The Stages of Divorce

Going through a divorce is difficult, even if you are the one who initiated the proceedings. When you get married, you expect it to last. When the union ends in a divorce, it’s a loss for everyone involved. Even if there is a sense of relief, a divorce is painful. It can take as long as three years to work through the emotional loss and legal formalities.

No one experiences divorce in exactly the same way. Each case involves many variables. But there is a process that everyone goes through to some extent or another. Recognizing these different stages of divorce can make the process easier.

Emotional Stages of Divorce


When someone asks for a divorce, it may be the first time the other spouse realizes there is a problem. The immediate reaction is invariably blame, especially from the party who did not ask for the divorce. The initiating spouse can become more of a focus than he or she ever was during the marriage, as the person left behind obsesses about the other person and may mentally relive every argument and fault. The blame state will likely include the individual him or herself, as he or she wonders what went wrong and how things could have been handled better. The person initiating the divorce will also feel guilt at causing pain.


Once the first step toward a divorce has been taken, the initiator will likely move out of the marital home. The non-initiator can become emotionally paralyzed, refusing to accept what is happening and denying that there is a problem. The fear of the unknown can be overwhelming. It can be easy to neglect one’s health by not eating properly.

Depression and Anger

This is when reality sets in. It’s no longer possible to deny that things have gone wrong and major changes are in store. The future looks very scary and hopeless. As a couple, a part of your identity involved being a husband or wife. That identity is now lost. Most divorcing people go through a stage of anxiety and depression. The feeling can be so devastating, the person will become numb. A sense of rage can burst through the numbness on occasion. If there are children involved, the rage may be transmitted to them.

Emotions seem to be on an unstable roller coaster ride. Unable to deal with the future, an individual may become socially isolated and remove themselves from social contact one day, while the following day might find that same person in a bar, drinking to excess while searching for someone – anyone – who can provide some solace and validation. Logical questions, such as “How will I survive financially?” and “Will anyone ever love me again?” begin to emerge.

Loneliness can lead someone to obsess about the other person on social media, checking constantly what he or she is up to. If the spouse has connected with someone else, it can be a major blow. These unresolved emotions can lead a person to drive by the other person’s home or visit places the other person is known to frequent, perhaps in the hope of either reconnecting or “catching them” with someone new.


The anger stage can actually energize and lead to acceptance of the situation, although it may take months. A sense of calm ensues. It is now possible to plan for the future instead of fixating about what was and what could have been.

This is when the divorcing person emerges with a sense of hope. Their own needs become a major focus as they reconnect with old friends or make new ones.

With acceptance comes a general sense of relief that the worst is over and a better future looms ahead as self-esteem slowly returns to normal.

It can also be a tricky stage, when a person can foolishly enter a new relationship too quickly without having emotionally ended the old one. Tinder looks appealing, and a one-night stand can provide comfort. While loneliness is still an issue, it is best not to rush into the unknown too quickly. Consider this the best possible time to think, reflect, and set a game plan for the future.

Filing the Initial Divorce Papers

After all the emotional turmoil, your divorce doesn’t actually begin until the papers are filed. Even an agreeable divorce can open up financial and custody questions. You may wish to consult with an attorney, even if the divorce is no-fault without financial disputes.

Legal Stages of Divorce

Legally, you can obtain the necessary divorce papers online or from the clerk of the court. This is only advisable if there are no property or other disputes. If the divorce involves disagreement or complicated issues such as custody or division of pension plans, you may wish to consult with a lawyer.

Physical Separation and Support

You will likely be living apart by the time the divorce initiator files the first set of court papers, which consist of a Summons and Petition for Dissolution. This gets the court involved and is the official declaration of intent to divorce. In effect, it puts the divorce “in writing.” These papers will be served on the non-initiator.

If there are minor children, the initiator will also file plans for custody, visitations, and support of said children. There should also be a plan regarding who will pay bills, mortgages, etc., at least on a temporary basis. The court will ensure that the children are safe and provided for during the entire divorce process and beyond.

If you agree on how to handle these issues, the court will not make these decisions for you. However, you need to respond to the Summons within 30 days. For this reason, the more amicable the divorce and the more you can agree on, the less someone else, such as a judge, will interfere in your lives.


Discovery is the legal term for what happens after the initial filing. The court wants certain information before making any decisions or assigning the case to trial, and it’s up to the lawyers to “discover” that information and present it to the court. This information can be presented in written form called interrogatories or in sworn oral testimony, called a deposition. The court will, in effect, take a very close look at your personal situation. An oral deposition will increase the cost of getting a divorce because it involves hiring a court reporter.

One spouse’s attorney will ask the other spouse questions about disputed issues, such as finances. If one spouse owns a business interest, documents regarding said business (and income) may be requested. Either party can initiate interrogatories or depositions. It’s a fact-finding mission to get all of the facts on the table, and the parties are legally required to respond truthfully. This is a lengthy process and may take months, depending on the assets involved and the amount of disagreement regarding division of those assets.


Negotiations take place with the couple, attorneys, or a mediator. This is the time for give and take in an attempt to keep both parties happy. A spirit of compromise can go a long way.

Settlement – Pre-Trial Conference

Pretrial indicates that the divorce has not reached trial stage – and it might not, if the parties can work together. If you and your spouse can arrive at an agreement on the disputed issues, that’s it. It won’t go to trial.

The respective parties meet in the judge’s chambers and present their case (or, present their demands), and the judge makes his decision known after reviewing the facts. At this time, the divorcing couple can decide whether to accept the judge’s decision regarding asset distribution, custody, etc., or whether to argue for their case in a trial. A trial date will be set then and there. Some judges are willing to arrange for a second pretrial hearing to give the couple more negotiating time. Since the same judge usually presides at both the pretrial and trial, it is unlikely that he or she will change his or her mind about the ruling. Going to trial could simply be an additional expense.

In most states, if the couple comes to an agreement, the judge can arrange for the divorce during this hearing.


If you’ve settled all issues during the negotiating period, the attorneys will simply show up and inform the judge, who will sign the final divorce papers.

If one or both parties are too stubborn to settle, the case will go to trial. Be prepared to invest months or years on your case as the attorneys’ fees mount.

During the trial, the person who initiated the divorce presents his or her case first by presenting all information/evidence garnered during the discovery period. All this information is already known. Unlike in novels or TV series, there will be no “gotcha” surprises. Witnesses may be called. As in any trial, the respondent’s attorney can cross-examine those witnesses.

The respondent will rebut and make his or her own argument.

The judge will consider all the information presented. He or she may or may not make a ruling on the spot.


Certain issues, such as retirement accounts, may not be settled at trial. In some cases, parties who are still filled with anger may simply find new issues about which to argue. Other financial issues may arise, such as the cost of maintaining two households or selling the marital home.

If there are children and one party leaves state, custody arrangements may need to be changed.


A divorce, even an amicable one, will almost certainly be painful. In order to get through the process, it’s best to accept and admit the grief instead of living in denial. Divorce is a loss, and grieving is perfectly normal. Consider it a beginning with new possibilities rather than an end.

The actual legal process of getting divorced can be time-consuming and expensive. If you are still harboring anger and bitterness, you might be tempted to draw out the proceedings and go to trial in the hopes of making your spouse “pay.” All you will achieve by this is time wasted, costly attorneys’ bills, and more resentment. The more you and your spouse can work together, the less painful the procedure will be.

Acceptance may be the most important stage of a divorce. Simply accept that it’s over and do your best to move on. There is a life out there, waiting for you to rejoin it.

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