Divorce and the Adjustment Process

Thank you to Purple House Clinic in Rugby for this blog.


Divorce has been found to be one of the most stressful life experiences, along with the death of a spouse(Holmes and Rahe 1967). It therefore makes sense that there would be a significant adjustment process following a divorce, as might be expected following a significant bereavement. The adjustment process will be impacted by a number of factors including the circumstances around the end of the relationship. These might include infidelity, abusive behaviour, drug or alcohol issues, infertility, physical illness, differences in parenting style, different values or beliefs, sexual difficulties, communication difficulties or ‘drifting apart’ because other life priorities have made it difficult to invest time and effort into a relationship.


The Adjustment Model

Initially developed by Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1967) in relation to terminal illness and bereavement, this model provides a framework to understand the process we might go through following the ending of a long term relationship or divorce. It may apply to others affected by the situation including children. The stages may be experienced in a different order, and the same stage can be experienced more than once.



Often the first or one of the early stages of the grieving process. “This can’t be happening!!”;“This is just temporary”; “They will change their mind and come back”.  Denial may be related to the situation of separation itself or the feelings involved. It may also re-emerge later in the process.


A very normal response to loss, which can take many forms. Anger at being rejected, at being physically, emotionally or financially abused, at being left with the responsibility of children, or conversely not having access to children. Experiences of infidelity and rejection are frequently associated with feelings of anger towards an ex partner following the end of a relationship. This may also include anger with oneself for “letting this happen” or “not seeing things sooner”, or for choosing the “wrong” partner or for feeling as if we have failed in some way to meet our partner’s needs.


This is where we might come up with some way of negotiating a different outcome. “If I am a nicer person it will be different”, “If I make more of an effort with my appearance or lose some weight” are examples of how we might try and make some changes in order for the outcome to be different. Unfortunately even if this appears to work in the short term it is not usually sustainable, or it is not the answer to the problem.


This is when sadness and loneliness hit the hardest and we feel we are unable to take action to change the situation and have to face up to the loss and all that goes with it.  It can feel that things will never change, that we will never be happy again or will never meet anyone again. We may be tearful, have difficulty eating, sleeping and functioning. We may even experience depression at a level, which requires professional help.


At this point we have more or less come to terms with the separation or divorce. This can take a long time and we can think we have reached this point, only to fall back into one of the other stages again. By reaching a point of acceptance we are not necessarily saying we are happy about what has happened, or that we would have chosen the outcome. However we feel we can make some choices about our life and how we wish to move forwards. The intensity of the feelings may have reduced, although the feelings may still come from time to time.

Moving on

Grieving the loss of a relationship is a tough journey, usually involving several stages and it is important to give ourselves time to process what has happened and to experience the range of emotions we will naturally have. There is no shortcut unfortunately and attempts to create shortcuts are likely to backfire. The end goal following a divorce is moving on with our life. This can feel impossible at the beginning, but each day we can take some helpful steps towards this goal. These may include:

  • Having a routine, e.g. predictable activities during the day and evening
  • Talking / reaching out to others
  • Finding new interests and rekindling interests from the past
  • Allowing space for feelings, mindfulness practice
  • Not trying to rush the adjustment process, reminding ourselves it will take time but it will change

It is important to have plenty of support from friends and family and in some cases professional support (e.g. counselling or psychological therapy). It can be invaluable to have a neutral space to explore and process the thoughts and feelings we may be experiencing. Being kind to ourselves and focusing on healing our wounds with self- compassion is key in terms of reaching a point of acceptance and feeling genuinely able to move on. Many people actually reach a point of being happier in the long run as they find new ways of achieving their goals and find that they have developed resilience and greater strength through adversity.

There are many online practical and psychological resources available, which might be helpful during the divorce process, links to some of these can be found below.






If you feel you need additional assistance in the form of psychological therapy, The Purple House Clinic, Rugby may be able to help. We offer a welcoming environment and a choice of psychologists, who will be able to help you understand and move forwards with any emotional or psychological difficulties you may be experiencing.  Please visit our website for more information.