Divorcing is a difficult process filled with strong emotions and chaotic thoughts. The majority of divorces are filed by women and the initiator is in a different emotional state compared with their jilted spouse.
However, both experience similar emotional milestones during the divorce. Relationships don’t fall apart overnight; instead, marital dissatisfactions may accumulate for years before triggering a divorce.
No matter why the marriage ends, spouses are almost always at different emotional states before divorce, because only the jilted spouse wants to save the marriage. Although the couple begins the divorce process in difference emotional states, they will pass through similar emotional milestones on their way to a new life.
For an initiator, the first emotional milestone involves vague feelings of irritability, accumulated resentment, dissatisfaction, and mild feelings of grief. By contrast, the jilted spouse is generally in denial, unwilling to acknowledge marital problems, and blind to the dissatisfactions of his/her spouse.
At the second emotional milestone, the initiator begins sharing his/her unhappiness with the spouse and experience a sense of relief because the issue of divorce is finally in the open. The jilted spouse may request marital counseling and make frantic efforts to fix the marriage. When this doesn’t work, he/she will shift from denial to shock, plead for another chance, and alternate between denial and shocked despair.
At the third milestone, the initiator will firmly announce he/she wants a divorce. They will begin to rework marital history, become distant and critical or feel victimized. The jilted spouse will experience overwhelming grief, expressed through depression or anger. Reconciliation is rarely possible by this time.
The initiator will separate emotionally, engage an attorney, file for divorce, and serve the jilted spouse with the petition. Interactions will be distant, with occasional outbursts or anger and criticism. Usually, one spouses must vacate the family home to maintain peace.
The custodial parent will generally stay with the children, at least temporarily while the other parent leaves. If the children are gone, financial preferences determine who keeps the family home. The jilted spouse may beg for another chance, but the tone of the divorce is set by whether they choose an angry litigated or a respectful collaborative divorce.
5. Loneliness/Feeling Betrayed
No matter whether the couple opts for a collaborative or a litigated divorce, their emotions will center on loneliness, anger and betrayal at the fifth emotional milestone. Often family and friends will choose sides or simply drift away.
If the divorce is litigated, there will be an adversarial hearing, court ordered child support, possible alimony, and demands for financial disclosure and discovery. In a collaborative divorce, the first joint meeting usually brings welcome structure and the beginnings of resolution. The jilted spouse often feels betrayed.
If the couple chooses a collaborative divorce, they can move toward the emotional milestone of adjustment and acceptance. When there are children, the pattern of visitations will bring welcome comfort and relief to the isolated spouse and worry to the custodial parent.
If the divorce is litigated, the emotional ups and downs continue through settlement or trial. This postpones the final emotional milestones until the end of the process. Collaborative couples begin to feel in control of their lives, regain a sense of separate identity, and discover new psychological resources.
7. Closure/New Beginning
In a collaborative divorce, the parties and their team negotiate an interest-based settlement that meets important needs of both parties. In a litigated divorce, the parties usually mediate their case prior to trial.
If they are able to reach an adversarial settlement, they will likely remain unhappy. If they go to trial, they will be more distressed when the court pronounces judgment, orders the division of their assets, and dictates custody arrangements.
In either case, closure brings the possibility of new beginnings.
Marriages disintegrate over time for a variety of reasons. Usually, the spouses are at different stages in their emotional adjustment prior to filing for divorce, because only the initiator wants to end the marriage.
In spite of these initial differences, there are common emotional milestones in every divorce. The first is dissatisfaction/denial, the second relief/shock, then anger/grief, followed by withdrawal/separation, loneliness/betrayal, adjustment/acceptance, and finally, closure/new beginnings.
How quickly a couple navigates these milestones depends primarily on whether they choose a collaborative or a litigated divorce. Couples who choose a litigated divorce don’t begin to heal until after settlement or trial, while collaborative couples heal during the divorce process itself.