The Undoing: Initial Feelings When Separating from a Spouse

Most people enter into marriage with the assumption that they have found their life partner – yet with more than half of marriages ending in divorce, many of us are dismayed when our marriage ends in divorce. How does divorce happen and what are the initial feelings when separating from a spouse?

By Linda Kaiser
Updated: August 31, 2016

Marriages End in Two General Ways

woman upset, separating from spouse

In my professional experience, I have seen marriages end in two general ways: the gradual erosion of love and commitment or the sudden or traumatic discovery of a betrayal in the form of adultery, addiction, or even abuse.

Many “endings” are the result of a combination of the two as well – one partner may have endured years of unhappiness and reached a breaking point after one too many disappointments. Sometimes an event external to the marriage, such as the death of a parent or sibling, can push a fragile marriage to its end. It may be the reality of our own mortality that plays a role in this decision.

The Five Stages of Grief 

I find it useful to apply the model of the Five Stages of Grief to the end of a marriage, which, after all, is a kind of death: of a relationship, of hope, of dreams. The feelings described are:

  1. Denial (“it is not really that bad”)
  2. Anger (“how could he do this to me?”)
  3. Bargaining (“if he got a better job, if we moved, if she were more sexually responsive, then…”)
  4. Depression (“I feel hopeless about my life”)
  5. Acceptance (which, for some, never occurs)

As with grief, these are not discreet stages, but rather feelings that blend into one another. Since two people are involved, each may experience these feelings at different times, leading to confusion, false hopes, and acting out – particularly of anger toward the spouse.

In my clinical practice, many individuals seek advice on whether or not to end an unhappy relationship. Often it was a case of “too good to leave, too bad to stay” that was presented to me. Of course, no one can make that decision for someone else and I rarely voice a point of view (except in cases of abuse or refusal to treat serious addiction). As adults, each of us gets to decide who to live with and when to end a relationship that is no longer working.

Many cited responsibilities to children and the fear of breaking up their family. Some decide to wait until children leave home. A recent study suggests that divorce has the most devastating effect on college-age children who perhaps see their parents' entire relationship “as a lie” or may have misplaced guilt at causing their parents to remain together. There is no perfect age to split up a family, and there are consequences at each stage of development. Ultimately, children do best being raised by parents who have a decent level of satisfaction in their own lives, including with their partner. We teach children by example, including what a healthy relationship looks like.

What role do feelings have in the decision to end a marriage?

Feelings are mercurial – they change frequently even from minute to minute. It is not uncommon to at times have intense negative feelings toward the person we live with. Love and hate are not necessarily opposites, but rather two strong feelings that often co-exist toward those we are closest to. Prolonged feelings of indifference toward your partner is much more likely to be a signal that the relationship is damaged beyond repair.

Unfortunately, many couples wait too long in addressing negative feelings with each other and reach this stage of indifference as a result. I have seen many couples come to counseling at this point, when one has already made the decision to end the marriage and is merely placating the other.

My recommendation is to try to address persistent negative feelings with your spouse and/or with a professional early on to determine what, if any, behavioral changes can be made to improve the relationship. And if this is not possible, to ultimately reach the stage of acceptance in as timely a way as possible.

Linda Kaiser, LCSW has worked with individuals and families for 50 years in both private practice and mental health clinic settings. Her specialties include couples counseling and working with divorced, remarried, and stepfamilies. Back To Top

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