An Intimate Exploration of the Process of Divorce, Part 1

Throughout history, there has been an evolution of the institution/deinstitutionalization of marriage as well as divorce. In a nation that is growing and developing in staggering proportions both technologically and intelligently, we continually struggle to understand the depth of which emotional distress affects those who experience divorce.

Many people in the United States have either been directly or indirectly affected by divorce at some point in their lives. Even if a person has not directly experienced a divorce, they have a parent, sibling, in-law, friend, colleague or distant relative that has either been divorced or is in the process of a divorce.

Statistics show that in the United States, 41 percent to 50 percent of first marriages end in a divorce. The statistics have been known to increase for second and third marriages.

With that in mind, it would be beneficial to our clients if we explore and discuss the phases of therapy as well as the stages of emotions that occur during the healing period after a divorce (“Divorce statistics”, n.d.).

History of Divorce

Coontz’s (2007) research of the origins of modern divorce aptly describes the patterns of divorce that date back more than 200 years and that separation and remarriage is not an uncommon occurrence. Separation and divorce actually date as far back as the “hunting and gathering” societies (p.7).

Among the Shoshone Indians, a wife who wanted a divorce would simply place her husband’s possessions outside the dwelling, which belonged to her. Among the Cewa of East Africa, the husband takes his hoe, axe, and sleeping mat when he leaves his wife’s village and the divorce is complete. In traditional Japanese society, a letter of three and a half lines was all a man needed to divorce his wife. Women, however, had to put in two years of services at a special temple before they could get divorce. (pp. 7-8)

Over time, as we evolved as humans in industrialized societies, both marriage and divorce has evolved as well. The reasons for marriage years ago were much different than they are today. Just as the rituals and reasons for divorce have evolved over time, the same holds true for marriage.

People married “…to acquire influential in-laws, effect business mergers, raise capital, improve their social status, seal military alliances, or expand their family labor force. Romantic love was not unknown in the past, but it was not closely linked to marriage” (Coontz, 2007, p. 8).

Falling in love was considered a weakness in some cultures. Eventually, over time, the notion of companionship, love and fulfillment were integrated into marital beliefs. By the 1910’s and 1920’s, men and women expected to have these beliefs incorporated into their marriage (p. 11). When these expectations were not met or fulfilled, the modern culture began to revolt and divorce climbed sharply (p. 11).

With the advent of no-fault divorce, and an increase in women in the work force with the ability to provide a substantial living without a husband, it became much easier for couples to divorce. Nevertheless, even today, women may experience a lower standard of living after divorce (14). Even with the increase of women in the work force, it is not to say that the impact on emotions after divorce has lessened over time.

In some cases, marriages can be saved and partners healed. When a couple decides that the marriage is too broken to salvage, a myriad of emotions and adjustments take place for each of the spouses.

Exceptions to Every Rule

Couples are no longer feeling compelled to stay together and work issues out when they are truly unhappy. With the stigma of divorce rapidly fading, for some couples, it may serve as yet another reason to move toward divorce (Rice, 1976). However, I think it is essential to highlight times when a couple may come into therapy presenting as they want a divorce and then choosing the alternative.

For some couples, therapy is the last-ditch effort to salvage their marriage. Or perhaps one person in the couple may use therapy as a justification for divorce. This occurs when there is a hidden agenda, when the spouse says, “see I tried everything, even therapy, and it still won’t work.”

Nevertheless, there are instances whereby the therapist does not reaffirm the necessity for the couple to stay together. The mere exploration of divorce may result in a phenomenon which is referred to as pseudo-divorce (p. 51).

What is a Pseudo-Divorce?

Rice (1976) purports that a crisis situation such as a couple attending therapy because they want a divorce can be a catalyst to growth and have a paradoxical effect of enhancing the marital relationship (p. 51). From time to time, when a couple talks about their fantasy regarding divorce and being apart, it actually helps the couple to choose to stay together.

When the therapist is a witness to the divorce discussion, the couple may experience the conversation about divorce begins to lose its influence.  Therefore, “the process of going through the motions of getting into therapy may well have had some ameliorative effects” specifically in regard to pseudo-divorce (p. 52).

Rice poignantly sums up the phenomenological process as “divorce is the first step to marriage” (p.53). The next part will explore times when pseudo-divorce does not apply and how individuals adapt to divorce.

Post-Divorce, Adaptation and Ego Development

Adapting to a lifestyle change such as divorce brings up innumerable challenges as well as psychological, emotional and physical stresses. Divorce can have a profound effect on both parties which may induce depression, anxiety, anger, and confusion.

Bursik’s (1991) research proposed, “the adaptation to and integration of life transitions or stressful life events into one’s orientation toward the self and the external environment might provide opportunities for growth in adulthood” (p. 304). The study was comprised of female participants who had been separated from their husbands less than eight months (early stages of adaptation – T1).

After a year, the participants were again contacted and asked the same follow-up questions – T2). The design was to study women who were adapting to marital separation and divorce (p. 302).

The study measured emotional health, physical health and well-being during the first-time frame (T1) and then again during the second time frame (T2).

The categories encompassed questionnaires that measured ego development, self-esteem, life satisfaction, mood disturbance, stress symptoms, and physical health. The results of the study did indeed support “the hypothesis that marital separation and divorce are often experienced as dis-equilibrating life changes, but ones that may foster ego development” (p. 305).

Therefore, we can assume dis-equilibrating life changes may actually help increase ego development despite the painful and often  laborious healing process.

Further discussion in Part II will discuss the way in which couples adapt to divorce, if resiliency plays a role in the adjustment process, post-divorce emotions, healing, and phases of therapy.


Bursik, K. (1991). Adaptation to divorce and ego development in adult women. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 60(2), 300-306. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.60.2.300

Coontz, S. (2007). The origins of modern divorce. Family Process, 46(1), 7-16. Retrieved from

Divorce statistics. (n.d.). Divorce statistics and divorce rate in the USA. Retrieved from

Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 9(4), 332-336. doi:10.1037/h0086781

Rice, David G. (1976). Pseudo-divorce: A factor in marital stability and growth. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 13(1), 51-53.

Dr. Normajean Cefarelli is a Connecticut and New York State Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who has trained extensively in counseling individuals, couples, and families. She holds a Doctorate Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Northcentral University, Master of Family Therapy degree from Southern Connecticut State University and is a Clinical Member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).

She served a three-year term on the Board of Directors for the Connecticut Association for Marriage and Family Therapy as the Ethics Committee Chair. She has been in a private practice setting integrating eastern and western modalities since 2000. As a long-time meditator, she now integrates Mindfulness Meditation instruction into her therapy sessions.






An Intimate Exploration of the Process of Divorce, Part 1


APA Reference
Cefarelli,, N. (2020). An Intimate Exploration of the Process of Divorce, Part 1. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 28 Aug 2020
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 28 Aug 2020
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