The Second Stage of Divorce: Moving Out, What to Expect
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By Darlene Lancer, LMFT, Guest Author - December 02, 2016

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Who will move out may be the first legal dispute. Often, neither spouse wants to leave, especially if they're in denial about the actual consequences of their initial decision to divorce. This indicates that they haven't emotionally separated and are unprepared to begin an independent life.


Divorce may be the most traumatic crisis in a person’s life. It's a process over several stages, beginning with the Cognitive Stage (see "The First Stage of Divorce: Making the Decision"). Deciding to divorce inevitably raises the question of who will live where, and when and how that will happen. That decision heightens fear and conflict as the divorce process proceeds. This article focuses on the second stage: physical separation.

There are couples who separate but have not decided to divorce, but usually a physical separation precedes and is a necessary precursor to traversing the third stage of divorce: the emotional separation. When separated couples haven't unbonded emotionally, they're highly reactive to one another and frequently spend time together or even reunite until the emotional divorce is complete. Some partners leave defensively in "cold turkey" fashion to a strong need for emotional connection.

Legal Intervention

Who will move out may be the first legal dispute. Often, neither spouse wants to leave, especially if they're in denial about the actual consequences of their initial decision to divorce. This indicates that they haven't emotionally separated and are unprepared to begin an independent life. When one spouse is surprised by his or her partner's decision or clings to the marriage, he or she may be in denial or feel angry or victimized and resist any change in lifestyle. That spouse might demand: “Why should I have to move out (or lose my home); it was he who found someone else?” or “Just because now she wants her independence (or is going through a mid-life crisis), why should I give up the home I worked so hard for?” They're unaware of their active or passive contribution to the demise of their marriage.

When a court hearing is scheduled to decide who leaves before the couple is ready to separate, the adversarial  nature of the legal system can divide spouses into two camps. This is when the divorce becomes public to family and friends whose reactions may be supportive or may further polarize the couple. Where children are involved, the ultimate custody arrangement should be considered in deciding who should vacate the family residence, because the short-term arrangement will impact the final decision. More importantly, change is disruptive and stressful for children, so unnecessary moves back and forth should be avoided. Additionally, there are financial ramifications regarding mortgage financing and whether the residence will be sold. Consequently, unless a spouse or children are in physical danger, it's preferable to continue the court hearing and prolong legal intervention until their new reality has been integrated and emotional reactions are more manageable. This allows sufficient time to adjust to the idea of the physical separation, as well as to sort out these other issues.

After Separation

Upon separation, feelings generally are still ambivalent; many couples attempt to reconcile from one to three times, and 16 percent continue to have sex. More than two-thirds would call their spouse first in a crisis. This creates a constant state of disequilibrium. With one parent coming and going, the family cannot reorganize to establish new roles and boundaries in regard to money, living space, household responsibilities, dating, and parenting. Once the family does so, the new family unit usually resists reentry of the noncustodial parent.

Initially, some spouses may experience separation as a relief from the prior family tension. Parents often reverse roles. One who was over-functioning becomes irresponsible; the under-functioning spouse tries to be the perfect mom or dad. After a few months, the legal and economic realities of legal fees, maintaining two households, dividing property, and determining child custody and visitation arrangements increase the stress and emotional reactivity. In the first six months of separation, women are more prone to symptoms of depression, such as poor health, such as sleep and appetite disturbances, prolonged crying, apathy, loneliness, work inefficiency, memory difficulties, or increased substance abuse. Studies show that men feel empty, guilty, anxious, depressed, deep loss and strong dependency needs of which they were theretofore unaware. Although initially, the person left feels worse, over time the impact is the same on both spouses.

During the first year both parents continue to feel anxious, angry, depressed, rejected, and incompetent. Women feel more helpless, vulnerable and a, while men tend to work harder, sleep less, and function ineffectively. These feelings are more intense in older spouses and longer marriages. Both spouses have almost twice as many car accidents and three times as many traffic citations as before the separation. Domestic disorganization continues sometimes after the first year or longer until boundaries and new rules are established, redefining a new, non-intimate, co-parent relationship between the parents and independent parental relationships with the children. The custodial parent may take on dual parenting roles, and the children, particularly boys, challenge the new regime, especially single mothers. Children may fill adult responsibilities. The noncustodial parent must adjust to the lost time with the children, as well as loss of control. In more dysfunctional families, the system may close out one parent entirely. This appears to be a solution to constant conflict, but it actually causes greater stress and depression and may have a severe impact on the children’s development.

Although stress reaches a peak at 18 months, particularly for women, who may still experience daily mood swings, by the end of the second year, the legal and economic issues are usually settled. Adjustment will be greatest where the family has been able to establish a bi-nuclear, co-parenting arrangement and have completed the third stage of emotional separation. Success depends on the parent’s emotional reactivity to each other and ability to maintain a child-centered relationship. By now both spouses begin to seek sexual relationships, which is particularly difficult for the single parent of young children. When a parent remarries, it's helpful to the children if the stepparent is integrated into the parental system with the ex-spouse.

Get Support

Confusion, mood swings, and strong emotions, such as fear, guilt, shame, abandonment, lust, rage, jealousy, resentment and grief are “normal” during this period. Such feelings naturally obstruct the thinking process and make it difficult for a spouse to make wise decisions. Individual psychological counseling can provide support, facilitate decision-making, and accelerate a successful adjustment to the future. Professional help is particularly indicated if there has been domestic violence, substance abuse or children are at risk, or where a spouse shows signs of major depression.

Marital counseling can salvage the relationship or help the couple achieve clarity in their decision to end the marriage. It can help them emotionally separate in a manner that facilitates the legal process, stabilize their relationship, and maximize post-divorce adjustment. In fact, whenever possible, it is advantageous to utilize other professional resources. If a spouse is confused or indecisive regarding his or her anticipated financial needs, a consultation with a financial planner or accountant is a must. There are numerous free support groups, such as Divorce Anonymous, Codependents Anonymous, Parents Without Partners, Parents Anonymous (for child abuse).

Separation becomes easier and more stable when partners have completed the emotional stage of divorce.

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