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The Process of Divorce

No divorce is the same. Each family has a different story of their divorce. In fact, each spouse will likely have their own take on the events leading to and following a divorce. Divorce is devastating and it can be difficult to stop the anger, resentment, frustration, and sadness from spilling over into other areas in each spouse’s life. While divorce rates seem to be dropping in Pennsylvania, there was still almost 34,000 cases of divorce in Pennsylvania in 2016 and almost 5,000 of those were in Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Bucks County according to this report. So, divorce in Philadelphia is still a big issue.

The process of divorce usually refers to the time period before, during, and after the divorce. Each period brings a different set of challenges and emotions. Dr. Sheila Kessler (1975) outlines a seven-stage model for an emotional divorce.  Emotional divorce refers to the process of a relationship ending and the participants regaining emotional independence.

The seven stages are:

  1. Disillusionment
  2. Erosion
  3. Detachment
  4. Physical Separation
  5. Mourning
  6. Second Adolescence
  7. Hard Work


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Individuals in the pre-divorce stage usually find themselves in the “disillusionment” or “erosion” stages of divorce. During this stage, the partner who does not desire a divorce, or the partner considering divorce as an option may seek individual counseling. This is the best time for couples to seek marriage counseling.  One of the early goals of marriage counseling is for both parties to air their disappointments and bring marital conflict and emotions out into the open.

The therapist will use this time to evaluate and assess the couple and each individual member of the relationship.  This assessment could include family and medical histories, strengths and weaknesses, relationship quality, desire and willingness to change, and emotional interactional patterns. Therapists (and the members of a couple) make a mistake when they place the responsibility for the marriage in the counselor’s hands. The decision to divorce belongs to the couple, but the therapist can assist in guiding difficult discussions, exploring the consequences of divorce and reconciliation and helping the couple process their relationships and own their own decision-making.

In some circumstances, one partner has already decided to divorce and the other partner has little to no say in the decision. Here, the counselor will shift roles toward (1) helping the leaning-in partner manage their difficult feelings, stay grounded, and plot a course forward and (2) helping the leaning-out partner make divorce constructive and validate the other partner’s emotions.

When a marriage is in jeopardy, both parties may feel extreme ambivalence and a sense of loss simultaneously. Symptoms mirroring an anxiety disorder could appear, and feelings of dread, confusion, sadness, low self-esteem, and failure are common. Individual counseling can help at this stage and others in the process of divorce.


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Although the detachment stage is technically still “pre-divorce,” this stage is included here because for many it is too late to salvage the marriage. During detachment, one or both members of the couple begin to detach from the emotional commitment to their partner. During this stage, a spouse or both spouses may: (1) seek legal advice, (2) become overly focused on a child, channel their energy into work or another cause, or (3) begin an emotional or physical extramarital affair.

Physical separation is often the most traumatic and noticeable step towards divorce. While reconciliation always remains a possibility, it occurs less in cases where the couple has physically separated. Couples counseling during separation is often focused on ambivalence over the divorce process, co-parenting, communicating divorce to children, and managing each spouse’s difficult emotions. A counselor can help each spouse understand the impact of the divorce on their children. This includes helping the couple provide the children access to both parents, helping the children feel that both parents still love them and not forcing the children to choose between them.

At times, a skilled family therapist will invite the children (depending on age) in for a session to help them openly air their feelings and wishes regarding the future shape of the family. Family sessions with grandparents may also be necessary if either spouse is having difficulty holding boundaries with their relatives. Finally, the children may need individual counseling to help them articulate their difficult emotions around the divorce. Because divorce is such a difficult time for the couple, it is very common for divorcing parents to be challenged to gather the energy needed to be fully available and emotionally present for their children.

If couples decide to collaborate and cooperate during these stages of divorce, they often turn to divorce mediation. Mediation allows couples to have a level of control over custody and property distribution. If they decide to involve the courts, they give away that control. Divorcing on your terms can leave you feeling empowered and can increase personal feelings of self-respect.


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The stages of mourning, second adolescence and the hard work of integration all lend themselves extremely well to individual therapy and coaching. These stages can make up the majority of the divorce process and having an outlet and guidance through each stage can help you move toward a more integrated identity. During this time, you will face feelings of loneliness, wonder, failure, excitement, fear, and sadness. A counselor can help reframe feelings about new identities, new families, and your new life.

Often, individuals use intellectualization as a defense against difficult emotions. This is very common after a divorce and a good therapist will try to help you bring those painful emotions out into the open. A counselor should also be encouraging and challenge the guilt that can accompany exploration and experimentation after a divorce. For those who are still angry, resentful or depressed after a divorce, an individual therapist can help you move through these difficult emotions and reframe divorce as an opportunity for personal growth.

Counseling Towards Healing

Divorce is painful no matter the length of the marriage. It is almost impossible to divorce and not feel guilt, failure or regret. While the couple may feel these pains deeply, the end of a relationship also deeply affects children, parents and, friends too. Despite the difficulty of divorce, there is a path forward and many find counseling to help considerably with speeding up the process of healing and redefining yourself after divorce.

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