The First Stage of Divorce: Making the Decision To Divorce

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By Darlene Lancer, LMFT, Guest Author - November 25, 2016


There are five stages of divorce: the cognitive, physical, emotional, legal and spiritual. This is the first of several articles about the five stages of divorce.

The first, cognitive stage is often difficult and may take a long time. Prior to reaching a decision to divorce, usually the family has lived for some time with marital problems that were warning signs, and often they've been in denial about them. Over time, marital discord may have escalated, or it may have gone underground, while the family has kept up appearances and a facade of normalcy. The couple may have avoided problems and focused on a child, finances, in-laws, or some other problem. If not in counseling, one or both spouses has usually begun to withdraw

If not in counseling, one or both spouses has usually begun to withdraw emotionally or even had an affair, which creates a crisis that upsets the status quo even more. In time, one or both partners is willing to risk the uncertainty, stress, and pain of divorce when it seems appears preferable to their current suffering. To the degree that this determination is made with emotional consciousness, that is with awareness of their grief, their guilt and fears, the more they've begun to emotionally unbind from their spouse and prepare to move through the next stages.

The cognitive or mental stage isn't just a decision to divorce; it sets an intention and generally follows a long period of frustration and unhappiness and long precedes the actual decision and emotional stage. People set goals or a course of intent before they're emotionally and physically ready to carry them out, such as a job change, a move, or even getting out of bed in the morning. Hence, a spouse may waffle in indecision for over a year or several years before making a decision. Although divorce no longer shameful as it once was, many people still feel guilty about their “failed” marriage or marriages. They consider lifestyle and financial consequences and the effect on their children.

Even in cases where to outsiders the choice seems obvious, such as where there's been domestic violence, a spouse may struggle with the decision to leave. For example, research shows that victims of domestic abuse or violence on will stay in the marriage after an average of seven violent incidents. Although practical considerations may be obstacles to leaving, usually the real reason for not divorcing is codependency.

This cognitive stage may seem relatively painless, but some spouses begin experiencing feelings of guilt, fear, shame, anxiety, and sadness. The intent to separate may or may not be expressed, or even consciously acknowledged. Some people say they never wanted a divorce, blaming it on their spouse, all the while passively allowing it. Others may precipitate and provoke the breakup (e.g., having an affair), but permit their spouse to carry it out.

In other cases, amazingly, some couples simultaneously and synchronically agree to divorce. Spouses might each silently come to their moment of resolve, only to hear the words uttered by their spouse. The open acknowledgment of this intention  sets the direction for events to follow.

Verbalizing the decision to divorce marks the beginning of the physical stage and legal process of separation. As the decision becomes more real, emotions intensify. Coping behavior and degree of crisis experienced vary depending on the degree of fear and preparation. Naturally, it's optimal if the family has been talking openly and can problem-solve the anticipated changes and solutions without anger. If so, they probably were already in therapy or they will manage without it.

More often, there is high dysfunction and open communication never existed or has previously broken down. Where there is no talking, the fear and anger are intensified and reactivity escalates.

If the decision wasn’t gradually and mutually agreed upon, the spouse left will be less prepared, and experience greater anger and depression; the one leaving feels guilty. Both still have ambivalent, though often unconscious, feelings of love and hate which intensify their reactivity. At this point, confusion sets in. Old roles and rules and parenting begin to deteriorate as the consequences of a physical separation and all that it entails become more real. 

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