What is it like to go from being a married parent sharing a home to a divorced single parent who is working and caring for the kids and who is the only adult in the household? To find out, University of Antwerp researchers Dries Van Gasse and Dimitri Mortelmans, with the help of trained students, interviewed 274 Belgian single parents, in person.
Each person’s experience was unique, yet a set of commonalities emerged, too. Getting divorced and becoming a single parent was a process, which typically unfolded in six stages. Van Gasse and Mortelmans described their findings in “Reorganizing the single-parent family system: Exploring the process perspective on divorce,” first published online in March 2020 in Family Relations.
All 274 single parents worked at least part time and had at least one child younger than 18 who lived with them at least half the time. All stayed single rather than repartnering. Most were single mothers, though 19% were single fathers. The single parents ranged in age from 25 to 63. Their divorce had occurred between 1 and 25 years previously.
The 6 Phases of Divorcing and Becoming a Contented Single Parent
In Belgium, divorce has become more commonplace in the past three decades, following important legal reforms. Because of successful economic redistribution, single parents there have low rates of poverty. Nonetheless, dual-earner couples are the norm, and “families in which one parent has responsibility for both the income and the family duties still have difficulties in attaining the same standard of living as other families.”
Phase 1: Initial Contentment and Decline
Those who are judgmental about divorce like to claim that people don’t take divorce seriously enough. Van Gasse and Mortlemans found that none of the 274 people in their research fit that description. Most struggled with the process and took some time to decide to dissolve the marriage.
A 40-year-old woman who had been single for two years said:
“When I thought about being in this situation for another 20 years, I became totally depressed…On the other hand, …you don’t decide such things in a hurry. For me, it took six years…”
The transition to single parenting begins when a definitive decision is made to end the marriage.
Phase 2: Drive Toward Transition
Even if the marital relationship had been a troubled one for a very long time, the initial transition to single parenting can be jolting. The intensity of emotions during the early phase after the split depends on many factors, including the reasons for the divorce, the way the ex-partners relate to each other, the reactions of the children, and the support they all have in their new lives.
Also important is the way the decision to divorce was made. On one end of the spectrum are unilateral decisions that are kept secret until the moment they are sprung, as, for example, when one partner slips away with their worldly goods, leaving the other to return from work to a half-empty house and a spouse who has vanished. On the other end are the decisions that are discussed openly and at length, often in therapy. Most processes fall somewhere in between. Unsurprisingly, the more open and mutual processes tend to be followed by less painful transitions.
Phase 3: The Hazy Period
In the next phase, the authors note, “people live in a haze, liberated from old routines but also short on money and time and uncertain how they will survive as single parents… they must find new ways to organize parental roles, simple household routines, finances, and their work life.” Many look to parents or other relatives or friends for help.
The hazy period can feel overwhelming. Many of the interviewees had difficulty remembering that stage.
Phase 4: Temporary Reorganization of Family Life
After a while, emotions are not so intense anymore, and single parents focus more on the practical issues involved in reorganizing their lives. Some look to create or strengthen ties with a broader network of support, and others strive for more independence and self-sufficiency.
A 34-year old who wanted more closeness said:
“…returning to my birthplace was like anchoring my ship in a safe haven. I know family and friends here will always be there for me, and they are with me every day of the week.”
For a 46-year-old man who had been single for 11 years, the process of divorce was a journey toward independence:
“When the kids were young, my mother was here every day, picking them up from school, doing homework… I started to feel uncomfortable about it, and we had a talk. It turned out we had the same feeling. It was time for me to regain independence…”
Phase 5: Sustainable Reorganization of Work and Care
The early attempts at reorganizing life often turn out to be temporary. In the next stage, single parents figure out more sustainable ways of dealing with the many challenges of earning a living, caring for their children, and maintaining a household. They get more adept at managing their time and their finances. Some find new work or new ways of getting help with chores. They “set up a new system of daily routines that makes it possible to regain further control over their lives.”
Phase 6: New Period of Contentment: Reorganization and Acceptance
Although some single parents continue to struggle with the changes in their lives, they tend to see their current difficulties as less problematic than their former relationship with their spouse. Other single parents “once again have a sense of what they are capable of achieving…They are content with how their lives have turned out.”
The 46-year-old single father whose mother helped him initially said:
“I can make ends meet and don’t overextend myself… the children have landed on their feet… they are nice guys who can stand up for themselves and are doing great.”
A 52-year-old who had been single for eight years said:
“I became unbelievably rich with life, that is, human richness, openness, the warmth, the social life with children, family, friends. That is something that is much more valuable for me now. I give less value to how things look: Your image and material values are less important.”
A 46-year-old woman who had been single for 11 years told the interviewer:
“My image of single-parent families has changed after my divorce… A world opened up for me... I stopped searching for a new partner… I was happy being a single parent.”
The Big Picture: Challenges, But Also Resilience
If you were to think about divorce as something that happens at one point in time, and then focus on that one discrete event, it might seem like an overwhelmingly negative experience. And for many of the adults who go through it, that early phase really can be a true life crisis.
In people’s real lives, though, getting divorced and becoming a single parent is a process with multiple stages. The initial phases can be deeply unsettling for many people, but over time, many single parents create satisfying new lives for themselves and their children. Their story is not one of devastation, but of resilience.