Models and Stages of Divorce

Posted by: Dr. Justin D'Arienzo, Psy.D., ABPP

The Emotional Processes of Divorce

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Back to the emotional processes of divorce: Did you know that divorce follows similar patterns of grief when losing a loved one to death? Divorce grief is often more complicated given that the person you have lost has not physically died and continues to exist without you intimately. Though, this person as you knew them, has died. You must now rectify the loss of your partner and their influence over your life and children.

The most frequently referred to model of the divorce process is Kubler Ross’s Grief Model (1969). This model compares our response to death to our response to the loss of a marriage. Here are the five stages:

  1. Denial: Shock and disbelief of the event.
  2. Anger: Frustration and outpouring of emotions.
  3. Bargaining: Examining how things may be okay without your partner (this starts in very small doses).
  4. Depression: Realization that your partner is gone.
  5. Acceptance: Gaining a sense of relief and willingness to move forward without your partner in your life.

It is key to remember that every divorce is different and every party brings different factors to the relationship during and after the break up. Divorce has other challenges and does not necessarily have to follow the Kubler Ross Model. Similarly to losing someone to death, divorce includes the process of emotional upheaval, chaos, behavioral change, and adjustment with its own nuances.

After working with thousands of divorcing and divorced people, I suggest following a combination of Bohannan’s (1970) and Hagemeyer’s (1986) stage models of divorce. These models best illustrate the challenges a divorcing person experiences as they begin their transformation from being their married to new individual self.

First, lets look at Paul Bohannon’s Model of Divorce: 

  1. Emotional Divorce: You begin to emotionally sperate yourself from your partner (this often occurs for one person before the other is aware).
  2. Legal Divorce: This is the lawful end of the marriage by Court action (this is only the beginning of one’s journey toward “total divorce”).
  3. Economic Divorce: You now have two households. You both are likely learning to live differently.
  4. Co-parental Divorce: This involves negotiating and determining your roles as parents, spending less or more time with your children, and learning to hopefully be a successful parents in a binuclear family.
  5. Community Divorce: These changes occur within your relationships and friends. You may receive less support from friends and family or begin to feel the push to date again.
  6. Psychic Divorce: At this point, the stages above are mostly resolved or you have gained more comfort in these areas. You are moving towards independence, being self-supportive, and spending less time in regret or blaming.

Stanley Hagemeyer offers two additional psychosocial phases which eventually need to be resolved during the divorce process.

  1. Loss of Dreams: The loss of the dream of marriage and having a partner. The loss of ones expectations of marital bliss. The loss of the idea of raising children together, retiring, traveling, and spending time with grandchildren.
  2. Loss of Physical Accessibility: As the divorce process begins, one partner is no longer present for the other physically, emotionally, and/or sexually. This loss occurs regardless of one’s feelings of attachment to the other.