Dealing with the emotional and health impact of divorce


The emotional impact of a divorce or pending divorce can be every bit as distressing as the legal and financial, often more-so. Whilst financial and legal matters tend to get a lot of the initial attention, it is the emotional impact of divorce that often takes most energy and longest time to heal and, according to research studies, can result in or reignite post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). From dealing with child custody, to telling your friends, feelings of depression and learning to manage a new life that quite possibly you never imagined. 

Fortunately, unless you are a lawyer or a financial advisor, this area of “emotional wellbeing” is one you can take positive action on yourself through a mix of friend support and self-help. Of course, professional counselors are available. They are highly valuable individuals to support you through your divorce and should be thought of as other professionals in the divorce process such as those in law and finance.

What are the emotional factors of divorce?

The emotional and psychological impact a divorce can have depend on the individual, the type of divorce and who initiated the divorce. These emotions will vary based on the stage of your divorce, often starting a long time before and running on for many months or even years after. Emotional factors impact not only you and your spouse, but you friends, family and most importantly, children.

Divorce is a very emotional period and one needs all the strength and mental power one has to cope up during this period. Ending a marriage is not only a legal technicality that says you are free, it also comes with psychological baggage that you will have to work through and cope with in order to move forward in your new life.

The first stage of dealing with these emotions is often simply being aware of them.

What are the emotional stages of divorce?

There are stages of divorce in which both spouses will often feel similar emotions, but these will vary depending on circumstance and personality.

Even if the circumstance is relatively simple – ie. the marriage has broken down without any real fault and the spouses are “amicable”, if both partners are not on a similar page (eg. one spouse feels there is hope when the other does not) the emotions at each stage could be very different;

  1. Relationship dis-satisfaction:

    One or both parties become dis-satisfied in the relationship. The relationship may become tense but problems are perhaps not discussed. There are arguments, often petty. You feel less like a team and more like opposition. Tension builds. One or both partners may start thinking about divorce, fantasising about it. Feelings of distrust may develop, resentment and frustration. Either partner may experience mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.

  2. Expression of dis-satisfaction:

    Often feelings will come to a head and you will enter a “discussion” period with your spouse. This can often be an intensely emotional time as you both realise your marriage may be coming to an end. Emotions can be hugely mixed during this time, from shock, denial and anger to guilt, hope and love. There may be feelings of relief that you are finally talking about things, you may decide to really work on your relationship or seek counseling.

  3. Decision to divorce:

    You may experience great sadness and grief at this time, especially if you and your spouse have tried to work things out. Usually you will begin to tell friends and family and often there will be separation. Feelings that follow may be guilt, resentment, deep sadness or anger, moreso if children are involved or extramarital affairs. Again, low self esteem, anxiety and depressive episodes are likely creep in and possibly develop further. One partner may disconnect more than the other, potentially becoming involved with another person/people (even if there was no sign of any extramarital activity). Further frustrations and feelings of rejection may develop and cause tensions to rise.

  4. Filing for divorce:

    Again, feelings and emotions at this stage will vary, especially if you are on different pages and one spouse feels there is still hope for the relationship. At this stage you will likely start to feel panicked and fearful; the reality kicks in. Things are becoming final and there are lots of legal and financial matters that seem scary and that you feel are outside of your control or mental capacity. You become consumed by them and often use them as a shield of sorts, letting negative emotions such as blame and anger outwardly take over. There are fears around what other people will think and what “sides” friends will take. You may experience panic attacks or feelings of despair.

  5. Acceptance.

    This may happen during the divorce process or after. The intense emotions you have been experiencing calm down. You begin to accept that this is the right move for everyone and become calmer. You feel in more control over what is happening in with your life and start looking towards the future. These feelings can be empowering and give you a sense of relief and chance to recover from exhaustion, equally, you could experience a depressive or numb acceptance.

At some point you will feel a sense of long-lasting renewed hope and happiness for a new future. This is much more likely to happen if you can communicate with your spouse, be understanding of each other throughout the process and be aware of the needs of children and other family members.

The importance of supportive and objective friends

Often the best-meaning friends can be overly protective of us, to the point whereby they can amplify and fuel our feelings of anger and blame. No doubt, these are great and loyal friends, however at this time, aim to spend time with friends who can listen and be objective. Friends who will help you rationalise and act as a mediator of sorts to your thoughts and feelings, enabling you to see the bigger picture.

Sure, every now and then you may need that blow-out, dancing around to loud EDM, singing power-pop, head-banging to rock music or taking it out on a punch bag whilst cursing like a mutha, but you also need the friend who can bring you back down to earth and pull you out of a destructive thought process.

How can a mediator help with emotion?

Professional mediators are worth their weight in gold. If you and your spouse are struggling, they can help you get to that stage of emotional acceptance much faster. They can even take you beyond it whereby you are both feeling positive about your future apart – and YES, that’s OK. No need to feel guildy about it.

Mediators can help you both feel better about the situation and empowered to be part of a collaborative process in resolving disputes and working towards a better future. Mediators eliminate a lot of expense financially and emotionally and should be seriously considered, especially if children are involved and thus an ongoing relationship between spouses will be required.

Can a divorce attorney help me emotionally?

Attorneys/lawyers are great and it is advised that you have a divorce specialist look over your legal documentation and provide guidance. In terms of emotion, this will provide you with reassurance and thus ease fears and anxiety.

However what you must remember is that your divorce attorney represents you and your best interests legally (not your spouse, or your children). Their job is not to represent both parties for the “best” outcome. A good divorce lawyer will respect your wishes, but they are obligated to act in your best interests, which may not necessarily be the “best” overall outcome.

Family law practitioners are aware of this and in many cases will suggest mediation for you and your spouse to reach an agreement, after which they will ensure the documentation is correct and understood.

What about the children?

Children can be hugely effected by divorce and there are multiple factors that contribute to how your child may or may not feel. Learning how divorce effects children is going to take time, so don’t feel that you’ll become an expert over-night. Do make sure that you keep in mind their emotional difficulties and do not get exasperated if they aren’t at your level of emotional maturity and understanding.

Regardless of their age, it’s important to make sure that a child does not blame themselves in any way for your separation. They will often assume that the split is due to something they have done or something that they did not do as a child. This needs to be taken into firm consideration immediately and they should be explicitly told that it’s not their fault. Make sure that this is done in a loving manner and by BOTH parents.

When parents are openly hostile to one another, the pain of seeing one parent treated poorly by another is immense for a child. For that reason it’s important to attempt civility, even goodwill toward an estranged partner.

If you have more than one kid, aim to tell them together AND together as a couple. Put on a united front and reassure them that things are going to be different, but you are still their mom and dad. If you have reached a level of acceptance and have the emotional strength, get them involved in moving on. Allow them to help rearrange things, pick new furniture; whatever needs to be done.

We’ll dig into dealing with children and divorce in a number of other articles. Just remember that this is a very emotional time for them too, at a time in their life when they are developing and often not mature enough to deal with emotion— are we ever mature enough?! 😉

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