What Are the Stages of Divorce?

Your marriage has ended, and you’ve decided to part ways. But the divorce process isn’t a simple series of linear steps. It’s most often a heart-wrenching process filled with stops and starts, emotional turmoil, complicated decisions, and legal requirements.

While the circumstances are different for everyone, there’s usually a general progression of physical, emotional, and legal transitions that take place as part of the process. Each step will bring its own perspectives, from what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling, to the legalities you’ll have to confront. Knowing what to expect can make the process a bit easier to manage and, ultimately, get through so you can focus on a better future. 

Before divorce

Before the D-word is ever spoken, one or both of you knew it was over. You might consider this before-divorce period the first stage. Whether it was never a good fit or you grew apart, whether one of you succumbed to outside influences like infidelity or addiction or specific problems tore it apart from within, one spouse finally says “enough” and voices their desire for the end of the marriage.

Mental: What you may be thinking

What you’re thinking will differ depending on whether you initiated the divorce discussion or are are reeling from the initial shock of it. If you were the one to initiate it, you’ve had time to weigh the pros and cons. You may have already researched what is involved and are mentally prepared for what lies ahead. 

But if you’re on the receiving end of this discussion, you may be totally blindsided. Even when you knew there were problems, divorce wasn’t how you saw the resolution. And depending on what precipitated the divorce discussion, you may not even have had any idea that your spouse was considering it.

Emotional: How you may be feeling

If you’re the initiating spouse, you’ve had time to process some emotions around divorce. You may feel sad and guilty for being the one to approach the subject, but you’re also feeling a sense of relief if you’ve been unhappy for a long time. You may have just entered the grieving process that comes with the close of a relationship. Or, if ending your marriage has been on your mind for a while, you may have already moved past some of your initial emotions and are looking more toward the future.

Conversely, if you’re just now facing divorce as a reality, you’re processing many emotions. Fear. Anger. Betrayal. Sadness. These can all coexist for you as you consider the end of your marriage for the first time. You may be feeling stressed and anxious, worrying about how you will survive and where you will live, how you’ll care for your children, and what your family and friends will say. You may even try to suggest ways to save your marriage, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. 

Legal: Steps you may be taking

Like it or not, divorce is a legal transaction. Marriage is a contract and you’ll have to go through many legal steps to legally dissolve it. But these steps will vary depending on the circumstances that led you here, your level of commitment to work together, and the laws of the state where you live.

How cooperative can you be with your soon-to-be ex-spouse? If you can agree to the basic terms of your divorce, you can take advantage of a no-fault, uncontested, or even DIY divorce. Or you may be seeking a grounds-based or contested divorce involving separate attorneys and court decisions. The decisions you make now will determine the trajectory of the rest of your legal process. 

During divorce

Your divorce is now a reality, and you’re dealing with it – or not – in your own way. You’re probably living apart at this point, or one of you is living out of a different bedroom or area of the home. Your days and nights are consumed with thoughts of divorce and fear over what the future may hold, and you may be experiencing all sorts of emotions as a result.

Mental: What you may be thinking

You’re trying to find ways to cope. If you initiated the divorce, you could be second-guessing yourself or feeling some remorse. Is this really the right thing? If you were unprepared for the divorce, you may have gone into crisis management mode. There are so many things to discuss and practical decisions to make – how you’ll divide your property, who will live where, how you’ll structure the custody of your kids. And yet, anger, depression, resentment, and guilt keep getting in the way of rational conversation. 

Emotional: How you may be feeling:

You feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster. You’re not only grieving the loss of a marriage and the life you shared but your very identity. You feel relieved and liberated at one moment, and the next, you’re overwhelmed by sadness and regret. Every time you try to deal with the process with a clear head, you find yourself back in an emotional tailspin. While all of this is normal and healing will take time, when you’re in the middle of it, it feels endlessly overwhelming.

Legal: What you may be doing

If your priority is getting through this as fast and easy as possible, you’re trying to find ways to make your decisions about your property division, financial life, and children as fair, cooperative, and pain-free as possible. Granted, this might not be easy. There’s a reason you’re divorcing. But if you can put aside your differences, perhaps work with a collaborative divorce attorney or mediator, you might find that you’ll get a lot more accomplished through cooperation.

But if you can’t make the emotional leap into cooperation, you may find that your divorce has become a legal battle waged by attorneys and the court system. Your divorce may become contentious and hateful, and your legal fees and court costs astronomical. 

After divorce

After the divorce papers have all been signed, things might feel hollow for a while. Your life has changed drastically, and you’re renegotiating your place in the world. 

Mental: What you may be thinking

You still may be wondering what happened or even processing the reality of the situation. It will take time for that dust to settle. In the meantime, take baby steps in the right direction. After all, there are so many changes in your life to deal with. You may have moved or gone back to work. Your financial life feels more vulnerable, and you’re paying close attention to how the kids are handling everything. While you try to actively engage in some well-deserved self-care, in the small hours of the night, loneliness can creep in. 

Emotional: How you may be feeling

You’re still grieving, and this can take months, if not longer. But mourning the loss of your former spouse is essential for your healing process. As time passes, the emotional burdens will lighten, fragile feelings will give way to independence and strength, and you’ll begin to feel like a person in your own right again. 

While divorce is profoundly painful, it also presents an ideal time for growth and self-discovery. Moving into your newfound independence can ultimately be a liberating and life-affirming experience, but it will take time and patience. 

Legal: What you may be doing

Legally, your divorce is over, but in most cases, you’ll need to attend to things that can have lingering legal consequences, such as changing accounts into your name, transferring title to property, and notifying the Department of Motor Vehicles and Social Security Administration if you’ve changed to your pre-married name. You will also be putting into practice your custody and child support arrangements or spousal support arrangements so you can remain compliant with your divorce settlement agreement. 

Divorce is an emotional and highly personal journey, and no two people will navigate it in the same way. Take your time, focusing on what you need during this time and getting the right support to ensure you’re making the right decisions. This could mean getting legal advice, financial advice, or merely the support of those who know what you’re going through. At Hello Divorce, we’re here to help support you along the way. Schedule a free call to learn more. 

Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.