Original Author Advekit. Reviewed By Alison LaSov, LMFT
Divorce is never easy. No matter how loving and mutual, the dissolution of a long-term, committed relationship is likely to disrupt life and trigger profound emotions like sadness, stress, and grief. While the option of divorce can be a relief for some, it is often still a difficult situation.
One or both partners in the marriage may experience a range of emotions, including grief, anger, confusion, fear, shame, anxiety, etc., and they might be felt at opposing times, creating conflict. If children are involved, stress levels can be even greater as parents are not only grieving the marriage, but also the family unit, in addition to concern for the children.
Partners may choose divorce for many reasons, and usually it’s not just one issue that breaks up a marriage, but many small issues compounded over time. Some common catalysts cited for irreconcilable differences are:
Lack of commitment
One or both partners having affairs
Unfair division of labor
Physical or emotional abuse
Bottom line: marriage is no easy feat. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2017), a little less than 50% of marriages end in divorce, and one-third of all breakups occur within the first five years of marriage – the time when most couples start their families. The truth is, divorce, regardless of how amicable it is, is a highly stressful and life-changing event. The sheer volume of legal, emotional, and logistical issues that have to be addressed can be overwhelming.
Unfortunately, sometimes marriages do not succeed long-term and divorce counseling is the next best step. Even with the cleanest break, divorce is messy and, oftentimes, divorce counseling can lessen the stress. Seeking divorce therapy can help you or your partner decide whether to stay in a marriage, leave a marriage, or how to transition from married life to single life.
What are the emotional stages of divorce?
Divorce is a very real loss, much like death. Grieving a relationship, and life built with another person is intense. With any loss, grief moves through stages, and divorce follows a similar pattern. The goal of a divorce counselor is to help you traverse through the emotional stages of divorce and help you feel Lastly, divorce counselors help prepare both parties for an impending divorce, navigate the divorce process, and/or move on with life once divorce is finalized. Most people going through a divorce experience these emotional stages:
During the denial phase, a person will most likely refuse to accept their new reality, attempting to “carry on” with life as normal as a way of dealing with their shock and/or numbness.
Pain and Uncertainty
As the denial becomes unsustainable, a person might be hit with a wave of pain and sadness as they accept their reality and begin to mourn the loss of their marriage. This stage can hit especially hard if they are not the one who wanted or initiated the divorce, which can add on feelings of rejection.
Once the initial pain has passed, people tend to want to find someone to blame because it feels good to transfer negative emotions onto someone else, namely their exes and/or their new partners. While no one person is to blame for the end of a marriage, it’s normal to feel the need to find someone to blame for the loss. The truth is, “blaming” is a natural part of the divorce process. The anger only becomes a problem when you’re unable to control it – i.e. lashing out at children.
During the bargaining phase, a person will want to “correct” past mistakes in an attempt to get back what they once had. This stage typically involves regret, and a desire to change in order to have another chance with their ex.
When bargaining fails, a person will usually begin to feel guilt, blaming themselves for the divorce, as they recall the mistakes made.
Unfortunately, being depressed is a normal part of the grieving process for divorce. It can bring on symptoms like sluggishness, difficulty getting out of bed, and loss of appetite or overeating. It can also cause fatigue despite oversleeping. These depression symptoms are also natural during the divorce process. However, these symptoms can become problematic if they worsen and get stuck in this stage.
During this final stage of divorce, a person will learn to accept what has happened and come to terms with the fact that the marriage ended. Though they may still feel sad and mourn the loss, they are more at peace with the event, and more ready to move on with a new chapter.
How will I know if I need divorce counseling?
Most people can successfully navigate divorce on their own, despite painful emotions and uncertainty. However, for some, divorce is crippling. With any major life change, divorce can affect all aspects of life – from emotional well-being to physical health.
Seeking divorce counseling is an important step in self-care if or when the pain of the divorce becomes too much to handle on your own, especially if there are children involved. There is no harm in prioritizing your mental health by seeking divorce therapy or counseling. If you’re unsure if divorce counseling is right for you, there are some signs that can point you in the right direction. Though anyone moving through the divorce process should and could consider therapy, some might be operating at a higher level of need. Warning signs that may indicate the need for professional help range from mild-to-severe and, although everyone is unique, these are common signs you should consider when seeking divorce therapy:
Difficulty falling or staying asleep throughout the night
Sudden and dramatic weight loss or weight gain
Social withdrawal and isolation
Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
Uncontrollable anger and rage
Suicidal ideation (thoughts) and attempts
Anxiety that interferes with everyday activities
What is a divorce counselor?
Divorce counseling is a type of psychotherapy that helps couples to explore, recognize, and resolve conflicts in an effort to understand if either partner wants a divorce, or how to move forward after a decision to divorce has been made. Individual counseling is a type of talk therapy that provides a safe and private space for partners to talk through challenges and feelings with an unbiased third party present to help guide the conversation.
Along with earning a master's or doctoral degree in a field closely related to marriage or couples counseling, there are a set of training requirements needed to obtain licensure and/or certification as a divorce counselor. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), qualified candidates for licensure must have graduated from an accredited program and obtained at least two years of post-degree supervised clinical experience working in direct service to married couples. Once these requirements have been met, divorce counselors must then pass a state licensing examination or the national examination for marriage and family therapists conducted through the AAMFT Regulatory Boards.
Pre-Divorce vs. Post-Divorce counseling
A divorce counselor works with partners to help them effectively communicate and civilly behave, while working through emotional, physical, and financial legalities that often accompany a divorce. A counselor can also help a couple decide if they really want a divorce, or they can work through their issues. In other words, a divorce counselor can help you decide if your marriage can actually be saved. If children are involved, seeking out divorce therapy could help make sure they experience a civil and healthy divorce – one without blame, name-calling, or disrespect.
Pre-divorce counseling helps address any divorce-related parenting issues while offering tips on explaining an impending divorce to children in a way that causes them the least amount of trauma and emotional pain. Pre-divorce counseling can also help identify and address any conflicting and/or confusing divorce-related emotions. Lastly, this form of counseling can teach healthy coping strategies that can be applied during any challenging and stressful experiences, even outside the event of divorce.
Post-divorce counseling is there to guide a couple through the aftermath of divorce. Divorce counselors use a variety of techniques to improve self-esteem and self-confidence and accept reality in a post-divorce world. They help divorced individuals cope with any residual feelings towards their ex in a healthy and productive way. Post-divorce counselors can help divorced parents come up with a parenting plan to ensure each child gets what they need from each parent.
Meeting with a divorce counselor can provide a release of negative feelings, so they do not remain bottled up inside or manifest as unwanted behaviors. It is common for people, especially those who have been married for many years, to have a hard time defining themselves outside of the marriage, and divorce counselors help re-discover an individual’s identity.
Who benefits from divorce counseling?
There are many benefits of divorce counseling services that impact both individuals in the couple, children, friends and family. Learning how to resolve conflict in a healthy and effective way can have a ripple effect throughout a person’s life that will benefit everyone. The same can be said for learning to process and address unresolved issues. Divorce counseling is a safe environment to express any negative emotions or feelings and work towards personal growth.
And, if a couple engages in pre-divorce counseling, there is a chance that a divorce can be avoided all together.
Alison LaSov is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with experience treating clients struggling with anxiety and depression. She predominantly focuses on mental health intervention for children and adolescents, particularly those who are in crisis. She has worked within the Los Angeles education system treating students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), as well as supervised a non-profit Teen Crisis Hotline out of Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Alison earned her B.A. from UCLA and M.A. from Pepperdine University. She is a native to Los Angeles and co-founder at Advekit.