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How to Manage the Big Emotions of Divorce and Stay Calm

The emotions surge well before the legal process and last long after it's over.

Photo by Timur Weber from Pexels
The range of emotions is normal, from quiet grief to guilt and more.
Source: Photo by Timur Weber from Pexels

We know that divorce is 95% emotional and only 5% legal. Earlier in 2022, I wrote about that 5%. But it’s the 95% that starts well before the legal process and lasts long after the divorce is over. What is that 95%? (Hint: not all are negative emotions.)


The shock of your clarity about getting a divorce and informing your spouse: Gina (not her real name) struggles with her decision for months. Years of couples counseling have not improved the marriage. One day “I woke up and just knew I had to divorce.” It was a moment of clarity.

The shock of your spouse’s announcement: Tim knew there were problems in his marriage but it never occurred to him that his wife would leave him. “I was in it for the long haul,” he says. “I figured we’d work these things out eventually. But then she just announces that she wants to separate!”

The shock of your life being turned upside down in unexpected ways (reactions of friends, family, and your children): “I was so close to my mother-in-law,” says Mel. “Now she’s blocked me everywhere and won’t take my calls.”

What you can do

Stop, pause, breathe. Take things one moment at a time. Remind yourself to slow down and never make any big decisions in a crisis. Focus on getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, taking walks in the fresh air, and seeking emotional support from friends or family.


While divorce is very common in our culture, there is still an old stigma attached to it. Remind yourself that you are not a failure just because your marriage ended.

You may feel guilty because you feel you “failed.” Max says, “I did everything I could to make her happy. I was a good husband, I thought. But I couldn’t seem to do anything right. Nothing I did was enough. How did I fail?”

You didn’t see the problems or deal with them when you could have. “I thought things were fine. We were both busy with work and kids. I didn’t notice the distance between us, I guess, and my partner didn’t say anything. He just pulled away,” Abby says.

Perhaps you’ve done things you regret (having an affair, overspending money, refusing mental health treatment). Lee knows he drinks too much but insisted he needs it to unwind. “My wife has nagged me for years to go to AA, but it just annoyed me. I don’t like people telling me what to do. I should have listened because now she’s filed for divorce.”

Guilt about initiating the divorce and causing pain for your spouse/family/kids: Jesse tells me, “I made myself a rule to never, ever divorce because my parents’ divorce was so bad. Now I’m putting my kids through it too.”

What you can do

If your spouse struggles with addiction, or even if not, Al-Anon is a great resource to get support. Learn what you can control, what is outside of your control and let go of what is not in your control.

Learn to forgive yourself. If necessary, make a sincere apology to your spouse and make amends. Be honest with yourself and your spouse about where you feel you erred. Take full accountability.

During a divorce, guilt might get you to agree to things that you later regret. Take time to work through the guilt before you make settlement agreements. Guilt can turn to anger if you feel your spouse is taking advantage of it.


Grief and sadness are normal feelings when dealing with loss.

The death of the dream when you made your vows: “I’ve lost my best friend,” Louise weeps. “He was always there for me, like no one else. But now he says he isn’t in love with me anymore. He loves me but isn’t in love…”

Jason says the pain of “dismantling everything we built together” is more than he can bear. He loves the home that now must be sold. He can’t picture life as a single man.

Grief at the loss of your sense of family: Sharing parenting time is “the worst pain imaginable,” Mary says. “I won’t be tucking my children into bed every night. I think I will never stop crying.”

What you can do

Grief and sadness usually ease over time. If you find that you are still struggling with grief after months of support from friends and family, seek out a grief counselor. Prolonged grief can lead to depression.

You can find divorce support groups in your area and online. You are not alone.


Anger, like armor, shields you from feeling the vulnerable feelings that lie underneath the anger.

Anger at your spouse for rejecting, betraying, or abandoning you: Eva was enraged at her ex-husband because he started an affair during their marriage. Her righteousness also protected her from acknowledging her role in the demise of their relationship.

Anger at yourself: That can look like depression as you beat yourself up for real or imagined failings. Jake knew that he was in a dead-end job. His wife wanted to stop working after their third child. “But,” he says, “I was comfortable. I could have looked for something that paid more or gone back to school, but maybe I’m just lazy.”

Anger at others: You may blame others (extended family, affair partner, a therapist) for the end of the marriage. Bill and Josie were in couples counseling for a few months before Josie decided to end the marriage. “All because the therapist said we have a toxic marriage,” Bill tells me. “Josie took that to mean that I am toxic, so now she’s dumping me.” Eva doesn't blame her husband for his affair; she blames the other woman. "She was a home-wrecker," she tells me.

What you can do

Anger ultimately hurts you more than the person you’re mad at. There is an Amish saying, “Bitterness corrodes the container it’s in.” For your mental and physical health, focus on learning and practicing some calming strategies, such as breathwork, yoga, and meditation. Counseling can give you a place to safely express your anger and learn new skills to manage it. Then focus on forgiveness work, not for the person who hurt you, but to release the burdens of pain and anger that you still carry.

Fear and Anxiety

Our brains are wired to scan the environment for danger, and an impending divorce often feels like stepping into an abyss.

Fear of the future: Tom asks me, “Will I ever find love again? Will my kids be ok? Will I have to work harder to pay alimony?” Amy says, “I feel like I’ve been set adrift. A tsunami of fears hits me in the middle of the night.”

Financial fears. Lindsay says, “I probably won’t ever be able to retire now…” “Do I have to go back to work now?” asks Janey. “I will probably end up a bag lady living in a basement apartment.”

Fear of being alone. Heidi says, “I don’t know how to live alone. I’m scared I won’t know what to do. Will I be ok?”

Fear of the divorce process itself. Mike says, “I think she’s going to try to take the kids away from me.” Larkin tells me, “I’m afraid she’ll drag this out in court, drain our bank account, and then move away with my kids.” Fiona says, “I don’t trust him not to lie in court. And I worry he’s hidden money in some secret accounts, maybe offshore.”

What you can do

Calming strategies are important. You can’t be anxious and relaxed at the same time. Learn muscle relaxation and breathing techniques to calm your body. Apps have guided meditations. Listen to your self-talk; remind yourself that you will be ok. Fears run in loops in our heads, so tell yourself “Just because I think it, doesn’t make it true!” Or even, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

Positive Emotions

A full heart can hold many emotions. Some positive emotions may also arise in a divorce. You may feel a stew of feelings, even conflicting feelings.


(You might also feel guilty for feeling relief). Francis is relieved that the fighting has stopped. He is still angry and sad but realizes that the arguing was stressful and taking a toll on his entire family.

With the end of the conflict, the daily stress is reduced.


Patty was shocked when her husband initated divorce, but celebrates that she has options and opportunities she didn’t have before. “I can make my own decisions now. I can reclaim a part of me that I gave up in the 32 years of my marriage. I’m going back to my artwork and joined a book club. I’m even trying online dating! It took a while to get to this point, but now I see the upside of divorce!”

The many complex emotions that arise when you begin to consider divorce will ebb and flow over time. At times it may feel like a minefield as feelings are triggered unexpectedly. Generally, you can expect these emotions to wax and wane for a year or two after the divorce is final. The emotions typically get less intense and overwhelming over time, as you heal and reconstruct your life with new routines and patterns. If you are still feeling overwhelmed after a year or two, reach out to a therapist to help you move through the emotions to a place of peace and acceptance.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2022

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