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Psychological and Emotional Aspects of Divorce

Updated: Jun 24, 2022

Psychological and Emotional Aspects of Divorce

by Kathleen O'Connell Corcoran

Divorce Effects and Prevalence

It may be helpful to understand a little about divorce and the typical effects it has on men, women and children. The divorce rate in the United States is the highest in the world. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. Sixty-seven percent of all second marriages end in divorce. As high as these figures are, what is also true is that the divorce rate appears to be dropping. The reasons for this change are not clear. Many people cannot afford to divorce, many people cannot afford to marry. Another reason is that "baby boomers," who account for a large proportion of our population are no longer in their 20s and 30s, the ages when divorce is most prevalent. The societal expectation is that divorced life is less satisfying than married life. Divorce is associated with an increase in depression--people experience loss of partner, hopes and dreams, and lifestyle. The financial reality of divorce is often hard to comprehend: the same resources must now support almost twice the expenses.

Fifty percent of all children are children of divorce. Twenty-eight percent of all children are born of never married parents. Divorce is expensive. Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC) resources are drained by the needs of divorced and single parent families; including the cost of collecting child support.

Here are some of the experiences of men and women in divorce.

For women:

1. Women initiate divorce twice as often as men

2. 90% of divorced mothers have custody of their children (even if they did not receive it in court)

3. 60% of people under poverty guidelines are divorced women and children

4. Single mothers support up to four children on an average after-tax annual income of $12,200

5. 65% divorced mothers receive no child support (figure based on all children who could be eligible, including never-married parents, when fathers have custody, and parents without court orders); 75% receive court-ordered child support (and rising since inception of uniform child support guidelines, mandatory garnishment and license renewal suspension)

6. After divorce, women experience less stress and better adjustment in general than do men. The reasons for this are that (1) women are more likely to notice marital problems and to feel relief when such problems end, (2) women are more likely than men to rely on social support systems and help from others, and (3) women are more likely to experience an increase in self-esteem when they divorce and add new roles to their lives.

7. Women who work and place their children in child care experience a greater stigma than men in the same position. Men in the same position often attract support and compassion.

For men:

1. Men are usually confronted with greater emotional adjustment problems than women. The reasons for this are related to the loss of intimacy, the loss of social connection, reduced finances, and the common interruption of the parental role.

2. Men remarry more quickly than women.

3. As compared to "deadbeat dads," men who have shared parenting (joint legal custody), ample time with their children, and an understanding of and direct responsibility for activities and expenses of children stay involved in their children's lives and are in greater compliance with child support obligations. There is also a greater satisfaction with child support amount when negotiated in mediation. Budgets are prepared, and responsibility divided in a way that parents understand.

4. Men are initially more negative about divorce than women and devote more energy in attempting to salvage the marriage.

Effects of Divorce on Children

In the last few years, higher-quality research which has allowed the "meta-analysis" of previously published research, has shown the negative effects of divorce on children have been greatly exaggerated. In the past we read that children of divorce suffered from depression, failed in school, and got in trouble with the law. Children with depression and conduct disorders showed indications of those problems predivorce because there was parental conflict predivorce. Researchers now view conflict, rather than the divorce or residential schedule, as the single most critical determining factor in children's post-divorce adjustment. The children who succeed after divorce, have parents who can communicate effectively and work together as parents.

Actually, children's psychological reactions to their parents' divorce vary in degree dependent on three factors: (1) the quality of their relationship with each of their parents before the separation, (2) the intensity and duration of the parental conflict, and (3) the parents' ability to focus on the needs of children in their divorce.

Older studies showed boys had greater social and academic adjustment problems than girls. New evidence indicates that when children have a hard time, boys and girls suffer equally; they just differ in how they suffer. Boys are more externally symptomatic than girls, they act out their anger, frustration and hurt. They may get into trouble in school, fight more with peers and parents. Girls tend to internalize their distress. They may become depressed, develop headaches or stomach aches, and have changes in their eating and sleeping patterns.

A drop in parents' income often caused by the same income now supporting two households directly affects children over time in terms of proper nutrition, involvement in extracurricular activities, clothing (no more designer jeans and fancy shoes), and school choices. Sometimes a parent who had stayed home with the children is forced into the workplace and the children experience an increase in time in child care.

A child's continued involvement with both of his or her parents allows for realistic and better balanced future relationships. Children learn how to be in relationship by their relationship with their parents. If they are secure in their relationship with their parents, chances are they will adapt well to various time-sharing schedules and experience security and fulfillment in their intimate relationships in adulthood. In the typical situation where mothers have custody of the children, fathers who are involved in their children's lives are also the fathers whose child support is paid and who contribute to extraordinary expenses for a child: things like soccer, music lessons, the prom dress, or a special class trip. One important factor which contributes to the quality and quantity of the involvement of a father in a child's life is mother's attitude toward the child's relationship with father. When fathers leave the marriage and withdraw from their parenting role as well, they report conflicts with the mother as the major reason.

The impact of father or mother loss is not likely to be diminished by the introduction of stepparents. No one can replace Mom or Dad. And no one can take away the pain that a child feels when a parent decides to withdraw from their lives. Before embarking on a new family, encourage clients to do some reading on the common myths of step families. Often parents assume that after the remarriage "we will all live as one big happy family." Step family relationships need to be negotiated, expectations need to be expressed, roles need to be defined, realistic goals need to be set.

Most teenagers (and their parents) eventually adjust to divorce and regard it as having been a constructive action, but one-third do not. In those instances, the turbulence of the divorce phase (how adversarial a battle it is), has been shown to play a crucial role in creating unhealthy reactions in affected teenagers.

Joan Kelly, PhD, former president of the Academy of Family Mediators and prominent divorce researcher from California reports that, depending on the strength of the parent-child bond at the time of divorce, the parent-child relationship diminishes over time for children who see their fathers less than 35% of the time. Court-ordered "standard visitation" patterns typically provide less.

# Days

Every other weekend 48

4 weeks in summer 28

½ spring break 3

½ winter break 7

½ holidays 4

Total 90 days = 25%

Add 1 day per week 44

Total 134 days = 35%

Divorce also has some positive effects for children. Single parents are often closer to their children than married parents were. This is can also be negative as when a child takes on too much responsibility because one or both parents are not functioning well as a parent, or when a parent talks to a child about how hurt they are by the other parent, or how horrible that other parent is. Often a separated parent will make an effort to spend quality time with the children and pay attention to their desires (Disneyland, small gifts, phone calls, etc). And you can imagine that some children might find some benefit in celebrating two Christmases and birthdays each year. If both parents remarry, they may have twice as many supportive adults/nurturers. At the very least, when parents can control their conflict, the children can experience freedom from daily household tension between parents.

Emotional Stages of Divorce

The decision to end a relationship can be traumatic, chaotic, and filled with contradictory emotions. There are also specific feelings, attitudes, and dynamics associated with whether one is in the role of the initiator or the receiver of the decision to breakup. For example, it is not unusual for the initiator to experience fear, relief, distance, impatience, resentment, doubt, and guilt. Likewise, when a party has not initiated the divorce, they may feel shock, betrayal, loss of control, victimization, decreased self esteem, insecurity, anger, a desire to "get even," and wishes to reconcile.

To normalize clients experiences during this time, it may be helpful to know that typical emotional stages have been identified with ending a relationship. It may also be helpful to understand that marriages do not breakdown overnight; the breakup is not the result of one incident; nor is the breakup the entire fault of one party. The emotional breaking up process typically extends over several years and is confounded by each party being at different stages in the emotional process while in the same stage of the physical (or legal) process.

It is also quite normal to do different things to try to create distance from the former partner while divorcing. Unfortunately, this distancing often takes the form of fault finding. Not to be disrespectful, but it's not unlike the process one goes through in deciding to buy a new car: somehow every flaw in that favorite old car needs to be noticed and exaggerated in order to feel okay about selling it. Also, if the other person is portrayed as really awful, one can escape any responsibility for the end of the marriage. A common response to divorce is to seek vengeance. When parties put their focus on getting even, there is an equal amount of energy expended on being blameless. What's true is that blaming and fault finding are not necessary or really helpful. Psychologist Jeffrey Kottler has written a very helpful book on this subject entitled Beyond Blame: A New Way of Resolving Conflicts in Relationships, published by Jossey-Bass.

Another normal rationalization is that the marriage was a wholly unpleasant experience and escaping it is good. Or the marriage was unpleasant and now the other partner must make this up in the divorce. Thinking that the marriage was wholly unpleasant is unfair to both parties and can hinder emotional healing. Both stayed in the marriage for as long as they did because there were some good things about it. There were also some things that did not work for them and these are why they are divorcing.

Much of your clients' healing will involve acceptance, focusing on the future, taking responsibility for their own actions (now and during the marriage), and acting with integrity. Focusing on the future they would like to create may require an acknowledgment of each other's differing emotional stages and a compassionate willingness to work together to balance the emotional comfort of both parties.

The following information on the emotional stages of ending a relationship is provided to help parties through the emotional quagmire of ending a relationship and assist in their personal healing.

I. DISILLUSIONMENT OF ONE PARTY (sometimes 1-2 years before verbalized)

A. Vague feelings of discontentment, arguments, stored resentments, breaches of trust

B. Problems are real but unacknowledged

C. Greater distance; lack of mutuality

D. Confidential, fantasy, consideration of pros and cons of divorce

E. Development of strategy for separation

F. Feelings: fear, denial, anxiety, guilt, love, anger, depression, grief

II. EXPRESSING DISSATISFACTION (8-12 months before invoking legal process)

A. Expressing discontent or ambivalence to other party B. Marital counseling, or C. Possible honeymoon phase (one last try) D. Feelings: relief (that it's out in the open), tension, emotional roller coaster, guilt, anguish, doubt, grief

III. DECIDING TO DIVORCE (6-12 months before invoking legal process)

A. Creating emotional distance (i.e., disparaging the other person/situation in order to

leave it)

B. Seldom reversible (because it's been considered for awhile)

C. Likely for an affair to occur

D. Other person just begins Stage I (considering divorce) and feels denial, depressed, rejected, low self-esteem, anger

E. Both parties feel victimized by the other

F. Feelings: anger, resentment, sadness, guilt, anxiety for the family, the future, impatience with other, needy

IV. ACTING ON DECISION (beginning the legal process)

A. Physical separation

B. Emotional separation (complicated by emotional flareups)

C. Creating redefinition (self orientation)

D. Going public with the decision

E. Setting the tone for the divorce process (getting legal advice and setting legal precedent: children, support, home)

F. Choosing sides and divided loyalties of friends and families

G. Usually when the children find out (they may feel responsible, behave in ways to make parents interact)

H. Feelings: traumatized, panic, fear, shame, guilt, blame, histrionics

V. GROWING ACCEPTANCE (during the legal process or after)

A. Adjustments: physical, emotional B. Accepting that the marriage wasn't happy or fulfilling C. Regaining a sense of power and control, creating a plan for the future, creating a new identity, discovering new talents and resources D. This is the best time to be in mediation: parties can look forward and plan for the future; moods can be more elevated (thrill of a second chance at life)

VI. NEW BEGINNINGS (completing the legal process to four years after)

A. Parties have moved beyond the blame and anger to forgiveness, new respect, new roles B. Experiences: insight, acceptance, integrity.Comparing Mediation and Litigation

Why is mediation a compassionate and appropriate venue for helping people in divorce? On the average, it takes family members approximately four to eight years to recover from the emotional and financial expense of a bitter adversarial divorce. In an adversarial divorce, there is no possible resolution of the emotional issues, only decreased trust and increased resentment.

A litigated divorce can cost each party $5,000 to $35,000. The focus is on assigning blame and fault and skirmishing for the most powerful position (changing locks, freezing bank accounts, getting temporary custody of the children). Communications between parties break down. Negotiations proceed through attorneys and are strategic and positioned. Attorneys have an ethical responsibility to zealously advocate for the best interest of their client. Often there is no consideration of the best interests of the children or recognition for the need for parties to have an ongoing relationship because they have children, friends, extended family, and community together. Going to court is an expensive risk; someone who does not know you makes decisions for you that will affect your whole life.

Mediators may save clients thousands of dollars in immediate and future legal and counseling fees. Mediators can focus parties on creating their best possible future and help parties resolve their emotional issues for the best interests of their children and their own psychological well being. Mediators can help parties feel understood, accept responsibility for the failure of the marriage and, when there are children, begin to reshape their relationship from one of partners to coparents. Mediators can empower clients by helping them be at their best (rather than their worst) during a challenging time in their lives, enable them to have an active role in their separating (creative choice vs. court imposition), create a clear and understandable road map for the future, make informed decisions, and to look back at their behavior in the mediation of their divorce with integrity and self respect.

Typical Reactions of Children to Divorce

Much of children's post-divorce adjustment is dependent on (1) the quality of their relationship with each parent before the divorce, (2) the intensity and duration of the parental conflict, and (3) the parents' ability to focus on the needs of the children in the divorce. Typically, children whose parents are going through a rough divorce engage in behaviors which are designed to help them feel secure. What follows are some typical experiences of children to divorce and separation:


This especially occurs in young children and surfaces as story telling (Mommy and Daddy and me going to Disneyland; we're moving into a duplex and Daddy will live next door; they will also have reconciliation fantasies).


When parents separate, children worry who will take care of them. They are afraid they too are divorceable and will be abandoned by one or both of their parents. This problem is worsened by one or both parents taking the children into their confidence, talking about the other parent in front of the children, using language like "Daddy is divorcing us," being late for pick-up, or abducting the children. Children who are feeling insecure will say things to a parent which is intended to evoke a mama bear/papa bear response (a demonstration of protectiveness). If children do not have "permission" to have a good relationship with the other parent, or if they think they need to "take care of" one of their parents in the divorce, they are likely to end up having feelings of divided loyalties between their parents or, in the extreme, they may become triangulated with one parent against the other parent.


Children will want details of what is happening and how it affects them. Communication from the parents needs to be unified and age appropriate.


Children may express anger and hostility with peers, siblings, or parents. School performance may be impaired. Hostility of children toward parents is often directed at the parent perceived to be at fault. Hostility turned inward looks like depression in children.


Lethargy, sleep and eating disturbances, acting out, social withdrawal, physical injury (more common in adolescents).


Children may regress to an earlier developmental stage when they felt assured of both parents' love. They may do some "baby-talk" or wet their beds. Children may become "parentified" by what they perceive to be the emotional and physical needs of their parents ("Someone needs to be in charge here.")


The more conflict there is between the parents, the longer children hold onto the notion of their parents' reconciliation. It is clear that the parents are not "getting on" with their lives. Children will often act out in ways which force their parents to interact (negatively or positively). Children whose parents were very conflictual during the marriage often mistake the strong emotions of conflict with intimacy. They see the parents as engaged in an intimate relationship.


Because so much marital conflict may be related to the stress of parenting, children often feel responsible for their parents' divorce--they feel that somehow their behavior contributed to it. This is especially true when parents fight during exchanges of the children or in negotiating schedules: children see that parents are fighting over them. They may try to bargain their parents back together by promises of good behavior; they may have difficulty with transitions or refuse to go with the other parent.


Children will often act out their own and their parents' anger. In an attempt to survive in a hostile environment, children will often take the side of the parent they are presently with. This may manifest in refusals to talk to the other parent on the phone or reluctance to share time with the other parent. Adolescents will typically act out in ways similar to how the parents are acting out.

In summary, expect that children will test a parent's loyalty, experience loyalty binds, not want to hurt either parent, force parents to interact because they don't want the divorce, try to exert some power in the situation, express anger over the divorce, occasionally refuse to go with the other parent (normal divorce stress, loyalty conflict/triangulation, or they may simply not want to stop doing what they're doing at the moment--similar to the reaction we've all gotten when we pick our children up from child care, or we want to go home from the park).

The most common problem which arise tend to stem from triangulation, divided loyalties, and projection. Some indicators of each are:

a. Triangulation: Child refuses to have time with the other parent or talk to the other parent on the phone, child badmouths the other parent.

b. Divided loyalties: When a child tells each parent different and opposing things about what they want it is a good indication that the child is trying to please both parents and is experiencing divided loyalties.

c. Projection: Children are barometers of a parent's emotional well-being. Usually a parent reporting the stress of a child can not see that the child is acting on the parent's anxiety. Parents should ask themselves how they are feeling about the divorce, the other parent, and the time sharing arrangements before assuming the child is having difficulty adjusting or assuming the problem is with the other household.

Signs of Stress in Children

Sometimes parents need help identifying stress in children, especially little ones. What follows are some typical experiences and signs of stress in children of different ages.


A. Regression in terms of sleeping, toilet training or eating; slowing down in the mastery of new skills B. Sleep disturbances (difficulty gong to sleep; frequent waking) C. Difficulty leaving parent; clinginess D. General crankiness, temper tantrums, crying.


A. Regression: returning to security blankets and discarded toys, lapses in toilet training, thumb sucking B. Immature grasp of what has happened; bewildered; making up fantasy stories C. Blaming themselves and feeling guilty D. Bedtime anxiety; fitful/fretful sleep; frequent waking E. Fear of being abandoned by both parents; clinginess F. Greater irritability, aggression, temper tantrums.


A. Pervasive sadness; feeling abandoned and rejected B. Crying and sobbing C. Afraid of their worst fears coming true D. Reconciliation fantasies E. Loyalty conflicts; feeling physically torn apart F. Problems with impulse control; disorganized behavior.


A. Able to see family disruption clearly; try to bring order to situation

B. Fear of loneliness

C. Intense anger at the parent they blame for causing the divorce

D. Physical complaints; headaches and stomach aches

E. May become overactive to avoid thinking about the divorce

F. Feel ashamed of what's happening in their family; feel they are different


A. Fear of being isolated and lonely B. Experience parents as leaving them; feel parents are not available to them C. Feel hurried to achieve independence D. Feel in competition with parents E. Worry about their own future loves and marriage; preoccupied with the survival of relationships F. Discomfort with a parent's dating and sexuality G. Chronic fatigue; difficulty concentrating H. Mourn the loss of the family of their childhood.


Kathleen O'Connell Corcoran, Ph.D.

1948 - 1998

Kathleen O'Connell Corcoran died of cancer on September 19, 1998. Kathleen was a nationally-recognized mediation practitioner and trainer, providing basic and advanced mediation, conflict resolution, and facilitation training as well as supervision, consultation, and internships. She was a Practitioner Member of the Academy of Family Mediators. Kathleen encouraged all whom she worked with in mediation to "do the right thing." She appealed to all of us to be our best and to give our children the love and support they need.

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