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Psychology of Divorce Back to Course Index




 From the “War of the Roses” to “Conscience Uncoupling”, the psychology of divorce is complicated.  In helping to successfully negotiate the ending of a marriage, it is vital for the professional to understand the underlying dynamics of the family as a system and of the divorce as a process.  When someone is willing to pay $200.00 an hour for a divorce attorney to fight over a $50.00 vase, you know it is not the vase they are fighting over.  Viewing the family as a system allows one to conceptualize events that might seem irrational and disparate within the framework that gives meaning and sense to these events.




The family systems theory suggests that individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but rather as a part of their family.  Early etiological theories of child and marital problems assumed unidirectional cause-effect relationships. That is, it was always presumed that dysfunctional marital relationships caused dysfunctional behavior patterns in children. Children with behavioral or emotional problems were viewed as innocent victims of a “bad” parent or of a “bad” relationship between the parents. Theory and therapy focused largely on identifying and treating the dysfunctional parent or parents, in order to relieve the child of the emotional distress.


In the past 20 years, however, family systems theorists and therapists have demonstrated unmistakably the circular nature of causality in family interactions.  In this view, the family is conceptualized as a system in which the actions of each member influence the actions of each other member reciprocally.  So, the child can create marital dysfunction as easily and commonly as the parents create dysfunction within the child. Collusion between a child and a parent can create dysfunction within the other parent or within a sibling, or a dysfunctional relationship between two siblings can create dysfunction within a parent, which can subsequently create marital dysfunction, and so forth.


For example, imagine a household in which a 12 year old girl Samantha is cutting and trying to get out of going to school.   Samantha feels like she doesnt fit in because some boys made fun of her (unbeknownst to her one of the boys just wanted her to notice him).    Samanthas cutting and refusal to go to school without an argument gets her parents arguing with each other over how to handle the situation.  Dad wants to put his foot down and say stop the cutting, youre just acting out and go to school or else.  Mom wants to sit and talk with Samantha throughout the night each and every night to support and understand.  Moms reaction makes Heather, Samanthas older sister, very jealous.  She complains that Samantha just wants attention and is getting her way.  In response Dad reacts more harshly to attempt to handle Samanthas acting out.


Indeed, all inter-active combinations within a family can create dysfunction within anyone else in the family system. Moreover, while the source of the original distress is frequently intra-familial, it can also be extra-familial, when, for example, a child is influenced by a neighbor child or a teacher, or when a parent is influenced by an friend or a relative.


This systems view has gradually replaced the traditional linear view of causality and it is particularly appropriate and useful in understanding the divorce process and the dynamics in child custody disputes, when escalation of the family system’s dysfunction by the legal system’s procedures is all too often the case the disputing families.




 Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Divorce Recovery


Divorce can make individuals in the family feel worthless or hopeless. These feelings often come from negative thoughts that begin to dominate the persons perception. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for divorce recovery uses strategies to challenge negative thoughts and introduces effective behaviors to help individuals cope with the recovery process.


The negative feelings that many adults and children experience during a divorce come from inaccurate thoughts such as “I am worthless,” “no one loves me,” and “I never succeed at anything.” CBT asks the individual to question the validity of these thoughts and challenge them with realistic statements. Someone who feels completely unloved is therefore encouraged to think of successful relationships that they have to balance the negative feelings that emanate from their thought distortions. Over time, those who receive CBT often develop the skills to challenge unrealistic thoughts automatically.


Interpersonal Therapy for Divorce Recovery


Interpersonal therapy takes a different approach by focusing on relationship barriers that cause individuals to act in unproductive ways. The theory behind interpersonal therapy shows that it is useful for therapists to consider the way that people interact with each other instead of just how the individuals think and behave on their own.


This form of divorce recovery is often successful for children who act out in negative ways because they cannot communicate their feelings appropriately. Divorced parents can also learn how their behavior influences the way that their children act. Adults undergoing divorce recovery often learn how their behaviors influence the actions of their ex-spouses as well. Making adjustments in interpersonal relationships can help individuals find ways to get along with each other during difficult situations.


Individual and Group Therapy for Divorce Recovery


Most counselors suggest individual therapy for divorce recovery because it gives them the opportunity to use psychoanalysis techniques such as CBT and interpersonal therapy that work best for specific individuals. Some people also benefit from group therapy where they can meet other people going through divorce recovery.


Group therapy helps many patients feel that they are not alone. Discussions with other people going through similar problems also give them the advantage of learning which divorce recovery techniques have worked for them.


Group therapy is often used in conjunction with individual psychotherapy. This combination provides a balanced perspective for the patient so that he or she can learn from the group while simultaneously discovering the best divorce recovery techniques that work for the individual.


A combination of individual and group therapies can also encourage children to recover from the negative effects of divorce more quickly than those who only receive one type of treatment. This, however, is not true for everyone. Individuals should work closely with their therapists to decide which methods are best for them.



The divorce itself is frequently seen as an event my most people, occurring when a judge signs a marital dissolution decree.  However, the emotional side of a divorce should be viewed as a journey that occurs minimally over several years and frequently over the course of a lifetime to some degree. Typically, the divorce process begins well before a family therapist or an attorneys is called, when one of the spouses begins to experience disillusionment, discontent, anxiety, and/or alienation.


Another factor to note, sometimes, but not always, there is one spouse who wants the divorce and the other that doesnt.  When there is nonmutuality in the decision to end a marriage it can have major implications for the process of divorce. One spouse has begun the emotional process before the other spouse. This can create a significant discrepancy in their respective stages of the emotional divorce by the time they reach the office of an attorney.


The implications of this discrepancy for both legal and mental health divorce professionals is most easily seen in the discrepancies between the emotional states expressed by each spouse and in the different tactics and strategies that each use in the negotiations leading to (or, as the case may be, not leading to) the final divorce.


Most divorce researchers conceptualize the divorce process as a series of developmental stages or phases through which the divorcing families proceed. While the phases are generally considered linear, they are not invariant. That is, a couple can skip a phases and go through it at a later point. Or, a couple might maintain characteristic feelings and behaviors of two phases at the same time. Also, the intensity with which a given couple goes through these phases may vary and is primarily a function of the degree of ambivalence to divorce shared by the couple. These phases in these models have similar characteristic structure.


  • Deliberation Phase
  • Decision Phase
  • Transition Phase
  • Litigation Phase
  • Healing Phase




This is the period of time between which the idea of divorce initially surfaces and the time when divorce is finally implemented. Often, the background of this stage is some form of stressful circumstance for one or both parties, such as a loss of a good job, health or money problems. The more stress there is, the more likely it will impact on the marriage.


During this phase, rather than actually verbalizing that trouble is brewing, it is generally characterized by indirect, covert, destructive behavior by one or both partners. Frequently one or both will begin “rewriting” the image of the marriage or the image of the other spouse to build a case that justifies the eventual split. “Rewriting” simply involves selecting, coloring and emphasizing the “bad stuff”: unresolved “hurts” from the past or behavior that does not currently work. It also includes “glossing over” or ignoring the “good stuff” and thereby reaching the conclusion that divorce is appropriate.


Generally, confrontation regarding divorce and separation mark the end of this stage.   Frequently, this stage is drawn out over cycles each moving closer and closer to the reality of a divorce.


A research study of people who had been divorced indicated:


  • Over 70% of divorced people knew of the problems that led to the divorce, either when they got married, or after they had been married for some time.
  • Only 22% percent of divorced people discovered the source of their marital problems leading to separation just before the break-up.


In hindsight, people appear to have remarkably few regrets about the decision to separate and divorce. The same study found:


  • 12% percent of the divorced people who were polled felt “they should have stayed together”
  • 82% felt that the right decision was to separate and divorce.
  • 70% felt that the problems that led to the separation and divorce were “too difficult to solve” as opposed to problems that “might have been solved had the parties stayed together.”


During this stage, which takes place before separation is even contemplated, one of the spouses typically is experiencing feelings of dissatisfaction, alienation and loneliness. During this phase one or both will engage in long periods of deliberation on how to solve the problems in the marriage. Typically, they try to cope with these feelings before the decision to separate and/or divorce is reached.


These coping attempts may include getting angry at, confronting, and quarreling with each other in hopes of provoking a change.  This is frequently when communication falters and one or each may escape into work or into excessive time with friends; extra-marital affairs; drugs or alcohol; or, in extreme cases, physical abuse. This is also the phase that counseling may be initiated. 





Communication of the intent to divorce ends the deliberation phase. Often, there is a brief, but intense decision-making phase where the intent to divorce has been seriously communicated but the outcome remains in doubt. Emotions run high during this phase.  There is anger, sadness, attempts to accept and attempts to try again.  Family members and friends get involved and offer unsolicited advice, opinions and their own “spin” on what could or should have been done and what could or should happen now.  This is a time of uncertainty and counseling is very beneficial.


Counseling during this phase usually focuses on creating a self outside of the couple.  The concepts that can be explored include restructuring life, family, identity, coping strategies and moving toward eventual healing.





This is a period fraught with the potential for a wide range of behavior. While the partners may have physically separated at the end of the previous stage, this is a period requiring emotional or psychological separation. Sexual “acting out” is common during this phase.


Terminating a period of attachment that may span many years is frequently difficult and may, in some cases, be impossible. Viewing their life as inextricably interwoven with that of their ex-partner, they may see half of themselves and their life as terminating with divorce.





Although litigation is not an emotional stage, it is superimposed on the emotional process of divorce and is primarily defined in terms of duration as a function of the legal process. Generally, the process takes about one year if the divorce is fully contested in court and is considerably shorter if the parties reach an amicable agreement.


Once the legal process earnestly begins, this period is characterized by the redefinition of the roles of each partner. As such, it can be either a period of tremendous growth or stagnation and despair, or, it can be both, to varying degrees.


Counseling during this phase can help to deal with the emotional hostility and uncertainty that frequent this time in the process.





The healing phase of a divorce is frequently a long process.  There is the we to process and when really effective healing it also includes the me healing.  This isnt the divorce party, congratulations events that have become so popular, but true healing, learning, growing and improving. This period is marked by a commitment to the future. The promise of a new life, if based in reality, doesnt forget the lessons of the previous period.  This new life takes the lessons with it.  This is a period characterized by individual development of the self in the absence of the other partner. In other words, a period of where someone “moves on. Those hot spots that previously were stimuli for irrational and destructive behavior are dealt with and handled. A new scope of stability is often achieved, and it often continues indefinitely.





A central concern of both parties during the process of divorce is their economic survival. This strikes at the core of our basic human needs for security. This uncertainty may evoke strong feelings of ambivalence, confusion, self-doubt, resentment, and frustration within both parties.





About 60 percent of divorcing couples have minor children. Many couples are unable to agree on a custody plan amongst themselves.  It is the most common ongoing battle once the divorce is settled.  It is filled with emotional rancor, allegations, distortions of personalities and of life events, and an intense bitterness which serves to enhance the acrimony between the parents and to create what current research demonstrates is the single most destructive influence on children of divorce–parental conflict. Since there is a winner and a loser, the loser typically retaliates by either sabotaging the court order or reopening the court case at the first appearance of another child-related dispute. Repeated litigation is the common course of such disputes. It is not uncommon for these parents to return to court anywhere from several to 25 times in a single year! 


This causes fear, anger and insecurity in both parents and the children.  The children frequently feel caught between the parents. 




An intriguing phenomena which, in varying degrees, may rear its ugly head during the litigation stage of divorce has been termed the “negative reconstruction of spousal identity” (Johnston & Campbell). This phenomenon is characterized by the tendency of one spouse to cast the other in a vilified image, for example, “He’s a mean drunk,” or, she’s a selfish, liar.” These negative characterizations that divorcing couples make of each other become reified and immutable over time. The spouse, in essence, rewrites marital history and selectively perceives only the events over the years that fit with the present negative characterization. Hence, it is as if the spouse creates a profound insight (albeit twisted and distorted) which is then rationalized and supported as if it were true. In explaining the underlying dynamics, Johnston and Campbell (p. 62) write:


Our clinical experience leads us to conclude that the actual experience of separation for some couples was the crucible in which these negative views of each other are brewed and crystallized. Couples who experience particularly traumatic separations are prime candidates for generating negative images. Perceived experiences of being suddenly and unexpectedly left; abandoned after secret plotting and planning; left after a secret love affair with another person; left after uncharacteristic, explosive violence–all are separation modes that are typically traumatic and involve inordinate degrees of humiliation, anger, defeat, guilt, and fear, thus setting the stage for what is to come. A radical reconstruction of the identity of the ex-spouse can occur at the time of a traumatic separation. The desperate reactions and counter-reactions to the crisis are likely to crystallize new negative views of each other which subsequently become autonomous of these origins”





For some, the divorce does not solve the problem of unhappiness and dissatisfaction within the marriage. Leaving the marriage brings similar or increased frustration, pain, and unhappiness. These feelings may occur as the person, living as a single, experiences deep loneliness and despair, or, as a remarried person, finds that the next marriage or marriages simple recreate the same problems or new ones, with all the frustration, alienation, and anguish still present.


Although the majority of divorcing couples manage to navigate the divorce through to the other side.  There is a small portion that get stuck somewhere in the process and fail to maneuver through the stages. Typically, these couples lodge in the transition stage.





 It is common for divorcing spouses to have anxieties about the unknown future.  Anger is most often a secondary emotion, covering up fears and insecurities.  As they feel less and less in control of the forces and issues in their lives, they move deeper and deeper into a legal process which, by its nature and design, moves them further away from that very control. The net result is increased anxiety in a self-perpetuating, destructive, and downward cycle.





The breakdown of trust in a divorce starts as a small crack, expands as an ever-widening fissure on the marital landscape, and becomes a canyon of disbelief between the spouses which sometimes, in many ways cannot ever be bridged again by anyone. In this psychological state, the parties are expected to make monumental decisions affecting all that value.  How many future husbands or wives will pay for the sins of the previous?  Trust is a factor in all relationships monumental or small.  Divorce undermines trust as a whole.





Throughout the divorce process, each and every step which the client takes will have a psychological source or consequence to it. Each spouse will both influence and be influenced by the many necessary and critical decisions of the other. Considerations such as “Should I file papers with the court?” and  “Should I begin to gather documents?” can have profound interactional implications. For example, an attorney may routinely suggest obtaining a restraining order to freeze cash assets in a bank account without giving proper consideration to the very real fear that might be experienced by the wife who has never gone against the wishes of her husband. Or, in another common scenario, a wife-client may be unaware that the boilerplate wording on the restraining order (frequently a preprinted form which serves to warn her husband that he is not to continue to contact her on the phone) will also order him not to molest, attack, batter, and/or sexually assault her. Should the attorney advise her to wait to file such an order until her husband has hired an attorney who can explain the standard use of these types of orders? Indeed, the husband may have a significant emotional reaction to the insinuation that he has manifested, or is likely to manifest, any of these behaviors.





Another area of psychological impact on the legal proceedings is the client’s perception of the legal system. During this time of crisis, the client may not willingly accept the fact that the objective justice of a judicial decision may bare no resemblance whatsoever to the subjective justice to which he or she clings with a desperate hope. From the area in which the parties feel most vulnerable and wounded there grows an uncompromising faith that the system (i.e., the courts, the judges, the law) will surely bestow its benediction of fairness upon them. The notion that our laws are fair and that, therefore, contact with the law will produce a fair result dies a hard death when such a result does not come to be. The husband who hears for the first time that his spouse, who was unemployed throughout the marriage, owns one-half of his pension as a matter-of-fact property right, and the wife who is told that her child support will terminate when her daughter turns eighteen, even though the daughter will continue to live with her at home while attending junior college, share a common outrage that the law can be so unfair. Can it really be true, in a no-fault divorce state, that the judge will not make a different decision if he knows that John or Mary has been unfaithful in the marriage? And, surely the court will not let the children visit with their father when his new girlfriend is at his apartment!


The reality is that the law is at best a canonization of public policy statements by the legislature or the appellate courts, made as generalizations which cannot anticipate the specific application to the unique circumstances of each individual’s marriage. Compounding the problem is the reality that the ability of an attorney to predict the courts’ application of the law to any given set of specific facts is made more remote by each additional issue which will be placed before the court. A delicate balancing of objective equities from the bench cannot realistically be anticipated given the complexity that comes with each additional layer of issues. A key to a client’s willingness to enter into meaningful negotiations with a spouse is the ability of that client to let go of these myths regarding the legal system.


Motivated by emotional considerations, parties are quick to choose form over substance. The idea that the matter will be over with if simply placed before a judge for a decision has tremendous appeal when the psychological impact of the litigation process itself seems unendurable. Clients are generally far too close to the trees to see the forest. Only with the passage of time are they able to measure the real cost of the process in which they have participated and to evaluate the real gains which were made. That cost can be measured in dollars and other tangible assets, in relationships and other intangible assets, and in the quality of the communication patterns that have been established for carrying out the necessary ongoing support obligations and/or parenting relationships.





Although divorce is an experience of growth, change, and individual development for some, it is a psychological and emotional death for others. It is not what anyone sets out for.  For most, it certainly is a time of tremendous stress, disruption, chaos, uncertainty, and craziness. With appropriate help from understanding and knowledgeable professionals, the process of divorce can be navigated successfully, when necessary. However, without an understanding of the powerful dynamics of divorce, the helping professional can become a misnomer, contributing unnecessarily to the escalation of negative emotions and negative interactions.


Divorce denotes finality. Likened to a death, divorce stimulates an array of feelings associated with loss. Whether the divorce is amicable or drawn out and tumultuous, an emotional response can be expected. Positive emotions, such as relief, freedom and hope can also occur. The person who appears emotionally unaffected by his or her divorce is hiding something. He or she may be using avoidance, distraction or denial against uncomfortable emotions. The experience of divorce requires time and attention to bear painful emotions and to grieve. The result can mean acceptance and a new self-awareness. Conversely, lack of attention to this process can result in disrupted well-being. Stress, depression and multiple life changes may tax emotional equilibrium and physical well-being.



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