouse s/he is unhappy. One (or both) spouses may threaten divorce. At this point, a couple may also try to go to marriage counseling.

This is also the time that a couple may experience a “honeymoon phase” where they both commit to giving their marriage one last try. The dissatisfaction stage usually happens between 8 – 12 months (or more!) before either spouse decides to get a divorce.

Man trying to decide to divorce holding a card with a smile and a card with a frown.

Decision

When one spouse decides to divorce, s/he will start creating emotional distance from the other spouse. S/he will start acting as more as an individual. S/he will start spending less time with his/her spouse and may develop outside interests. This is the time when the deciding spouse may start an affair.

At this stage, even though one spouse may have decided in his/her head to get a divorce, s/he may not have communicated that decision to the other spouse. Also, the deciding spouse may not act on his/her decision for many more months. Even still, in his/her head and heart, the deciding spouse has already checked out of the marriage. At this point, the deciding spouse is unlikely to reverse his/her decision.

Action

The action stage starts when one spouse affirmatively moves forward toward divorce. S/he may physically separate from his/her spouse. S/he starts thinking and acting as a single person, rather than as part of a married couple.

Once a spouse gets to the action stage, s/he is usually ready to go public with the divorce. S/he starts rallying friends and family around him/her. At this point, the couple usually tells their children about their divorce. Emotionally, the deciding spouse has pretty much moved on from the relationship. The spouse who did NOT decide to divorce, however, may still be in the disillusionment stage even though his/her spouse has already taken action to start the divorce.

Acceptance

During the acceptance stage, both spouses start to adjust to their new situation. They start seeing the flaws in their marriage. They realize that they’re going to divorce, and they start creating new individual identities. Eventually, they each start creating a plan for their separate futures.

During the acceptance stage, each party will start to gain new insights and awareness about themselves and their marriage. They will move beyond the anger and blame they once felt. This stage can happen before the legal divorce is final. Or, it can extend for years afterward. Some people never reach the acceptance stage. They stay angry and become bitter with their ex for years.

Legal Stages of Divorce

The 7 Legal Stages of Divorce

The legal stages of divorce are very different than the emotional stages of divorce. The legal stages are much more straightforward. They tend to progress in a reasonably straight line.

Not all of the legal stages of divorce carry the same emotional charge. As a general rule, the legal part of divorce is most heated in the beginning and ending stages. That means that the filing of the Petition and initial motions can be really heated. The trial at the end can also be nerve-wracking.

While the legal stages in the middle of a divorce can have their ups and downs too (especially in a high conflict divorce!), most of the heat usually comes in the early and later legal stages of divorce.

If you use mediation, Collaborative Divorce, or any other sort of alternative dispute resolution process, you may go through many of these legal stages outside of the court process. You also may be able to streamline some of these stages.

In general, the legal stages of divorce are:

Filing Papers

Your divorce case officially starts when you file a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage in Court.

If you are using mediation or Collaborative Divorce, you won’t do this step until AFTER you’ve settled your case and all of your paperwork is ready to go. Once you’ve engaged a mediator or signed a Collaborative Divorce Agreement, your divorce will “start” at the discovery stage.

Pain/Fear

Filing Initial Motions and Setting Temporary Support

If you’re litigating your divorce, your divorce lawyer may file a bunch of motions right out of the box. Those motions will be designed to establish who will live in the house, who will pay the bills, and what will happen to the kids until your divorce is final. Your lawyer may also file motions to deal with other issues as well.

If you are not litigating your divorce, you will work out all these issues outside of court. You will discuss and decide them as soon as you start the mediation or Collaborative Divorce process.

Discovery 

“Discovery” is the legal word for gathering information. In the “discovery” stage of your divorce, you will gather the information you need in order to be able to get a clear picture of your finances.

If you are in court, you and your spouse will both issue and answer formal “discovery” requests to each other. (e.g. You will send interrogatories, document production requests, and take depositions). If you are using any type of alternative dispute resolution system, you and your spouse will produce all this information to each other and your lawyers voluntarily.3D figure surrounded by thought bubbles saying "Option 1, Option 2" etc.

Negotiation

The negotiation stage of your divorce is the stage where you and your spouse start talking about settlement. (Notice that you can’t start talking about settlement until AFTER you have gathered the information you need to make a decent decision. This is true regardless of which divorce process you are using.)

During the negotiation stage, you, your spouse, and/or your lawyers will go back and forth about what will happen with your property and your kids after your divorce. The negotiation stage can be relatively quick or can drag on for an incredibly long time. If negotiations take too long, you may periodically have to go back to the discovery stage to update your financial information. Who actually does the negotiating depends upon the specific divorce process you use.

Pre-Trial Conference

A pre-trial conference is a formal settlement conference that takes place in court between you, the lawyers, and the judge. If you settle your divorce in mediation or the Collaborative Process, you won’t have (and won’t need) a pre-trial conference.

At a pre-trial conference, both your lawyer and your spouse’s lawyer will present information to  the judge. (Usually, but not always, the only people who talk to the judge at the pre-trial conference are the lawyers.) The judge will then make recommendations to the lawyers about how your case should be settled. Although these recommendations are technically not binding, once you know what the judge is likely to do in your case, continuing on to trial is often pointless.

Trial/Prove-up/Final Hearing

If you are litigating your case, and you don’t settle, you will end up going to trial. After the judge has heard all of the evidence at trial, s/he will then decide your case.

If you have settled your case yourself outside of court, you won’t have to go to trial.  However, depending upon the state you live in you, and/or your lawyers may still have to go to court once for a final hearing or prove-up. At that hearing, you will ask the judge to sign your final divorce papers. When s/he does, you will be divorced.

Post Trial Issues

While most people think that their divorce will end when the judge enters their divorce judgment, that’s not necessarily true.

Dividing retirement accounts often requires additional court work after you are divorced. What’s more, if you have had a contentious divorce, you could easily end up right back in divorce court within a matter of weeks. (Even after your divorce is “done,” there are plenty of things you can still fight about!)

Graph showing the financial Stages of divorce

The 6 Financial Stages of Divorce

Like the legal stages of divorce, the financial stages of divorce tend to move forward in a fairly straight line.

Unlike the other kinds of divorce stages, though, the financial stages of divorce are cumulative. You just keep paying more and more money until your divorce is done. (Sorry!)

Theoretically at least, you can control the financial stages of your divorce based upon what you do and how you live. At the same time, you can’t control your spouse. You also can’t totally control the timing of your divorce, or the length of time it takes for you to move from the beginning to the end.

What’s more, you don’t necessarily get through one stage (e.g. paying a lawyer) and move to the next (e.g. moving house). Instead, you continue to pay the lawyer even after you move into separate houses. That’s why the financial graph just keeps going up until your divorce is over.

It’s also important to note that you may continue to have to pay divorce-related expenses even after your divorce is over. If you have to sell your house or divide retirement accounts after your divorce, you may still have to pay the expenses surrounding those events.

Here are the typical financial stages of divorce: (NOTE that if you own your own business, or you have a complicated financial situation, you will go through many more stages than just those that are listed here!)

Cost of Therapy

The wisest thing you can do as soon as divorce becomes a possibility in your life is to get a good therapist. While you might be tempted to skip going to therapy because you think you can handle your emotions yourself, doing that would be penny wise and pound foolish.

A qualified mental health professional can help you deal with your emotions before, during and after your divorce. Since uncontrolled emotions are what make divorce messy and expensive, working with a therapist can make an enormous difference both in your divorce experience and in the outcome you get.

Luckily, the cost of therapy is often covered by your medical insurance. (You can also check out BetterHelp. It’s an online counseling service that matches you with a therapist or counselor who can meet your needs. You can communicate with your therapist as often as you want for one low monthly fee. CLICK HERE to check it out.)

Hiring and Paying for a Lawyer

You NEED good legal advice if you want to get through your divorce in the most effective way possible. Even if you and your spouse agree on everything, you still would be wise to consult with a lawyer about your divorce before you get one. Yes, divorce lawyers can be expensive. But NOT getting a divorce lawyer can be even more expensive!

Luckily, there are things you can do to keep your legal costs low. First, you can do your best to reach an agreement with your spouse on as many things as you can. The more you agree on outside of court, the less your legal fees will be.

Second, the more prepared you are for divorce, the better you will be able to manage your divorce costs. If you educate yourself about divorce right from the beginning, and you do your own legwork (e.g. gathering financial information) yourself, you may be able to substantially reduce your legal costs.Tree with leaves in the shape of a dollar sign flying a way signifying that divorce is expensive.

Cost of Two Households

Living separately while you are going through a divorce may save your sanity, but it will also cost you twice as much. If you and your spouse are living in separate places, not only will you have to pay twice as much for rent/mortgages, but you will also lose the economies of scale. Put simply, two people can live more economically if they live than if they live apart.

What’s more, once someone has moved out of the house, they rarely move back in. So, as soon as you or your spouse moves out, your expenses double. Then they usually stay that way throughout the rest of your divorce.

Continuing Costs of Divorce

As your divorce drags on, so do your legal fees.  Your therapy bills continue. If you are keeping your spouse on your medical insurance, you have to keep paying for that. If your spouse spends a lot of money, you have to keep footing the bill. What’s more, if you and your spouse can’t agree about what certain assets (like a business, house or pension) are worth, you may end up having to pay for someone to value your pensions, your business, and your house.

In short, the longer your divorce takes, the more expenses you have to pay. (Sorry!) The only way to stop the bleeding is to end your divorce.

Cost of Selling the House, Dividing Retirement Accounts and Dealing with Post-Decree Issues

If you are selling your house, you will have to deal with broker’s fees, closing costs and maybe repair expenses. When you and your spouse physically separate you will have to pay moving expenses. Dividing retirement accounts – especially pensions — may also cost you extra money. There may also be costs and fees associated with transferring the title to vehicles.

Depending on when you sell your house, split your retirement accounts, etc., you can incur those expenses either during or after your divorce. What’s more, if you continue to fight in court after your divorce is over, that will cost you even more.

Many roads cris-crossing on top of each other

Navigating All of the Stages Together

Knowing which stage of which part of the divorce process you are in can be a bit tricky. That’s because all the stages of divorce overlap. Even still, figuring out where you’re at (and where your spouse is at!) can be extraordinarily helpful.

For example, if you were the one who wanted a divorce you’re probably much more emotionally ready to move forward with it than your spouse. That’s because you will have already dealt with the grief associated with divorce. Your spouse hasn’t. Once you know that, you will be much less frustrated by the fact that your spouse seems like s/he is in denial about what’s happening.

The same thing is true of the legal stages of divorce. No matter how much you may want to negotiate your divorce so that you can get it DONE, if you haven’t gone through the discovery stage yet, you can’t do it. (Or, rather, you can’t do it responsibly!)

Divorce: It’s Complicated!

While all the different divorce stages make the whole process seem complex, they all work in fairly predictable ways. Once you know what the different stages are, and what the different kinds of stages are, you can begin to see how your divorce will go. Once you do that, you will be better able to understand and predict the effect your actions (or inaction) may have.

For example, once you know that the most explosive parts of the legal process often occur at the beginning and the end of the case, you can do your best to avoid doing things that will only rile your spouse up more at that particular time. Once you know that your spouse WILL get angry at some point when s/he is grieving the loss of your marriage, you can prepare yourself for that anger.

Of course, understanding the various stages of divorce doesn’t guarantee that your divorce will be amicable or quick. But it can help you from making costly mistakes simply because you don’t know where you are at, or what is going to be coming at you next.

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This post was originally published on June 9, 2016, and updated on September 18, 2019.

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  • This is some great information, and I appreciate your point that divorce is the most explosive at the start and end. My husband and I are going to be getting a divorce, and it officially starts in a week or so. I’ll definitely try to prepare myself mentally and emotionally for a rough start. Thanks for the great post!

  • My wife of 10 years (have been together 15) has just recently left me, announcing that she needed some space and her own freedom (who doesn’t) she swore there was nobody else. She keeps lying to me. She had an affair 2 years ago and it totally devastated me.

  • My wife left me for another man in Feb. She hid it well, we never fought much and were still intimate so took me by surprise. And she’s a Christian all her life. She filed Aug 21. There is just devastation all around. We have 5 kids, 21, 19, 15, 13, 11. I so wish God would intervene, but I know I need to accept this for my well being.

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