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Psychological Aspects Of Divorce: A Primer For Mediators and Collaborative Lawyers

Divorce is an action born out of lost hope by one or both partners about their marriage. It is important for mediators and collaborative lawyers to be aware of the complexity of emotions associated with the three patterns of divorces.

The Mutual Agreement pattern of divorce is one in which both mates are unhappy and jointly conclude that they will be happier being apart. These couples often settle their affairs amicably and quickly, and may stay friends. The Unilateral Divorce pattern entails a decision by one spouse to end the marriage to the dismay of the other spouse. The power imbalance favors the leaving spouse. This individual had time to process his or her emotions and decision, while the other spouse was unaware and caught surprised, unprepared, hurt and abandoned.

The Compounded Divorce Pattern entails the involvement of a third party. Here the emotions are further intensified. The left partner not only feels abandoned, but is also replaced by another individual who gains a primary position in the spouse’s life. Issues of competition, self- worth, betrayal, and failure, are added painful emotions.

The overriding emotional need of both partners in the Unilateral and Compounded divorce patterns is to view themselves and be seen by others as good, moral, and worthwhile human beings. To preserve their self- worth, both mates engage in these five unfortunate stages, at different times throughout their divorce.


The leaving partner is aware that the conduct leading to the divorce is morally and socially frowned upon. To maintain a self-view of a moral person, while engaging in unacceptable conduct, requires demonizing the mate. The spouse may be portrayed as inept, inadequate parent, unloving and even evil. Ascribing these negative, unforgivable and unchangeable traits to the spouse renders the leaving partner a victim and justifies his or her need to leave.

The left partner also demonizes his or her spouse, but first has to handle the shock, hurt, sadness, and dismay about being rejected by the leaving partner. He or she needs to wade through the five stages of adjusting to a loss, prior to reaching the demonizing phase.

First come shock and denial. The disbelief that the marriage is over. Then come feelings of anger about the injustice of the process. The bargaining stage is composed of attempts to restore the marriage. When these fail, depression occurs. Only after processing the first four steps, can the left mate proceed to the acceptance that the marriage is indeed over. This process may take weeks, months, or more.

Only then, the left spouse begins to assess his or her full responsibility for the break-up. To preserve his or her self-esteem, the left mate concludes that the leaving partner is mostly at fault. If nothing else, what type of a person would go about the termination of a marriage in the manner he or she did? Only a deceitful, callous, insensitive, conniving and unfair person could do so. This is the left spouse’s way of demonizing the leaving spouse for the preservation of his or her sense of self worth.


Not only has the left spouse been depicted by the leaving spouse as irrevocably flawed, but his or her failings have reportedly plagued the marriage for years. Creating a story of long-term suffering justifies the leaving spouse’s departure. This also portrays the parting spouse as a blameless, innocent victim.

The left spouse rewrites the same marital history by ascribing to the mate years of failed parenting skills, unavailability, cold attitude and lack of commitment to the marriage. This exonerates the left spouse from the blame assigned to him or her and reassigns it to the flawed character of the spouse.


Since the left spouse is seen as responsible for the unhappy marriage, for the other partner’s straying and or need to leave, he or she deserves to be punished. The “victim” now seeks retribution. Punishment comes in attempting to withhold benefits, even those allowed by law. The leaving spouse seeks to deprive the other spouse of any material gains and even a fair access to the children. Bitter, lengthy and acrimonious exchanges are frequent in this phase.

The left spouse becomes outraged by not only being abandoned and betrayed, but being punished for sins he or she disavows. The left spouse, who felt victimized from the start, is now ready to fight for his or her rights. Though powerless about the divorce, the left spouse can exercise control by hindering the leaving spouse’s easy exit. . This punishment often takes the form of lack of cooperation, delays, lengthy unneeded legal proceedings, attempt to maximize material gains, and sadly for some, using the children as pawns.


Despite all the vengeance, the leaving spouse desires approval and empathy from family, friends, and curiously enough even the spouse. He or she expects the left spouse to accept full culpability for the break up so that the leaving spouse will be absolved of any wrongdoing. The left spouse seeks the support of others as well in siding with him or her. It is important to the left spouse to have the empathy and compassion of others who see how wronged he or she has been. Both spouses in this phase seek social support for their worth and lovability.


The leaving partner demands that the left mate accept the new family and welcome the new partner to the fold. The stated reasons are that it serves the children best. The hidden psychological reason is still the need to be absolved of any responsibility for leaving the original family.

The left spouse is still dealing with confusion, shame, lowered self -esteem and outrage, as well as needing to rebuild a life in the midst of a personal crisis. He or she is not available, yet, for embracing the joy of the former partner’s new life.

With time, however, both spouses may find new loving relationships and may learn to deal with each other in a civil or even cooperative way.


It is important for mediators and collaborative lawyers to be aware of these emotional factors to be most helpful to their clients.

Being sensitive to the timing of undertaking mediation or collaborative work is crucial to the long-term success of the process and outcome. Both partners can negotiate better when they have each completed the five stages of loss and have reached the acceptance stage.

The leaving partner needs to be reassured that his or Her choice is not due to being a morally unsound person. Therefore, justifications need not be based on the flaws of the mate.

The left partner may be helped with reassurance that his or her worth does not depended upon the actions or opinions of the spouse and that counter-blame serves neither party.

Both spouses need to be supported about their common goals, if none other, than the best interest of their children. They need to realize that cooperation serves their needs best.

The most important emotional help couples can receive is acceptance and affirmation of their worth, validation of their emotions and trust in their ability to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.

Mediation and collaborative law challenges attorneys to become more in tune with the psychological aspects of both spouses. However, the benefits to clients and the satisfaction for attorneys are well worth the efforts.


Offra Gerstein

Offra Gerstein is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California since 1975. She specializes in personal and relationship issues of adults and couples.      Offra works with individuals to help resolve their personal and relational issues for improved quality of life. Her work with couples includes: mate selection,… MORE >

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