The Third Stage Of Divorce: Emotional Separation
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By Darlene Lancer, LMFT, Guest Author - December 28, 2016

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Emotional separation is the third stage of divorce. It's also referred to as "emotional unbonding." Couples don't complete stages in a linear, orderly fashion.

What Is Emotional Separation?

The emotional separation is the difficult period where couples get an opportunity to learn lessons they need not repeat. This process may commence prior to the cognitive separation, and may not necessarily lead to divorce. If these changes are worked through as a couple, it can lead to a healthier, more satisfying relationship. It is when the marriage is not flexible enough to absorb the changes, or when either or both partners discover that their needs will not be met by the other, that the unbonding process continues towards further separation.

The task of emotional separation involves unbonding the romantic and dependent aspects of the relationship, and mourning those losses. This is the stage where the process of growth and transformation unfolds. It includes the disengagement of the couple’s games, role definitions, and family expectations. Individuals really understanding why they selected their partner, why they stay, and the repetitive “dance” that doesn’t work. 

Growth comes from taking responsibility for participation in the marital problems, rather than blaming their mate or themselves, and, finally changing that “dance.” It may mean seeing their partner clearly for the very first time and risking new behavior that may be frightening. It's also challenging because they'll meet resistance from their mate. They're changing the dance steps and refusing to do the old routine.

Unbonding is highly individualistic. Emotional or physical distance doesn't necessarily mean the couple has emotionally separated.

Signs of Emotional Separation Are:


  • A passive spouse getting angry or a volatile spouse good-humoredly walking away from an argument; 
  • Spouses asking for what they really want and need from the other; 
  • Doing something important for themselves even though their partner is against it; r
  • Refusing to any longer tolerate unacceptable behavior they’ve complained about forever; taking a solo vacation; refusing to do something they felt obligated to do, but have always resented. In emotionally
  • Taking a solo vacation; 
  • Refusing to do something they felt obligated to do, but have always resented.

In emotionally unbonding, people transform, because they're choosing new responses and behaviors.

Obstacles to Emotional Separation

Persistent conflictual emotional and behavior patterns represent unresolved inner conflicts spouses carry from childhood that get played out between them. Changing the old patterns of responding is threatening because they were learned through interactions with their parents at an age when they believed they had no choice, such as the risk of standing up to an abusive parent. Unresolved pain and anger toward a parent can keep a spouse tied to a similar mate.

One woman kept marrying men who had affairs until she was willing to face her buried feelings towards her philandering father. Sometimes, parenting is the problem. One couple got along until they had children and the father began abusing them, repeating the childhood abuse he'd received. Working through past conflicts frees us from repeating them in another relationship.

If the unbonding process is not successfully traversed, a premature physical and/or legal separation is no growth at all. The couple’s emotional connections will undermine the attempts to separate. This stems from the uncompleted earlier task of separating from their parents. The divorce may be their first act of that separation. These couples are highly reactive and codependent. Many are still “married,” years after the formal divorce, if only to maintain contact through court battles, or alternatively, ritualistically celebrating holidays together (“for the children’s sake”).

Rather than undergo the pain of separation, some spouses fluctuate between attachment and separation, sometimes being compliant, then resistant. If they're codependent, they can't cooperate without feeling they're giving up a part of themselves. They may have ambivalent feelings and repeatedly try to reconcile over many years. Such couples are deeply emotionally and sexually bonded and maintain idealized images of one another.

One couple divorced many years, lived in separate houses on the same property, but continued legal hostilities that helped keep them apart. Some couples maintain the bond by depending upon an ex-spouse for physical or emotional support. One pair lived as neighbors, but could not separate too far, because she needed to rescue him from his depressions and he needed to drive her around.

Sometimes, these spouses complain that their mates are verbally abusive, but they nevertheless maintain contact by subtle encouragement or by not setting limits. One woman clung to the hope of reconciliation, despite the fact that her ex-husband repeatedly told her how happy he was with his new mate. Despite her anger, he confided in her regularly, drove her to appointments, and helped her with chores.

Some difficult or narcissistic spouses continue to argue to bolster their self-esteem, resisting compromise and escalating disputes. They're really fighting for validation because they feel disrespected or devalued. Rather than taking responsibility for their contribution to the marital breakup, which would threaten their self-esteem, they project all of the bad onto their spouse and see themselves as good and superior. Sometimes, both spouses feel victimized and see the other as all bad. They behave self-righteously and refuse to accommodate the needs and schedules of their spouse and children. Unfortunately, too often attorneys become pawns and act-out their clients’ rage.

With other spouses, it's the threat of loss that's overwhelming, due to prior losses. They may create disputes and obstacles to settlement in order to postpone the divorce, thereby avoiding their grief, feelings of helplessness, emptiness, and abandonment. Anger helps them to separate, yet on-going fighting is a way of staying in contact.

When a couple consciously works through the emotional divorce and unbonding, the drama subsides and marital structure gradually falls away, although they may still esteem one another, or love each other in the spiritual sense.

Spiritual Stage

Another state of divorce, the spiritual stage is distinguished by the lack of strong positive or negative emotions. Instead, it's marked by feelings of unconditional love and caring. Generally, by the third year, most spouses have formed new lasting relationships, and emotional functioning has returned to pre-divorce levels. The noncustodial parent has become more comfortable and assertive with the children or is more distant. The custodial parent shows more consistent discipline and affection. Children return to the normal process of growing up, unless the parents are still at war, which arrests their emotional development.

It's wise to contemplate the Chinese ideogram for crisis, which represents both danger and opportunity. Loosening our attachments to the things we hold most dear allows for more space and flow within us, the possibility of new experiences and the opportunity to meet as yet unknown and parts of ourselves.

See to read more on relationships and breakups and get free "14 Tips for Letting Go.

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