The Four Stages of Divorce

In my private practice, I work with many women who are in various stages of the divorce process. While I wholeheartedly acknowledge that divorce is not the appropriate choice for everyone, I hope to provide some insight about the process that I have witnessed for those that are taking this very personal journey.

I have found a common theme to the stages of the divorce process, and have labeled them pre-contemplation, contemplation, action and transformation.

Pre-contemplation

Oftentimes it is the pre-contemplation stage that brings women into my office, even if they do not consciously know that their marriage is in trouble. They may arrive in therapy unsure why they are experiencing unwanted symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, depression, over (or under) eating, or just simply a sense of unease or disappointment in their lives. We may discuss their marriages in our sessions, but it is usually just a set of complaints about their partner rather than fully acknowledging the extent of their own unhappiness.

Contemplation

The contemplation stage begins to unfold as many of my clients acknowledge how unhappy they truly are and have been for sometime. Perhaps their marriage has been lacking connection, intimacy and true communication for years (or even decades). Or perhaps they are seeing patterns of mistreatment, toxicity and abuse that they have not been able to acknowledge until they began the therapy process. This is often a very painful and difficult stage in therapy, as it tends to bring up feelings of deep grief and sadness. Clients begin to acknowledge patterns in their marriage that mirror early relationships with primary caregivers. For example, a woman with a critical, narcissistic, and emotionally absent spouse is reminded of how she was treated similarly by her mother. No matter how hard she tries to please her spouse and win their love, she will never succeed (much like with her mother). This is a painful yet pivotal time in the therapeutic process, and often when a client may want to end therapy. But if she persists, however painful it is, she will find the strength to acknowledge her unmet needs and desires, many of which have been kept hidden since childhood, and move towards healing and wholeness.

Action

It takes time to arrive at this stage. This is where patience and compassion are essential – the choice to end a marriage is complex and frightening, and the fear of the unknown often keeps women stuck. Along with patience and compassion, I find that trust is another essential component during this time. I never rush my clients through this stage; I believe doing so could cause unnecessary suffering and stress, especially because so many of my clients have children, homes, and financial obligations to consider. This process is an unfolding, and is also marked by a sense of considerable grief and loss. But the promise of a new life on the horizon gives these women the strength and trust that they are moving in the right direction, no matter how scary. And I find that once the choice has been made, most of my clients feel a deep sense of relief and renewed energy to move forward.

Transformation

For many of my clients, the choice to end an unhealthy and/or unhappy marriage is the first choice they have ever made that was completely their own. The freedom and sense of agency that making this difficult and painful choice gives them can be transformative. In the wake of a divorce and the grief and fear that accompanies it, a deep inner strength is revealed. I am in awe of my clients that choose to walk the path of their truth, for I know (from personal experience) that it is not one to be taken lightly. It is a sacred honor to join these clients as they travel to the depths of their pain and reemerge as more authentic and joyful versions of themselves. The work they do in therapy is not isolated to the therapy office – it reverberates through every aspect of their lives as they learn to break old, unhealthy cycles of relationships, honor their needs and desires, and live a life that is truly their own.