FOCUS ON FAMILIES: DIVORCE AND
Morgan and Marilyn Coleman
Department of Human Development and Family Studies
Although it may be little comfort if you are currently
facing divorce, recent estimates indicate that you have
lots of company. More than half of all marriages in the
United States end in divorce; the majority involve
Divorce is one of the most stressful life events a
person can experience. This is true regardless of whether
you are the person who sought the divorce (the leaver) or
the person who was unprepared for divorce (the left).
The spouse who is the leaver often feels heightened
remorse and guilt while the left spouse may be unprepared
for the marriage to end. The more sudden and unexpected
the announcement, the more stressful the initial emotional
The decision to divorce is typically made with
ambivalence, uncertainty and confusion. It is a difficult
step. The family identity changes, and the identities of
the individuals involved change as well.
For example, if your family identity was one of a close
knit group, one that enjoyed sporting events and hobbies
together, that identity is going to change. Your personal
identity will change in that you will no longer be a
husband or wife or married person. If these identities or
roles were important to you, you may feel grief from the
Grief over the loss or death of a marriage is somewhat
like the grief process described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
(1969) in On Death and Dying. That is, you may
experience feelings of denial, anger, bargaining,
depression, and finally, acceptance, although there will
likely be no order or pattern to your feelings of grief.
For example, you may begin the divorce process with a
feeling of acceptance but later find yourself sinking into
depression or becoming filled with rage.
Mourning and a sense of loss are common, even if you
are the person wanting the divorce. Even if you no longer
love your partner, you may still mourn the loss of the
dream of living happily ever after.
If you have children, you may grieve because you will
see less of them, or you may feel guilty about the changes
in their lives that will be caused by the divorce.
Grief is normal, but if the intensity of grieving is
too great or the grieving period seems to go on too long,
then seeking counseling may be helpful and appropriate.
Couples facing divorce soon realize that divorce is not
an event with a clear beginning and an end, it is a
process. This process often begins long before any legal
action and may last for years afterward, especially if
children are involved.
According to Paul Bohannan (1970), the divorce process
consists of several overlapping stages or experiences:
- The legal divorce — the dissolution or ending of
the marriage by the courts.
- The emotional divorce — the chain of events and
feelings that lead up to and continue through the
divorcing process; the emotional separation or
disengagement from your partner.
- The economic divorce — the division of money and
property, requiring individuals who once functioned as
a couple to learn to function independently.
- The co-parental divorce — the negotiation of
parenting following separation.
- The community divorce — the changes in
relationships with friends and community during
- The psychic divorce — the process of separating
oneself from the spouse and developing autonomy.
THE LEGAL DIVORCE
The legal purpose of divorce is to allow individuals
to legally remarry. The divorce decree has no legal value
beyond that. It is not a problem solver, although it often
forces the couple and their children to give up hopes of
reconciliation and look more realistically at their
expectations. It does not end the relationship, except in
those cases in which there are no children involved.
The legal divorce typically involves developing
a parenting plan, including who the children will
live with most of the time and the division of property.
The parenting plan will include such things as shared
parenting, sometimes called joint custody, which means
that the parents will jointly make decisions regarding
This is sometimes confused with joint physical
custody, which means the children will divide their
time more or less equally between the two parents. Sole
custody means that the children live with only one of
the parents most of the time, and that parent will make
most of the parenting decisions.
Unfortunately, rather than bringing closure, the
adversarial process related to legal divorce may cause or
increase anger, hurt and bitterness.
It is common to feel out of control and helpless as the
attorneys and courts take over some of your decisions. If
you wish to have more control over the decisions, make
this clear to your lawyer. You also may want to consider
using mediation rather than the traditional
adversarial approach to dividing your property and
developing a parenting plan.
Mediation, a fairly new alternative, is designed to
help divorcing couples make decisions together with a
trained mediator who may also be a lawyer. The mediator
will help you and your ex-spouse learn to negotiate with
each other as well as learn to accept your new roles as
Developing a parenting plan to be presented to your
individual lawyers and the judge for approval is a part of
THE EMOTIONAL DIVORCE
Emotional divorce involves letting go of the feelings
involved in the marriage. You may feel that you and your
spouse have grown apart, and you may have become
disappointed and angry with each other. One or both of you
have become aware that the marriage is no longer meeting
For some, this task is completed long before the legal
divorce while others may struggle with emotional issues
related to the divorce for years.
Joseph Hopper (1993) studied divorcing couples and
found that they described themselves as having been aware
of their marital problems for a long time, sometimes for
10 to 20 years. Nonetheless, divorce involves the loss of
love and a loved one, and it can be difficult, especially
if it creates feelings of rejection.
PREPARING AND PLANNING
When facing divorce, you and your ex-spouse
will need to discuss plans for the future, including how
you will tell the children, how you will work together as
parents, how responsibilities will be divided, and how to
inform your family and friends. Bitterness and conflict
may arise or worsen as you begin to make plans.
Like many others experiencing divorce, you may
feel a deep loss as you let go of your attachment to your
ex-spouse. Separation may also lead to more practical
changes. Typically during divorce, one or both spouses
will move. You may feel you do not have the time or
ability to get everything done because tasks that once may
have been shared by two people are now handled only by
you. This can be overwhelming. If you have children, you
will also have to establish guidelines for sharing time
with them and learn ways to share parenting while living
FORMING NEW RELATIONSHIPS
Divorce requires the formation of more flexible
and cooperative relationships between ex-spouses. If you
have children, you will have to let go of your role as
spouse, while maintaining your role as parent. Forming new
relationships might also involve the acceptance of your
ex-spouse's new relationship and that person's
relationship with your children.
Many of the changes during divorce may seem problematic
or stressful. Fortunately, most of these problems lessen
THE ECONOMIC DIVORCE
Two households are more expensive to maintain
than one, so you may experience a decrease in financial
resources after divorce. Because the heaviest financial
burden typically falls upon the parent who has physical
custody of the child, usually the mother, women are more
likely to suffer financial hardships. Mothers are often
forced to take on more hours at work, reducing the amount
of time available for their children. A change in child
care arrangements and more reliance on children to
contribute to household duties may also occur.
Divorce may require each former partner to learn new
financial skills. If tasks such as organizing and paying
taxes, monthly bills and insurance had been handled by
your spouse, you will now have to learn to complete them
There are several important things to keep in mind as
you deal with the economic changes caused by divorce:
- Resist involving your children in financial
burdens. Worrying about money can be difficult for
children at a time when they may be seeking extra
support and stability.
- Figure out your financial needs and available
resources. Make a list of money coming in and
money going out. Budgets can be powerful tools for
easing financial stress.
- Monitor your expenses, especially in the
initial months after divorce.
- Make plans for improving your financial
situation. You may need to seek additional
education or training in order to increase your
- Look into retirement plans and insurance policies
and make attempts to ensure the security of yourself
and your children.
- Plan for your children's future. Both parents
generally are responsible for a child's education. Can
you begin setting aside money for this purpose now? It
is important to begin an educational savings fund even
for young children, if possible.
THE CO-PARENTAL DIVORCE
Most parents are very concerned about the effects
divorce will have on their children. Although this concern
is important, some evidence indicates that children do
better in supportive, single-parent households than in
two-parent households with high levels of conflict. Or
course, if the divorce does not stop the children's
exposure to conflict between their parents, they will
likely not do better.
After divorce, you must learn to continue your role as
mom or dad while letting go of your role as spouse. This
requires you to accept that you can no longer control the
actions of your ex-spouse. This can be very difficult.
There are certain tasks that will help you fulfill this
- Avoid criticizing your ex-spouse in front of
- Do not use your children to send messages to
- Speak directly to your ex-spouse about issues
related to the children. Some parents find that
scheduling a brief "business" meeting on a
regular basis works to keep lines of communication
open about the children.
- Avoid asking your children for information
about your ex-spouse.
- Resist the desire to make your child a
confidante. Although it is important that you
receive the emotional support you need, being your
confidante can be unhealthy for the child. Seek out
adult friends, family members, support groups or
counselors to fill this role. Separation and divorce
result in distinct changes in the parent-child
relationship. These changes are different for parents
who have physical custody of the children and those
who do not.
SINGLE PARENTS WITH PHYSICAL
Single parenting requires that one parent take
on a larger percentage of the childrearing tasks. It is
not unusual for that parent to experience an increase in
stress as more responsibilities are shifted to them.
Listed below are certain experiences and feelings typical
of residential parents:
- Finding that your children provide structure for
your life but do not keep you from feeling lonely.
- Becoming closer to your children.
- Feeling that you are solely responsible for the
children and what happens to them.
- Expecting the children to take on more tasks in the
- Feeling overwhelmed by decisions and tasks of being
a single parent.
- Feeling isolated from life apart from the children.
Nonresidential parents will likely have a different
experience. They may be frustrated about the loss of time
with their children and may feel they need some control
over their relationship with them. As with residential
parents, there are some feelings and experiences that are
typical for nonresidential parents:
- Feeling lonely as you adjust to having less time
with the children.
- Feeling out of touch with the events in your
- Experiencing distress after visiting the children.
- Fearing you are losing your place in the lives of
- Feeling frustrated that your ex-spouse has control
over the time that you have with your children.
THE COMMUNITY DIVORCE
Initial support from family and friends often
tapers off as the divorce process continues. It may be
common for you to feel that fewer people are available for
assistance and support at a time when you most need it.
You may no longer feel comfortable around your married
friends. The group of mutual friends you developed as a
married couple might feel torn about the divorce. Because
they may not be comfortable taking sides, they may not be
an active support group for you.
Divorce may also alter a person's feelings about
relationships. Fear of relationships and feelings of
vulnerability are common among divorcing people. Dating
may be particularly difficult if you have not dated in
years. Fear and feelings of vulnerability may lead you to
avoid social involvement.
If you are dealing with these sorts of feelings, there
are things you can do to help rebuild your support
Consider joining support groups such as Parents Without
Partners. These groups can help keep you involved and you
will meet people to talk to who can relate to your
Many divorcing people find themselves making new
friends following divorce. In the long run, this may be
less stressful than trying to maintain contacts with your
If you are not feeling good about yourself as a result
of the divorce, it might be helpful for you to get
counseling or join a support group to help with
THE PSYCHIC DIVORCE
The psychic divorce is the true separation from
the ex-spouse. This is the process of learning to live
without a partner to support you or to be supported by
you. It may take time for you to regain independence and
faith in your ability to deal with life experiences.
The psychic divorce also should include developing some
insight into why you married and why you divorced. Paul
Bohannan suggests that marriage should be an act of
desperation — a last resort. Marriage should not be used
to solve your problems or to offset your weaknesses. All
too often, those are the reasons people marry.
It is especially important to think about these issues
because people tend to remarry rather quickly, and they
often marry again for the same poor reasons they married
the first time.
People tend to divorce for many reasons but essentially
they divorce because they were unable to establish a good
marriage or were unwilling to settle for a bad marriage.
Determining who is to blame for the divorce is not a
healthy way to spend your time. Instead, spend your time
adapting to divorce.
Answer these questions to see how well you are
- Have you accepted that the marriage is over?
- Have you made peace with your ex-spouse?
- Are you realistic about how you contributed to the
- Have you established a support network outside the
- Have you developed future-oriented as opposed to
past-oriented goals? In other words are you now
planning your life as a single person?
Most people do successfully adapt to divorce. You will
experience a great sense of achievement when you master
the six stages of divorce presented in this guide.
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2002 University of Missouri.
Published by University
Extension, University of Missouri-Columbia.