Getting Through The Stages Of Divorce And How To Cope In Each

By Mary Elizabeth Dean|Updated July 12, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Karen Devlin, LPC

Life during and after divorce can feel like a rollercoaster. There are several emotional processes that one may go through before they reach the finish line. Despite the fact that, when we talk about grief, we often think of the grief that comes with the death of a loved one, the stages of grief can show up in scenarios like divorce or separation, too.

Divorce comes with more than the end of a relationship. It’s a time of major adjustment, and outside of your personal emotions about the relationship, it can also change your living situation, your finances, and so on. Even when it is for the best, it can be a tough time.

That said, divorce is a common experience, and one that many have figured out how to cope with. So, what emotional stages might a person undergo during the divorce process, and what can you do to cope?

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What Are The Stages Of Divorce?

You may be wondering, How long does it take to get over a divorce? Although the road that’s ahead of you might seem long or daunting, it is finite, and you will be able to navigate it. As with most things in life, not everyone has the exact same experience when they go through a divorce, and there are a number of different things that can complicate the process or cause it to vary from another person’s experience, whether positively or negatively. With this in mind, you may not be able to expect a particular time frame, but there are stages you can look out for or identify.

Most commonly, these stages are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

It's worth it to note that this isn't a one-way path. For example, a person might be in denial for a bit, move to the bargaining stage, come back to anger, and then experience a period of depression. Understanding what these stages might look like can be advantageous. Not only does it give you a way to potentially put a name to what you’re going through, but it can make you feel less alone when you know that you’re not the only one who is going through — or who has gone through — these stages. Now, let’s go over how the five stages above might manifest and what you can do to cope with or navigate them.

Denial

This stage can occur during or after the divorce. It could entail ignoring your true feelings and convincing yourself that your relationship is fine. You might make excuses for your partner or feel that there is something that you can do to make amends with them.

No matter how bad the situation is, you may convince yourself that there is a way to make things better, even if you know deep down that’s unlikely. It can be difficult to accept that things are really coming to a close, so you may put on a brave face and pretend.

Even after divorce proceedings have started and ended, people in the denial stage may refuse to admit they are divorced, continue to wear their ring, and carry on as if life is the same as before.

How to cope:

Often, this stage will pass naturally. Self-reflection and honesty can help. If you still love the person you’re divorcing, it can be tempting to stay in the denial stage. However, love isn’t the only thing a healthy, fulfilling relationship takes. Other factors, such as trust, reliability, compatibility, mutual affection, and support, are all important factors. If you are missing one of these things — or anything else that’s needed in a healthy marriage — the relationship might not be viable.

When you find that you’re denying the reality of your divorce, remind yourself that it’s okay if the end of the partnership is painful — that this is not the only option out there for you as far as relationships go. You may not gain instantaneous relief from this, but you can eventually accept that you are making the right decision so you can move forward in the process.

Anger

The next stage of divorce after denial is anger. This stage is not as clear-cut as you might think. Some people might assume that your anger would primarily be directed at your ex-spouse, but this is not always the case. While you might be angry at your former partner, you could also be angry at yourself, angry at the way things turned out, angry at the world, angry at other couples, angry that you feel as though you got the short end of the stick, so to speak, or something else. And depending on the circumstances, you might feel shame or loneliness alongside anger.

How to cope:

First, we must let go of the myth that anger is a bad emotion; no emotions are inherently bad, and there are no emotions that should be ignored or denied. If you are angry, you are angry. It is that simple. Additionally, emotions aren’t actions. In other words, being angry doesn’t excuse acting in negative or harmful ways.

One of the best things you can do is sit with how you are feeling. Take a deep breath and acknowledge the anger. Then, use self-compassion to talk yourself through it. Anger can be healing in many ways, particularly when you’ve been hurt. If there was abandonment or other forms of mistreatment, you may say to yourself, “I did not deserve that, and I do deserve better.”

While you are processing your anger, remember that you are deciding to have a happier future. While the feelings you have now may be overwhelming, you are working toward something greater than what you have now. Whether it was what you wanted initially or not, there are positives ahead. With time your angry emotions will usually fade, and the clarity you gain will help push you into the next stage.

Bargaining

Bargaining is the stage where you often explore the “what ifs.” You might daydream about how the relationship could’ve been different, envision scenarios where it worked out, or wonder what you could do personally to make it better. You’re bargaining with the reality of the situation. If you and your partner want to work things out and desire a healthy, affectionate partnership with one another, that’s one thing. However, this is a very common and natural stage of grief even for those who know deep down that the relationship can’t be salvaged.

Change is tough, and your mind is trying to reconcile. You might have thoughts that your ex is the best lover you ever had. You might miss your partner, question your choice, or think actively about how you could potentially work it out.

How to cope:

Knowing that this is a common thing people experience during divorce can be highly beneficial. The knowledge alone may ease some confusion as to why these thoughts are showing up. Take extra time for self-care and look at the reality of the situation as well as where these thoughts are truly coming from. Spend time with your support system and consider confiding in someone, such as a therapist or counselor, who can help you look at the big picture.

Depression

It is common for people encountering grief of any kind to face symptoms such as a loss of interest in activities they would otherwise look forward to or enjoy, a low or depressed mood, lack of energy, sleeping significantly more or less than usual, trouble concentrating, numbness, excessive crying, and feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or hopelessness.

Need Help Moving Through The Stages Of Divorce?

When grieving, whether due to divorce or something else, it is expected that you will go through a period of time where you feel unlike yourself and more down than usual. This is still, however, frequently one of the stages of divorce that hits the hardest. You may not know how to move on or how to live life without your partner. We often build a life together with our spouses. We typically form routines, and we might have plans or expectations for the future.

When our life doesn't go as planned in such a significant way, we can be thrown for a loop. We might be hard on ourselves for potentially making the wrong decision when it comes to a partner. We may also feel unlovable and unworthy to be in a relationship.

How to cope:

While these feelings might make you feel as though you will never feel good again, it is important to know that you can make it through this difficult time. If you’re experiencing symptoms that are lingering, more severe, and/or not entirely related to your divorce, you may be living with a more serious form of depression.

No matter what, if symptoms of depression are ongoing or impacting your functioning, make sure that you reach out to a medical or mental health provider, such as your general doctor or a licensed therapist.

Acceptance

This stage can be a relief for those going through divorce. When you accept what has happened to you, you can begin to move forward with your life. Acceptance doesn't necessarily mean you’re happy with the outcome. It could simply mean that you understand what happened and why, and you are at peace with the decision you’ve made.

This is often the final stage you experience when processing the grief from your divorce. You might stop fretting over the small details and start feeling more like yourself. The relationship could be coming to a close, and that closure can help you feel like you can move on to a new chapter. This is where your new life begins.

How to cope:

Address any breakthrough emotions that arise and think about what you want your life to look like moving forward. Again, this is a new beginning, and the possibilities are wide open.

Other Emotions And Divorce

There are a number of other emotions that a person might go through during or after divorce.

In addition to denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance, someone might also experience feelings of resentment, ambivalence, or fear, for example. During any time of prolonged or extreme stress, individuals are at a heightened risk for trouble sleeping, anxiety, irritability, sudden changes in mood, and more.

Since divorce can be a complicated process that can affect nearly every area of your daily life, it’s important to ask for help when you need it.

When To Seek Help

It’s crucial to have a support system when you’re going through a life transition. If you feel like you are stuck in one of these stages for too long or need extra support, therapy can help. A therapist is an impartial, educated third party who can help you work through the different stages, feelings, and challenges that might come with divorce. In therapy, you can share your genuine feelings with an unbiased professional.

Many people choose to get individual therapy and find it highly advantageous when they endure a major adjustment in life like divorce. Divorce counseling can also be beneficial for ex-partners who, together, want to work through concerns related to co-parenting, boundaries, and other common matters that may arise or cause stress.

You can seek therapy in your area, or you can sign up for a platform with remote services such as ReGain. ReGain offers therapy for individuals and couples. Online therapy is often a less expensive route when compared to the out-of-pocket cost of traditional in-person services, and it provides you with the convenience of meeting with a professional from anywhere with a stable internet connection, including your own home. Every provider on the ReGain platform has up-to-date licensure and years of experience.

The bottom line is that there’s no wrong reason to seek help. Having someone to talk to matters, and though it may take time, you deserve to see a clear, bright future ahead.

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