Divorce & Separation Challenges

While divorce or separation may often be the right choice, it can nonetheless come with a variety of mental health challenges. Even when both partners want to divorce, be permanently separated, or assume a trial separation, the change can be a painful one, and the challenges increase in situations where the partners have conflicting goals, legal rights, perspectives, religious beliefs, or motivations.

When the problems associated with divorce or separation become especially prolonged or intense, they can lead to symptoms of common mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.

Because issues related to divorce and separation vary so much and are deeply personal, it’s hard to say for sure how common they are.

However, divorce itself is very common in the United States, with the American Psychological Association reporting that about 40 to 50 % of married couples file for divorce. These rates are even higher for second, third, and subsequent marriages.

Some studies also suggest that divorce and separation can have negative effects on your mental health. For example, one study found that conflicting with a former spouse takes a toll on mental health, while another study indicated that people who have been depressed in the past are more likely to relapse if they go through a divorce.

Separation and divorce are different for everyone. In some states, there are required separation period laws prior to divorce. Then, there are many options for separation that make the landscape hard to navigate. Trial separation is informal and may be decided by a couple to try living apart without any legal aspect involved. Permanent separation and legal separation both may require a legal separation agreement whether you decide to remain legally separated indefinitely (in the case of permanent separation) or continue to divorce. Separation allows you and your spouse to remain legally married.

People vary widely in their emotional and psychological responses to these challenging issues. That said, some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Anxiety or worry: You may be frequently preoccupied with concerns about your divorce or separation and its social and legal consequences. Should we file a separation agreement? Will the divorce proceedings go smoothly? How do I find a divorce attorney? How will marital property be divided? How will we decide custody? Child support? Will I receive or pay alimony? What about health insurance benefits? You may struggle to focus on many other things.
  • Sadness or depression: Losing your relationship with your partner might make you feel sad, hopeless, or fatigued. Legal separation and divorce are a hard end to something that may have begun beautifully. Depending on the length of the relationship, the prospect of living separate lives and being solely responsible for life’s consequences may be daunting.
  • Anger or irritability: You may be impatient or short-tempered with those around you. Going through a legal separation, divorce, or even a trial separation can drum up a lot of emotions — relationships are hard work whether you’re trying to remain married or going through the divorce process. Medical or financial decisions, child support, spousal support, property division are major life decisions that can cause anger and frustration.
  • General stress: You may have trouble sleeping or experience physical symptoms including muscle tension, headaches, and digestive troubles.
  • Social withdrawal or conflict: A divorce or separation might cause you to feel uncomfortable or tense in social situations, even with close friends or loved ones.
  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame: Especially in a culture that places a high value on partnered relationships, you may blame yourself and feel guilty or ashamed if you’re going through a divorce or separation. Whether a legal separation or divorce decree, admitting that your relationship failed is challenging and disclosing your new marital status may not feel empowering.

Again, issues related to divorce and separation come in countless forms, and this is by no means an exhaustive list. Whether it’s a no-fault divorce, amicable legal separation, or otherwise, some especially common scenarios include:

  • Uncontested divorce: In an uncontested divorce, both partners want to divorce, have similar goals, and work together throughout the process.
  • Contested divorce: In a contested divorce, one spouse may not want to divorce or there may be serious disagreements around key factors like child custody, insurance benefits, property division, or conflict surrounding other assets.
  • Separation of unmarried partners: Separating from a partner to whom you are not married may be less legally complicated, but it can be just as emotionally fraught, especially since society may not recognize your loss as something significant. Depending on assets, while you won’t legally file for divorce, you may need a law firm to help make financial decisions or divide property acquired during the relationship.
  • Concerns about children: Worries about child custody, child support, and how a divorce or separation will affect a couple’s child(ren) are among the most common stressors in divorce and separation.
  • Financial issues: Often, divorces and legal separations turn contentious around issues of how to divide up financial assets and what’s considered marital property. The overall expenses associated with getting divorced, which might include legal fees or moving fees, can also have a significant psychological impact on individuals.
  • Divorce or separation related to infidelity: Some studies indicate that infidelity is the most common reason that couples seek divorce.
  • Issues related to substance use: Drinking or drug use by one or both partners are also common factors in the decision to get divorced or legally separated.
  • Violence, abuse, and gaslighting: When getting divorced or legally separated involves emotional or physical violence or intimidation from one or more partners, the relationship can be considered abusive. Abuse is usually far more dangerous and stressful than the other scenarios described here.

If you’re looking for support as you go through a divorce or separation, you have several options. Some of them include:

  • Therapy: Find a therapist who can help you process your experience of the separation or divorce and work toward resolving any related mental health symptoms. You might work with a therapist on your own or attend couples’ therapy, in which you and your partner participate in sessions with them. Talking with a professional may be a beneficial step to resolve issues to avoid divorce or legal separation, or it may be a less confrontational way to sort out the issues of the separation agreement. (See more tips below on selecting a therapist.)
  • Support groups: A support group can help you process your feelings and connect with others who are going through similar experiences. You can find more information about divorce support groups and learn how to find one in your area here.
  • Meditation or mindfulness practices. Making space for quiet reflection can help you gain perspective on your divorce or separation, and it may also reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety that these issues can cause.
  • Connect with other friends and loved ones. While you may want to withdraw from your other relationships, relying on the important people in your life can be a crucial resource as you go through a divorce or separation. Be sure to stay in contact with supportive friends and family and ask for help when you need it.
  • Hotlines and safety resources: If you are experiencing abuse related to a divorce or separation, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or www.TheHotline.org. If a child may be in danger, you should also contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453. If you’re having thoughts of suicide or need immediate support, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

A therapist who typically works with clients whose symptoms, or situations, are similar to yours

Therapists offer several different approaches to treating these issues. Some approaches involve just one person attending sessions, while others might require both partners and/or other family members to attend. Common options include:

Know what questions you need to ask potential therapists

These questions may prove helpful when interviewing potential therapists:

  • What therapy type (Possibly one of the examples above) do you use when helping clients manage the effects of divorce and separation?
  • Do you have experience working with clients who have my particular symptoms?

Prioritize personal fit

While personality fit is a nuanced factor, it is critical to your success in therapy. Multiple studies have revealed the importance of this factor, often referred to as “therapeutic alliance.”

On your initial phone call with the therapist, ask yourself:

  • Could I see myself forming a connection with this therapist?
  • Does their approach suit my personality?
  • Do I feel like I will be heard and respected by this therapist?

Additionally, consider these factors:

  • Some therapists are more reflective and spend most of the session listening and drawing insights about your patterns and coping styles.
  • Some therapists are more directive, establishing weekly agendas and assigning tasks to complete between sessions.
  • Some utilize specific techniques or tools (exposure exercises, eye movements, tapping, breath work, guided imagery, art and music, etc.).
  • Some use a combination of multiple approaches.

Consider cost, location, and scheduling

Divorce can be costly, but you may be able to find a therapist who’s affordable for your budget, and most importantly, who’ll be there to help you navigate the stress of separation.

Before making an appointment, consider the following:

  • Can I afford these session fees? The cost of therapy for addiction depends on location, practitioner, and whether you’re using insurance.
  • Can I commit to attending sessions regularly? Remember to account for travel time, and other demands in your schedule.
  • Do the therapists’ available times work for me? Some therapists offer evening and weekend appointments if you have an otherwise limited schedule.

New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.