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The Psychology Of Divorce


In helping couples to successfully negotiate the ending of their marital relationship, it is vital for the divorce professional to understand the underlying dynamics of the family as a system and of the divorce process; the professional must grasp how the divorce crisis influences and is influenced by both family structure and family process. Viewing the family as a system allows one to conceptualize events that might seem irrational and disparate within a framework that gives meaning and sense to these events. Indeed, the family going through divorce does not break up, but rather is restructured and reorganized. As Ahrons and Rodgers (1987) point out “[W]hile marriages may be discontinued, families-especially those in which there are children -continue after marital disruption…They do so with the focus on the two ex-spouse parents now located in separate households-two nuclei to which children and parents alike, as well as others, must relate.” Ahrons coined the term “binuclear family” to describe this modal form of postdivorce family structure.


Early etiological theories of child and marital problems assumed unidirectional cause-effect relationships. That is, it was always presumed that dysfunctional marital relationships caused dysfunctional behavior patterns in children. Children with behavioral or emotional problems were viewed as innocent victims of a “bad” parent or of a “bad” relationship between the parents. Theory and therapy focused largely on identifying and treating the dysfunctional parent or parents, in order to relieve the child of the emotional distress. In the past 20 years, however, family systems theorists and therapists have demonstrated unmistakably the circular nature of causality in family interactions (Saposnek, 1983a). In this view, “the family is conceptualized as a cybernetic system in which the actions of each member influence the actions of each other member reciprocally (Saposnek, 1983b, p. xv.). So, the child can create marital dysfunction as easily and commonly as the parents create dysfunction within the child. Collusion between a child and a parent can create dysfunction within the other parent or within a sibling, or a dysfunctional relationship between two siblings can create dysfunction within a parent, which can subsequently create marital dysfunction, and so forth.

For example, imagine a household in which a 10-year-old child, Bobby, gradually stops doing his school work (perhaps because of an overly critical teacher whose impact on Bobby is largely out of Bobby’s conscious awareness). This gets Bobby’s mother and father to argue over how to discipline him. Father wants to spank Bobby, and Mother wants to support and understand Bobby. Mother and Father’s arguments begin to upset Bobby’s 14-year-old brother, who, in response, begins to pick on their little sister, who cries and complains to Mother. Mother responds by coddling and comforting the sister, making Father angrier. In response, Father gets harsher and more punitive with Bobby, who, in turn, produces even less school work, and so forth. Indeed, all inter-active combinations within a family can create dysfunction within anyone else in the family system. Moreover, while the source of the original distress is frequently intra-familial, it can also be extra-familial, when, for example, a child is influenced by a neighbor child or a teacher, or when a parent is influenced by an employ or a relative.

This systems view has gradually replaced the traditional linear view of causality and it is particularly appropriate and useful in understanding the divorce process and the dynamics in child custody disputes, when escalation of the family system’s dysfunction by the legal system’s procedures is all too often the case the disputing families.


While a legal divorce is an event, occurring when a judge signs a marital dissolution decree, an emotional divorce is best viewed as a process that occurs minimally over several years and maximally over the course of a lifetime. Typically, the divorce process begins several years before the actual date of separation, when one of the spouses begins to experience a predictable set of feelings, which may include disillusionment, dissatisfaction, anxiety, and alienation. The divorce literature generally suggests that in 75 to 90 percent of all contemporary divorces, one spouse wants out of the marriage while the other does not (Ahrons, 1981; Kaslow & Schwartz, 1987; Kelly, 1982; Kressel, 1985; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980), with women more often initiating the divorce (Kelly, 1982). This nonmutuality of the decision to divorce has major implications for the process of divorce. Since the leaving spouse begins the emotional process several years before the left spouse, by the time there is a legal filing for divorce, one spouse is ready to proceed at a time when the other may have just found out that there is going to be a physical separation. Thus, the left spouse may only begin the emotional process of divorce on that day, creating a significant discrepancy in their respective stages of the emotional divorce by the time they reach the office of an attorney. This may partially explain the general finding that about 50 percent of persons who file for divorce wind up withdrawing their request and reconciling (Ahrons & Rodgers, 1987; Haynes, 1981). The implications of this discrepancy for both legal and mental health divorce professionals is most easily seen in the discrepancies between the emotional states expressed by each spouse and in the different tactics and strategies that each use in the negotiations leading to (or, as the case may be, not leading to) a marital settlement agreement. A consideration of the stages and emotions within each stage manifested by divorcing persons will help to put into context the nature of the divorce crisis.

Most divorce researchers conceptualize the divorce process as a series of developmental stages through which the divorcing families proceed (Ahrons & Rodgers, 1987; Bohannan, 1970; Federico, 1979; Kaslow, 1984; Kaslow & Schwartz, 1987; Kessler, 1975; Weiss, 1975). While the stages are generally considered linear, they are not invariant. That is, a couple can skip a stage and go through it at a later point. Or, a couple might maintain characteristic feelings and behaviors of two stages at the same time. Also, the intensity with which a given couple goes through these stages may vary and is primarily a function of the degree of ambivalence to divorce shared by the couple. These stages in these models have similar characteristic structure.


During this stage, which takes place before separation is even contemplated, one of the spouses (more often, the wife) typically is experiencing feelings of dissatisfaction, alienation, loneliness, and despair. She engages in a long period (up to several years) of deliberation regarding how to resolve the uncomfortable feelings about her marital relationship. Typically, she attempts a variety of ways to cope with these feelings before the decision to separate and/or divorce is reached. These coping attempts may include getting angry at, confronting, and quarreling with her spouse in hopes of provoking him to change; sulking and crying; withdrawing from her spouse as a way to avoid experiencing the pain of noncommunication; escaping into work or into excessive time with friends; extra-marital affairs; drugs or alcohol; or, in extreme cases, physical abuse. If none of these tactics works and her husband will not go for counseling, or if counseling is ineffective for relieving these feelings of despair and she is unable or unwilling to accept the status quo within the marriage, she may decide to divorce. It is then that a point of inevitability is often reached, a point when the wife has emotionally removed herself from the marriage. Having no other alternatives, she announces that she wants a separation. This declaration triggers the first significant emotional reaction in her husband, who initially may respond with denial, but also may pull back emotionally for self-protection.

After denial fails to work as a way of coping with this announcement, the husband begins to experience feelings of anguish, shock, chaos, and disbelief. He may at first pretend that everything is okay even though he is rebuffed consistently by his wife. His denial may elicit angry outbursts, alternating with pleading, questioning, and confusion, as he tries to gain some sense of control over what is happening to him. During this period, he may begin to ask friends and family for advice on what to do to win her back. He also may call therapists and try to schedule appointments to have a professional convince her not to leave the marriage. Typically, he frames her actions as a temporary upset (or insanity), a mid-life crisis, or a giving up too easily, without allowing him a chance to prove himself. If these rationalizations do not work, he may try admitting to all of his “failings” and agree to have extensive individual and couples counseling. He may agree to rehabilitate his ways, for as long as it takes to convince her that he wants her back. However, the wife typically says that it is already too late. With the husband not understanding that, emotionally, she had made her decision some time back, counseling efforts at this point are mostly ritual and face-saving ways for her to let him down easy. If the husband is having a particularly difficult time accepting the divorce decision, the wife often asks the therapist to treat him alone to help him with this crisis. The tactical nature of the husband’s bid for therapy becomes most apparent when, after committing himself to extensive therapy, he drops out after a session or two, realizing that the ploy to change himself did not succeed in getting his wife back into the marriage.

Feeling hopeless and helpless, the husband may begin to make threats to keep the children from his wife, to give no financial support, and to keep the house, the business, and all his assets from her. He may further try to intimidate her with an admonishment that she will not be able to survive financially without him. When these threats do not work, his self-pity may lead him to the point that he threatens or attempts suicide. His attempt is usually done in a clearly manipulative manner, by arranging for someone (typically the wife) to be conveniently aware of his actions, so that he does not really risk harm to his life, but merely makes a strong and compelling statement of desperation. Although his panicky feelings may be genuinely strong, his survival instinct is stronger.


It is important to note that anger, as manifested in threats of all kinds, is most often a secondary emotion. That is, it is a feeling that covers up more primary feelings of hurt, fear, humiliation, loss, abandonment, and powerlessness. Without knowing this fact, it is easy for professionals involved in divorce disputes to view the husband’s threats as evidence of his violent tendencies, rather than as understandable reactions to a multitude of primary feelings that he may be experiencing. Moreover, anger can also serve a functional use of protecting the self from the severe psychological trauma of separation from a mate. (Divorce and marital separation are considered, respectively, to be the second and third major life stressors, following only the death of a spouse, on the list of 43 stressful life events included on the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (Holmes & Rahe, 1967). If a rejected spouse cannot re-establish the partner’s love, at least he can cause that ex-partner enough pain so as not to be completely ignored or forgotten (Kessler, 1975).


When none of the above actions resolves his helplessness and confusion, the husband may consult an attorney. His decision to do so may be either in response to his wife’s having filed for divorce, or it may be an offensive move with the intention to file before his wife does. It should be noted that the leaver of a marriage is not always the one who files for divorce. Often, the one who is left files in order to retain a sense of control over the emotional chaos experienced, or as a final attempt to force the other spouse to regain her senses by confronting her with the logical conclusion to the series of emotionally detaching behaviors, or, finally, as a retaliation move out of anger–a version of, “You can’t fire me because I quit!” It is at this point that the stage of litigation for a legal divorce begins. In this stage, the various divorce professionals first have contact with the divorcing couple. These professionals may include attorneys, accountants, real estate appraisers, therapists, mediators, evaluators, and judges.

During the period following physical separation and the filing for a legal divorce, the wife may experience a variety of feelings. These may include relief, confusion, loneliness, and sadness. Ambivalence about the separation may cause her to vacillate between these and other feelings. One feeling which arises from and creates even more ambivalence is guilt. This guilt usually is hooked up to the degree of hurt manifested or portrayed by the husband. Guilt in one partner and hurt in another function together as a yoked system. As one feeling increases, the other does as well. And, as one decreases, so does the other. Guilt in the wife may derive from her worry about breaking up the family, about leaving her husband in misery and depression, about his ability to survive emotionally without her, about damaging the children’s psychological well-being, and so forth. This guilt will increase as her husband displays expressions of vulnerability, sadness, and daily dysfunction. She may seriously question her decision to leave and may even consider reuniting, just to ease his pain and her loneliness. During settlement negotiations, she may ask to waive her rights to a fair property division and support plan, and she may even give up custody of the children in her efforts to assuage her guilt. Guilt, being a very powerful motivator of human behavior, can lead to self-induced disempowerment, and it must be relieved, with the assistance of an appropriate mental health professional, if necessary, before negotiations should proceed. Otherwise, she will surely feel resentful and disenfranchised at some point later in the divorce process.

If, however, the husband’s reaction to the separation consists of anger, bitterness, and vindictiveness, her guilt usually will be pushed aside by defensiveness, withdrawal, and detachment. Moreover, she may cast him as an aggressive and perhaps violent person, who is potentially dangerous to the children, and with whom she clearly will never reunite. Moreover, she may resist and retaliate against his angry escalations through her attorney. She may make unreasonable demands for support, for property division, and for sole custody of the children with restricted visitation with their father. When such unreasonable demands are made, the professional should take note and assist her in ways to understand what she may be reacting to so that productive negotiations will not break down.


A central concern of both parties during the litigation stage is their economic survival. For most couples, the expense involved in dividing one household into two is considerable. At first, it may seem unfathomable to the parties that they will be able to survive while maintaining two households. This uncertainty may evoke strong feelings of ambivalence, confusion, self-doubt, resentment, and frustration within both parties. Then, when attorneys begin making offers back and forth (which typically are positioned strongly for tactical purposes), these feelings escalate to an even greater intensity. While many couples are able to proceed through these negotiations with relative equanimity, it is not uncommon for couples who have always been rather pleasant to each other to begin to act quite viciously toward each other. Partly, this behavior derives from the exaggerated positions taken by attorneys for bargaining leverage, and partly, it derives from the powerlessness and helplessness felt when negotiations are being conducted out of the control (and frequently out of the comprehension) of the parties. Mediation as an alternative settlement method has many advantages over litigious attorney negotiations, the least of which is to empower the parties to negotiate directly and constructively and to allow each party to experience a feeling of control over the legal process of the divorce.


About 60 percent of divorcing couples have minor children (Ahrons & Rodgers, 1987). Of these, approximately 85 to 90 percent are able to work out their custody arrangements either between themselves or with the assistance of their attorneys. However, 10 to 15 percent of these couples are unable to agree on a custody plan. Following California’s 1981 legislative mandate for mediation in child custody disputes, there is an increasing trend for states (or local jurisdictions within them) to offer mediation services to disputing couples. And, indeed, mediation is successful in well over 50 to 75 percent of these cases. However, in a minority of these cases, mediation is unsuccessful, and the couple proceeds to litigate its custody dispute. Such litigation has appropriately been called “the ugliest litigation” (Goldzband, 1985). It is filled with emotional rancor, allegations, distortions of personalities and of life events, and an intense bitterness which serves to enhance the acrimony between the parents and to create what current research demonstrates is the single most destructive influence on children of divorce–parental conflict. Since there is a winner and a loser, the loser typically retaliates by either sabotaging the court order or reopening the court case at the first appearance of another child-related dispute. Repeated litigation is the common course of such disputes. It is not uncommon for these parents to return to court anywhere from several to 25 times in a single year!


Ahrons, C. (1979). “The Binuclear Family: Two Households, One Family,” Alternative Lifestyles 2 (1979): 499-515.

Ahrons, C. (1981): “The Continuing Co-parental Relationship between Divorced Spouses,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 51, 415-428

Ahrons, C. & Rodgers, R.H. (1987). Divorced Families: A multidisciplinary Developmental View. New York: W.W. Norton.

Bohannan, P. (Ed.), (1970). Divorce and After: An Analysis of the Emotional and Social Problems of Divorce. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Federico, J. (1979). “The Marital Termination Period of the Divorce Adjustment Process.” Journal of Divorce, 3 (2), 93-106;

Folberg, J. and Milne, A. (Eds). (1988). Divorce Mediation: Theory and Practice. New York: Guilford.

Folberg, J. and Taylor, A. (1984). Mediation: A Comprehensive Guide to Resolving Conflicts Without Litigation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Goldzband, M. G. (1985). Quality Time: Easing the Children Through Divorce. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Haynes, J.M. (1981). Divorce Mediation: A Practical Guide for Therapists and Counselors. New York: Springer.

Holmes, T. H. and Rahe, R. H. (1967). “The Social Readjustment Rating Scale,” Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 11 (2), 213-218.

Johnston, J. R. and Campbell, L. E. G. (1988). Impasses of Divorce: The Dynamics and Resolution of Family Conflict. New York: Free Press.

Kaslow, F.W. (1984). “Divorce: An Evolutionary Process of Change in the Family System,” Journal of Divorce, 7, 21-39;

Kaslow F. W. and Schwartz, L. L. (1987). The Dynamics of Divorce: A Life Cycle Perspective. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Kelly, J. B. (1982). “Divorce: The Adult Perspective,” in B. B. Wolman, (Ed.), Handbook of Developmental Psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall;

Kessler, S. (1975). The American Way of Divorce: Prescriptions for Change. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Kressel, K. (1985). The Process Divorce: How Professionals and Couples Negotiate Settlements. New York: Basic Books,

Lemmon, J.A. (1985). Family Mediation Practice. New York: Free Press.

Moore, C.W. (1986). The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Saposnek, D.T. (1983a) “Strategies in Child Custody Mediation: A Family Systems Approach,” in J. A. Lemmon, (Ed.), Successful Techniques for Mediating Family Breakup, Mediation Quarterly, Journal of the Academy of Family Mediators, No. 2. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1983.

Saposnek, D.T. (1983b). Mediating Child Custody Disputes: A Systematic Guide for Family Therapists, Court Counselors, Attorneys, and Judges. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p.xv.

Saposnek, D.T. (1985). “What is Fair in Child Custody Mediation?” In J.A. Lemmon (Ed.), Making Ethical Decisions. Mediation Quarterly, Journal of the Academy of Family Mediators, No. 2. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Trafford, A. (1984). Crazy Time: Surviving Divorce. New York: Bantam Books.

Wallerstein, J. S. and Blakeslee, S. (1989). Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade after Divorce. New York: Ticknor & Fields.

Wallerstein, J. S. and Kelly, J. B. (1980). Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce. New York: Basic Books.

Weiss, R.S. (1975). Marital Separation. New York: Basic Books


Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D

Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D., is a clinical-child psychologist, a child custody and family mediator and a national and international trainer and consultant in child psychology and mediation since 1977. He is the author of the classic text, Mediating Child Custody Disputes: A Strategic Approach, and co-author of Splitting America: How… MORE >


Chip Rose

Chip Rose is highly experienced divorce mediator previously based in Santa Cruz, California and recently moved to Bend, Oregon. Chip founded The Mediation Center in Santa Cruz in 1980 and is certified as a Specialist in Family Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. In a client-centered… MORE >

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