The Psychology of Divorce

Understanding the psychology of divorce is key to managing divorce.

Posted May 22, 2008

Divorce is both a legal process as well as a psychological process. The legal process is important but the psychological process and how it is played out by the couple largely determines the tone and the nature of the divorce. If the divorce begins badly it will end badly. And if it begins gentle there is a good chance that it will end amicable and constructive. The key is in understanding the emotional positions of the parties at the beginning, when one of the partners first states that he /she wants a divorce.

The most important psychodynamic of the divorce is the issue of mutuality and how it develops. In very few divorces do the two partners mutually decide on a divorce at the same time. Invariably, after some long period of reflection and consideration, one of the partners will decide that she can't take the discomfort of the marriage anymore and is determined to end the marriage. Such decisions are not made lightly or impulsively. I have found that it is not unusual that the "initiator" has been ruminating about divorce for years. He or she has had an opportunity to mourn the loss of the dream associated with the marriage, has had time to think through what an alternative life would be like and has begun to prepare emotionally and in other ways for the end of the marriage. She may have made new friends who are not linked to her mate, may have started to achieve new credentials to be able to better earn money and in general started to live a new life.

The other partner, who we call the "non-initiator" may be anywhere on a continuum from resigned acceptance to utter shock and surprise. To the extent that the two partners are nearly equal the divorce can begin more easily. He announces he wants a divorce citing many years of unresolved unhappiness and numerous unsuccessful attempts at counseling. And although she might have been inclined to try a little longer she agrees that he is probably right and that they out to get divorced. In this situation the decision is nearly mutual and both are almost ready to begin negotiating the divorce. Contrast this situation with one in which he makes the same announcement but she reacts with surprise and terror. She is committed to the covenant they made in their wedding vows and believes that marriage is forever no matter what. She is aghast at the damage a divorce would do to the children and she is filled with fear for her loss of place in the community and the changes that would be necessary. She is outraged that he could even consider divorce and declares her complete opposition. This couple is in trouble.

Divorce is about change. There is often change in housing. There are economic changes, none of which are comfortable. There is change in social status and in the way the children's lives are managed. And for most of us change is not welcome, often involves loss and often is scary. For the initiator there is a tradeoff. There will be uncomfortable changes and inevitable losses. But because life will improve-stress will be reduced, there will be an opportunity to find a more suitable mate, dating may be an exciting prospect--- the losses are experienced as offset by the gains. For the non-initiator it depends where that person is on the continuum. If the decision to divorce is mutual or nearly mutual the non-initiator probably has also thought of the potential improvement in life, or if he hasn't yet will quickly be able to do so. But for the non-initiator who is surprised or who doesn't want the divorce there has been no opportunity to grieve the marriage, to make plans, to develop alternate scenarios or to prepare to be single there is nothing but loss and fear. And until the non-initiator has time to think things through and to come to emotional terms with the divorce he or she will not be ready to engage in reasonable discussions about how the partners should go about separating their lives.

If good divorce is possible only when both are ready to negotiate the burden of timing falls on the initiator. If you are the one who wants out you have to give your partner time to adjust, time to mourn and time to explore his/her own possibilities. Push too fast and your spouse retreats to the perceived safety of a lawyer who she thinks will "protect" her interests. Then you will have a long divorce. Although it is counter-intuitive the initiator of the divorce has a huge investment in the spouse feeling safe. So how the opening scenes are played is critical. When telling the spouse that you want a divorce you must use neutral language. "Our marriage hasn't worked and I don't think it will in the future so I want a divorce." is neutral language. "I'm sick and tired of your bitching and selfishness and I can't wait to get away from you." Is provocative and will only assure defensiveness, denial and retaliation. So if you are the one to end the marriage planning how you will discuss it with your spouse and planning how you will manage while she/he comes to terms will largely determine whether your divorce is successful or simply a nightmare.

If you want to understand more I have fully described this process in an article called "Litigation, Mediation and the Psychology of Divorce" in The Journal of Psychiatry and Law. You can find the article on my website www.sammargulies.com