Understanding the Five Emotional Stages of Divorce

Regardless of what causes a divorce, the process of separation and divorce takes an emotional toll on those involved. The dissolution of a marriage—even an amicable divorce—is almost always a challenging time filled with many emotions.

Some observers have suggested that the emotional stages of divorce are comparable to Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief after the death of a loved one.

In 25-plus years of representing men and women going through divorces in the Raleigh, NC, area, attorney Charles R. Ullman and his legal team have seen how the Five Stages model applies to the emotional journey of a divorce. Understanding the five stages of divorce helps the divorce attorneys at Charles Ullman & Associates provide personalized legal services to each client going through the divorce process.

denialStage One: Confronting Reality (Denial)

Denial is the first stage of grief. It is an initial refusal to accept the reality of the situation. Denial is a defense mechanism. It may range from rejecting the facts of the matter to thinking you can fix a broken marriage to refusing to talk about what has happened.

Someone who has been served with divorce papers may think that if they can just talk to their spouse, they can repair their relationship. They may tell themselves that the spouse who has left them just needs some time and will eventually return.

If you have been served with divorce papers or one spouse has moved out, we suggest that you begin referring to yourself as “separated.” It’s a good time to reach out to friends or family members who have adjusted well to a divorce. It’s also time for a consultation with a knowledgeable divorce lawyer so you understand your rights and the family law issues to expect when going through divorce.

angerStage Two: Experiencing the Emotional Tumult (Anger)

Anger is a natural response to the sudden reality of a separation. People look for someone to blame for the breakdown of their marriage. Some people lash out at their estranged spouses or ex-spouses. Others blame themselves. Anger can be especially destructive if it leads to domestic violence against a spouse or another party suspected of breaking up the marriage.

It is a mistake to let anger drive your decisions in divorce proceedings. Anger gets in the way of productive negotiations required to prepare a separation agreement covering the equitable distribution of property, child custody, and support. Contested divorces take longer and are more costly to finalize than negotiated separations. If a family law judge talks to a child who speaks of being frightened or hurt by the way you’ve acted, this could adversely affect your custody or visitation requests.

If anger begins to interfere with your life, we suggest seeking professional counseling and learning anger management techniques.

bargainingStage Three: Embracing Change (Bargaining)

The third stage involves trying to change the outcome through bargaining. We may bargain with ourselves or call upon a higher power in hopes of having a different outcome. “If only she would agree to come back, I’ll change and never do the things that caused the marriage to fail.”.

Studies say that only 10-15% of couples reconcile after they separate. Be honest with yourself. Talk to your spouse about it if you truly want to salvage your marriage. But it’s more likely that you need to be dealing with the practical aspects of divorce with the guidance of an experienced divorce attorney.

depressionStage Four: Searching for Comfort (Depression)

Even if you initiated your divorce, you are likely to feel emotional pain and sadness upon the realization that your marriage is over. It is a tremendous loss. But the depression stage of grief isn’t clinical depression. Get through the grieving process by reaching out to others instead of isolating yourself, eating well, avoiding alcohol, and getting exercise.

You should seek the help of a mental health professional if you begin to experience inescapable:

  • Loss of hope for the future.
  • Difficulty making decisions.
  • Difficulty concentrating.

More likely, you’ll process the depression stage of loss with a period of introspection and the realization that you have a say-so in how you’ll handle what is ahead.

acceptanceStage Five: Rebuilding and Moving Forward (Acceptance)

Acceptance is the final stage. It’s part of the healing process for divorcing couples. You accept the reality of your loss and no longer struggle against your grief. You find clarity. You may eventually even look back fondly on the good times in your marriage while taking an active role in closing that chapter of your life.

If you can positively process your grief over the end of your marriage and move forward, you’ll be in a better position to craft a divorce settlement that works for everyone involved.

Contact an Experienced Raleigh Divorce Attorney

Photo of family law attorney Charles R. UllmanDivorce is emotionally challenging and legally complex. Several legal concepts are specific to divorce in North Carolina. At Charles R. Ullman & Associates, we want to help you make forward-looking decisions throughout the separation and divorce process. Our dedicated divorce attorneys are here to help make your divorce as efficient and drama-free as possible and to help you emerge stronger and more resilient.

Our firm’s founder, Charles R. Ullman, is a North Carolina State Bar-certified Family Law Specialist and has more than 25 years of experience guiding divorces in the Raleigh, NC, area. He is also a skilled mediator whose negotiating skills have helped many clients and their spouses collaborate on separation agreements and avoid airing their disputes in a court of law.

Schedule a confidential initial consultation with one of our Raleigh divorce lawyers. We can help with all of your family law needs, including divorce, separation, child custody and visitation, child support, alimony, and the equitable distribution of marital assets. Contact us by phoning (919) 829-1006 or by filling out our online contact form.



Charles Ullman & Associates provides you respected, experienced and knowledgeable divorce and family law attorneys. You can trust us to help you through the legal process efficiently and effectively so you can transition to the next phase of your life. Our community involvement reaches beyond charitable support of important causes. We launched our own movement in Fraternities4Family and provide scholarships to able students in need.