Individuals experience four psychological stages during divorce: deliberation, decision, transition, and healing. However, they don’t often experience these four stages at the same time–usually one party is ready to divorce and the other is reluctant to face the issue at all.
Deliberation begins when the instigator recognizes the breakdown of the marriage and starts considering a divorce. The divorcer may begin an affair or rewrite marital history at this stage. By contrast, the other spouse tends to deny problems, avoid thinking about divorce, and blame marital difficulties on the instigator. During the deliberation phase, a couple’s interactions may show signs of anxiety, quiet deadlock, sexual dysfunction, or angry conflict.
Decision time occurs when the instigator decides to tell the spouse, “I want a divorce.” This announcement often brings relief to the divorcer, along with guilt, and depression triggered by a feeling of failure. During this second stage, the other spouse, who often doesn’t want the divorce, will experience shock, denial, disbelief, grief, depression, and anger. The couple’s interactions during the decision phase can be quietly distant if the couple has a history of denying and avoiding conflict or turbulent anger if they have a long history of fighting.
Transition begins when the couple decides to use the collaborative process to end their marriage or one spouse visits a divorce attorney. The divorcer typically experiences anger during this stage, may be emotionally agitated, and often feels sad because the marriage failed. The spouse who is not yet ready for the divorce may still be in shock and denial, or begin experiencing delayed feelings of anger, sadness, depression, and grief during the transition phase. If the couple chooses to litigate, this transition phase may produce heated hearings and even abuse of the legal system. If the couple enters the collaborative process, they often begin healing immediately.
Healing is the final stage of the divorce process. During a collaborative divorce, the divorcer usually withdraws emotional investment in the marriage and begins planning for the future. The other spouse, who is just beginning to realize that the divorce is going to happen, often begins thinking about a new life during the collaborative process and recognizes for the first time that divorce may be a good thing for both parties. For couples who select the collaborative process for their divorce, healing begins during the process. However, in litigated cases, healing doesn’t begin until the case is over, if at all. A small percentage of high-conflict litigation cases can degenerate into chronic court fights that last for years and consume time, money, and emotional energy.
Generally, one spouse decides she wants a divorce and the other party will want to save the marriage through counseling or become depressed and despondent when confronted with the threat of a divorce. Whether the parties choose a collaborative or a litigated divorce, the pace of the process will be determined primarily by the spouse who is not ready to accept a divorce. Only when both parties reach the transition stage and accept that a divorce is going to happen can they begin healing and reach settlement of resolution of their divorce disputes.