Getting Divorced in Stages

Getting Divorced in Stages

From a legal standpoint, a divorce proceeding begins when either the husband or the wife files a court document commonly called a petition. Psychologically, though, the divorce process begins much earlier. No one wakes up and says, "I think I'm going to file for divorce today," unless he or she has been agonizing over the decision for months or even years. Filing the petition is merely the outward expression of a long series of inward struggles. Although the legal case may just be beginning, in the mind of the petitioner the marriage is already over.

I've always felt that there are emotional stages of divorce similar to the emotional stages of serious illness that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described in her book, "On Death and Dying." The person filing for divorce typically goes through a denial stage ("I can't believe my marriage is so unsatisfying"), an anger stage ("I hate the way he treats me"), a depression stage ("What good would divorce do? My life would be even worse afterward"), and an acceptance stage ("This is what I have to do").

There's a similar sequence of stages experienced by the other spouse, although the thought processes are different ("I can't believe she's doing this"; "I'm angry at her for what she's doing to me"). Unfortunately, the person who didn't want the divorce may get stuck in the anger or depression stages and never reach the acceptance stage, which explains a lot of the bitterness that can linger long after the divorce is final.

It also helps explain why divorces drag on longer than necessary. Rarely are the two spouses in the same stage at the same time. The wife, for example, may have worked her way through to the acceptance stage, while her husband is still in the denial stage. In a case like that, the husband will be doing everything he can to slow down the divorce and frustrate his wife's plans. But the husband's resistance will only serve to confirm the wife's acceptance of the need for a divorce ("He's proving what a jerk he is. I should have done this years ago").

As I see it, the only way to ensure that both spouses work though the stages more-or-less in sync, is for the person contemplating divorce to express her dissatisfactions in no uncertain terms prior to filing for divorce. She should make it clear that the marriage is in danger of falling apart, and she should insist that they go together---soon---to marriage counseling. These measures may be enough to get the marriage back on track, but if not, at least the other spouse won't be in shock and denial when he's served with the divorce petition.

By the way, I've purposely used the example of the wife filing for divorce because in the big majority of cases that's what actually happens. Nationwide, wives file about seventy-five percent of divorce petitions. Wives are far more likely than husbands to take decisive action when they feel that all else has failed.

So, if you're a married man and you're reading this, take your wife's complaints seriously. I'm not necessarily saying she's right and you're wrong, but if you consistently ignore or belittle her complaints you may soon be learning the hard way about the stages of divorce.

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Jim Duzak More Articles By This Author

Author Jim DuzakJim Duzak is a graduate of Boston College Law School, and practiced divorce law in Boston for over twenty years. After moving to Arizona, he became a full-time mediator for the family and divorce court in Phoenix. His experience in working with divorcing couples, plus his own life experiences---he was a 20 year-old husband and father, and a single father for several years after his divorce---prompted Jim to write a book ("Mid-Life Divorce and the Rebirth of Commitment") that helps people avoid divorce by teaching better ways to communicate and resolve disputes. Jim is currently an advice columnist, relationship writer, and personal coach. He also puts on workshops dealing with marriage, divorce, post-divorce dating, and other aspects of men-women relationships. Jim writes for,,, and See Jim's website at