What are adult issues with separation and divorce?

Quick Answer
Marriage is one of the most significant of all adult life structures, and so the experience of separation and divorce is a major change in the psychological life and subsequent development of the adults involved.
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Separation and divorce occur when a husband and wife decide to cease living together. In some cases, separation is temporary, allowing a couple to resolve their problems and resume living together. A divorce is a permanent loss and the end of a marriage.

In the United States, divorce is very common, with approximately one divorce for every two marriages in an average year. This is among the highest divorce rates in the world (although rates of marriage and remarriage in the United States are also among the highest). This rate, however, varied considerably over the twentieth century. Factors contributing to these trends include the decreasing significance of religious and social stigma surrounding divorce, the increasing perception that marriage should be based on love and serve personal growth and self-fulfillment, and the attainment by women of economic self-sufficiency.

Demographically, divorce is more common in couples who married young, who experienced a premarital pregnancy, and who are financially downwardly mobile. Divorce is also more prevalent in couples who come from divorced families or have not resolved attachments or conflicts with their families of origin. Divorce is more frequent in subsequent marriages than in first marriages.

Divorce as a Legal and Economic Reality

Divorce, like marriage, is a legal arrangement with significant economic consequences. The major legal issues include division of property, alimony, child support, custody, and visitation. Although these issues are settled by the divorcing couple through negotiation or litigation, the courts of each state now have guidelines that specify certain parameters as generally appropriate. How these are handled will have a large impact on the psychological experience of divorce. The legal process establishes and promotes an adversarial relationship for the couple. Although this arrangement is to be expected of a jurisprudence system built on an adversarial pursuit of justice, an essentially combative relationship is profoundly antithetical to the goal of a psychologically healthy divorce. Rather than working together toward a mutually satisfying result, divorcing couples are trained to compete in a distinctly win-lose arena, often with disastrous consequences for both. As an appreciation of the psychological costs of these consequences has grown, mediation has emerged as an increasingly popular alternative way of resolving the legal issues.

The Psychological Phases of Divorce

When a couple divorces, a great loss is experienced by all family members. This experience is not a momentary event. Its impact continues to unfold over time, as its meaning undergoes various transformations until it is gradually assimilated. There are predictable stages involved in letting go of a marriage and moving on in life. These stages appear in the experience of both members of the couple, regardless of who wanted the separation or divorce. The spouse who decides to live apart usually begins grieving the relationship while the couple is still living together. Although both spouses go through a mourning process, they often go through stages at different times and rates.

Much of the literature in the psychology of divorce has been devoted to mapping these phases. Some recognize that the steps of divorce actually begin in the period before separation. As Constance Ahrons demonstrated in The Good Divorce (1994), divorce is not entered into easily or quickly. Typically, the preseparation phase involves a protracted period of confused tension, and it is during this painfully drawn-out ending that the most serious psychological harm is inflicted on any children. Divorced couples frequently realize, in hindsight, that the marriage should have ended sooner. Sadly, it is this period of painful conflict that often provides the needed momentum for the separation to be enacted as welcome relief.

Craig and Sandra Everett in Healthy Divorce (1994) identify three preseparation stages. First, clouds of doubt gather, as one becomes increasingly disillusioned with one’s partner and ambivalent about continuing in the marriage. One may become confused, with questions about what was initially attractive about one’s partner. One becomes increasingly angry and critical and acts out that unhappiness. These early warning signs could lead the couple to make changes to save their marriage, especially with the help of marriage therapy, but the full significance of these signs is usually unrecognized and therapy entered into only later, when it is too late. The second preseparation stage is “the cold shoulder.” Warmth and affection are withdrawn, and there is less talk, disclosure, or support as one becomes emotionally unavailable to one’s partner. This pulling away is also evident in a declining interest or responsiveness in sexual relations and even in physical withdrawal, as more separate and independent activity is undertaken, excluding the partner. In stage three, fantasies of a life beyond the marriage emerge. Usually they are idealized sexual or romantic liaisons or adventurous escapes. Sometimes a spouse may act out these fantasies through extramarital affairs.

Once the actual physical separation takes place, the couple undergoes a grieving process, an experience of letting go of their marriage. As a form of grief work, this process is analogous to the phases people experience when mourning the death of a loved one, or when coming to terms with one’s own impending death (a process first identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969). Not everyone goes through all the stages, and sometimes people’s grieving varies from the usual sequence. Some people get stuck in certain stages of the mourning process and need psychotherapy to help them move on.

Stages of Grieving

In the first phase, denial, people may completely deny the marital problem, or, in a more sophisticated form, they may minimize the import of the problem by a sort of magical thinking, an “if only” fantasy (“It could all be resolved if only . . . ”). Such a fantasy can be held only in the mind (safe from any testing against reality), or it may lead to desperate, even self-destructive efforts to resurrect a dead relationship. In the extreme, this course can become a pathological morbid dependency on the partner. Unable to move on, such people may remain fixated on their former spouse for many years afterward. Even after it becomes evident that the partner has actually left, people can still use wishful thinking to minimize the real impact of this rupture. For example, they may think that the partner will come back once he or she realizes that no one else will be as suitable. The children of divorcing parents are prone to such fantasies of reconciliation as well. They will be very vulnerable to construing parents’ words or actions as hopeful indicators of this possibility.

In the second phase, anger, people tend to blame the breakup on the other partner. Thoughts such as, “If he (or she) were not like this, we could still be married,” are very common. Here, unlike the experience of grieving a death, there is an overwhelming sense of personal rejection by one who was loved dearly. It is this profound hurt that underlies the intense feelings of anger. In such a view, the marital breakdown is seen as completely the fault of the other, and people cannot see their own role in the unsatisfactory state of the marriage. In this phase, people are likely to become outspokenly critical of their partner to friends and children. Richard A. Gardner has described this “campaign of denigration” and the sad consequences that accrue when one parent successfully induces in the children a directive to carry this anger toward the other parent. Gardner identifies the subsequent withdrawing of affection by the child as the parental alienation syndrome: a loss, sometimes for years, of a close bond with that parent. In another extreme form, such anger can become pathologically overgeneralized. It is directed then to all men or women. Such a negative stereotype will preclude or sabotage any subsequent effort toward an intimate relationship with a person of that gender.

In the third phase, bargaining, the reality of the ending is still avoided, now by maneuvers designed to ward it off. Typically, they involve implicit or explicit offers to act differently to better suit the partner. The “bargain” involves a fantasy that change would eliminate the problem and stop the divorce. Like denial, these typically are formulated as “if only . . . .” In the extreme form, people make bargains with themselves, to enact changes designed to alter the situation. While all these bargaining ploys are unrealistic, their function is something deeper than warding off the divorce, for which they are ineffective. They serve to ward off the subjective experience of the reality and finality of the divorce by remaining focused on how to “fix” it.

In the fourth phase, depression, the reality of the divorce breaks through people’s previous efforts to minimize or avoid its emotional impact. People feel the depressive weight of the loss without the cushioning provided by denial, anger, and bargaining. This initial despair is founded on a deep sense of shame for having a failed marriage and so is accompanied by feelings of guilt and low self-esteem. Then the demands of life and fears about the future can become overwhelming. People feel inadequate to handle the roles previously taken care of by their spouse (such as finances or social arrangements). Self-defeating thoughts further undermine functioning. People may cry frequently and experience a variety of somatic problems, including changes in appetite (either eating very little or overeating); changes in sleep (either insomnia or excessive sleeping); a marked decrease in level of energy; a tendency to become isolated from social contact; an increased use of addictive substances (such as alcohol, nicotine, television, computers); and a loss of pleasure in things that used to bring joy. These symptoms are manifestations of the crushing sadness that the reality of the divorce now brings as people begin to experience the true impact of the loss.

Beyond the sense of sheer loss, there is a final phase of this process. In the fifth phase, acceptance, resolution occurs. People accept that the marriage has ended and will not be revived and that they can survive and even thrive. People reorient to a single life, incorporating this reality into a new sense of identity and functioning. When this occurs, there is a renewed interest in life; regular patterns of sleeping, eating, and activity resume; and coping mechanisms (such as excessive drinking or television viewing) abate. As anger and guilt are released, people become able to speak about and relate to their former spouses without bitterness. They do not forget the painful experience of the divorce or the preceding unhappiness in the marriage. Rather, the marital failure is seen as an opportunity for personal growth, an occasion to learn lessons and to gain insights to integrate into subsequent relationships.

As negative overgeneralizations about the other gender and about the possibility of intimate relationships are released, people become available to form new interpersonal connections. Typically, divorced individuals do remarry, often to others who are themselves divorced. The resulting unions can involve a bewildering array of step-relationships with children of new partners. Their success will depend on whether the new couple has been able to work through the issues from their divorces.


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Clarke-Stewart, Alison, and Cornelia Brentano. Divorce: Causes and Consequences. New York: Yale UP, 2008. Print.

Demo, David H., and Cheryl Buehler. "Theoretical Approaches to Studying Divorce." Handbook of Family Theories: A Content-Based Approach. Ed. Mark A. Fine and Frank D. Fincham. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Everett, Craig, and Sandra Everett. Healthy Divorce. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998. Print.

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