Medical Branch Clinic, Naval Hospital, Jacksonville, Fla.

J Am Board Fam Med. 2001;14(3) 

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Stages of Divorce

Divorce comprises a series of transitions or stages for both adults and children. These stages are similar to the stages Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described for patients with terminal illnesses: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.[3] During a divorce children experience these stages quite differently from adults.

In the denial stage, the children simply fail to believe that their parents, the adults who provide them with safe home, shelter, and food, could ever part. During this time, the children reassure themselves that their parents will stay together, or if already separated, will soon reunite. This reunion fantasy often persists for years.

Denial is followed by anger, the second stage. Children can be furious at their parents for not trying harder to stay together, for permitting the divorce to happen, for ruining their lives, and for dashing their dreams of the future as they had it planned. Acting-out behavior often accompanies the anger.

Children enter the bargaining stage by trying to undo the damage by changing their own actions. If they get better grades, perform their daily chores without complaining, or quit fighting with their sibling, surely the absent parent will return home to stay. At certain ages, children might actually believe some real or imagined misbehavior on their own part drove away a parent.

In the depression stage, there is a pervasive sadness that permeates every aspect of the child's life. They are sad and tired every day at school and at home. Children who reach this stage and who appear to be driven to succeed in some way must be watched closely, as they might be suffering the most and overcompensating to control the emotions they feel.

Finally, acceptance occurs when the children have gained the emotional experience and distance to see that perhaps the divorce was for the best and that their parents are happier living apart than they would have been living together. This stage usually occurs only in older children or even young adults.

Parents pass through these same stages. At times, one or both of the parents might have passed through some of the stages before the children are ever told of the impending divorce. Parents can inadvertently put the emotional needs of their children on hold as they deal with their own feelings and reactions to the immediate crisis. Children who do not get the support they need can become temporarily stuck in the denial stage. The parent moves on and is ready to get on with life. If this stage includes dating or one parent moving away, the children will be confused. Because they still do not see the divorce with any finality, they might view these acts as betrayal of the marriage.

Wallerstein's study has shown that most family functioning is worse 12 to 18 months after the divorce than at the time immediately surrounding the divorce. Five years later, one third of the children were still functioning more poorly than they did at the time of the divorce. One of three children found themselves still embroiled in the ongoing bitterness of their two battling parents.[4]

Ten years after the divorce, one half of the women and one third of the men studied were still intensely angry at their former spouses.[2] The continuing animosity and conflict between the parents were frequently transmitted to, or even worse, through their children, who become caught in the crossfire. The promise that time heals all wounds has forgotten these families.

Children displayed some common themes 10 years after their parents' divorce. They say that they will delay having children until they are sure their own marriages are solid so they will not put their own children through the same events they experienced.[3,5] They were able to recall detailed, often painful memories of the time when their parents separated. They seek what their parents failed to find: a lasting marital relationship, romantic love that does not fade with time, and faithfulness to the marriage and family. They want to avoid repeating the past.


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