A Guide for Getting Through Each Stage of Divorce

Walking the unfamiliar path of life after divorce? Here’s what to expect on the journey and how to emerge even better than you started.
Chelsea Williams
August 30, 2021
Start managing shared expenses with your co-parent easily!

n the early stages of divorce, men and women often go through an emotional journey akin to the stages of grief, where people struggling to cope with the loss of a loved one overcome denial, anger, and so forth before reaching the final stage: acceptance.  Before newly divorced people accept their new lives, they too need to work through a battery of emotional obstacles. It’s a time of adaptation and adjustment. And it can be challenging to navigate. But it doesn’t need to stay that way! With patience and care, you can find a path leading to a healthy and flourishing post-marriage life.  

Unfortunately, that path can be hard to find. Many people find divorce hard to talk about. As a result, recently divorced people all too often lack thorough and straightforward guidance about how to process divorce.

A lot of good can come from processing a divorce. We created this guide to help that process along and designed it to be useful in a wide range of circumstances. Whether you are considering a divorce, going through legal proceedings, or transitioning into a new phase of your life post-divorce, we’ll give you an idea of what to expect in six stages of the process, including:

  • The divorce recovery and rebuilding stage
  • Learning to be a single parent and co-parent (if you have kids)
  • The “after,” when you’re adopting new routines and perhaps dating again

Divorce Stage 1: Recovering From Your Divorce

Life after divorce: Friends having coffee in a cafe

The first year or so following a divorce can be tough. Whether the break-up of the marriage was driven by a major heartbreak or the split was mutual and amicable, you might feel like you’re strapped into an emotional roller coaster for a long, bumpy ride.

If you never expected you would be single again, at first it may feel impossible to define yourself outside of the context of your marriage. Being a husband or a wife became an important part of your identity. Finding a new self-conception as a single person can take considerable time and require significant intention.

When your divorce is fresh, you need to learn how to separate yourself emotionally from your married life. The end of your marriage requires you to see yourself in a radically different way. You don’t simply step away from the identity that formed while you were married. Removing that identity can mean working through a gauntlet of difficult emotions. This stage may be the most challenging.

If legal or parenting logistics are keeping you from fully removing yourself from your previous relationship, I recommend setting yourself up with a new support system. Building that system can be tricky. You may not feel comfortable sharing details of your divorce with old friends, especially people who know your former partner. Instead, you may want to seek advice from others who have been through the divorce process.

If you prefer personal relationships, try searching for a local or online support group. This can feel awkward at first, but being vulnerable with a safe group of people can offer immense rewards. Most importantly, you won’t feel alone during this tough time in your life.

If divorce support groups aren’t available or appealing to you, you can try podcasts, self-help books, or YouTube channels teaching how to create a thriving life after divorce.

How you know you’ve made it through this stage: Your mental health is solid, you’re not triggered by divorce topics as often, and you’re beginning to feel like you’re capable of moving forward.

Divorce Stage 2: Envisioning a New Life for Yourself

Life after divorce: happy, care-free, smiling woman

So, you’ve healed a bit (or a lot). Now it’s time to think about what your post-divorce life will actually look like. Where to begin?

Here are some steps that will help you gather momentum for your new life.

1. Allow yourself to dream. Before you can make real, concrete change, you have to be able to see what the change would look like. Dusting off your creative abilities — even if they’ve been long dormant — can help you envision your ideal post-marriage life. You might want to spend some time writing, drawing, meditating, or verbally journaling (using a voice memo app) about the lifestyle you would love to have. Try not to be practical in this step; let your imagination take over.

2. Set new goals for yourself. Figure out what you want to achieve. These goals can be about personal aspects of your life, such as financial independence and quality parenting, or professional aspirations, like landing a new job. It’s best to use the SMART goal format. You’ll be more likely to follow through and feel most accomplished when you can measure and check off your goals.

Some examples of new goals for creating your best life might include:

  • Spend 10 minutes per day for six months learning how to play guitar using free online videos.
  • Reach a 740 credit score in eight months.
  • Do Vinyasa yoga for 20 minutes each weekday morning.
  • Buy an SUV one year from now.
  • Commit to a monthly “date” with each of my children.
  • Save $5,000 for an emergency fund by December 31.

3. Break your goals into small, achievable steps. Even if you’ve written very specific goals, there will still be short-term steps you can identify to help you get there. Can you make a YouTube playlist of free yoga lessons to make your daily practice easier? Is there someone you can ask to watch one kid while you spend time with another? How about setting up a regular bank transfer to contribute to your emergency fund?

4. Use a system to hold yourself accountable. We all know that the actual implementation of a goal is the hardest part. To accomplish what you want, you might have to make significant changes to your lifestyle. And that isn’t easy, and it takes time. Expect to stumble here and there. You’re going to forget something or miss a goalpost or two. The important thing is to pick yourself up and start again! Or, if necessary, reconsider what you want to achieve. Don’t be afraid to adjust your goals if your desires or circumstances change.

Remember: these goals are for you! Don’t get tied up thinking about what you should want. Think about what you really do want. Making big changes on your own can be daunting. But pushing the limits of your comfort zone does wonders for your mental health and self-confidence. Look at it as self-care.

Even if life after divorce proves to be more hectic than you expected and you don’t have time you need to focus on you, you can still keep moving through this envisioning stage.  If you’re consistent, taking small steps every day will slowly but surely get you where you need to go.

How you know you’ve made it through this stage: You have at least a few tangible ideas of what you want next and you’re feeling inspired to achieve them.

Divorce Stage 3: Adjusting to Your Single Parent Routine

Life after divorce: father and son playing with a model rocket

If you’re a parent, supporting your children emotionally — even more so than you did prior to the divorce — will be of utmost importance in this third stage of life after divorce.

The form this stage takes depends on your child’s age. With older children and teenagers, it might look like ongoing, open conversations about the big changes everybody’s facing. For toddlers, it could be lots of extra cuddles and quality time.

After moving your kids through the initial emotional shock of divorce, it’s important to balance your own needs and desires with theirs. Here are a few tips for staying sane as you find that balance:

  • If you’re fortunate enough to have family members close by, enlist their regular support. Your children will benefit from seeing they have an extended network of people who continue to provide them with love and care.
  • Plan to do at least one restorative activity for yourself when your children are spending time with the other parent. It can be hard to adjust to having only your own company if you’re not used to being alone. Preempt the loneliness ahead of time with a plan you can look forward to.
  • Boost your children’s self-esteem by allowing them to explore something new as well. Just as it’s empowering to plan for your fresh start, having a fun new thing to focus on can help your kids adjust and feel more positive about the changes. Excitement can come from something as simple as allowing your kids to decorate their bedrooms, or as inexpensive as letting them explore a new neighborhood together.

How you know you’ve made it through this stage: Your children are starting to adjust to their new normal, even if they’re still a bit resistant.

Divorce Stage 4: Learning to Be an Effective Co-Parent

Mom trying to meditate while her child is playing beside her

Raising children under the same roof as another parent is a completely different experience than doing so from two houses.

When you’re starting out, no one expects you to know how to co-parent perfectly. You deserve some help during this period of adjustment.

I know what it’s like to feel that you’re trying your best to follow your co-parenting plan, but running into things that just don’t work as well as they theoretically should. I remember frequently thinking things like “How should I phrase this email?” and “Does this count as an extracurricular that we should both pay for?”

Practical help beyond the courtroom was difficult to come by. There was no such thing as a good co-parenting app. Had I had access to a helpful tool like Onward to quickly and easily share and get approval on shared expenses, my co-parenting life would’ve been so much less stressful.

I recommend taking the much more convenient route that’s now available to co-parents: Use an easy digital platform and the power of automation to reduce potential conflict.

How you know you’ve made it through this stage: You’ve begun to establish positive communication with your co-parent and are open to watching it evolve.

Divorce Stage 5: Settling Into Life After Divorce

Friends happily cooking

If you haven’t already, you may now be able to see why some people talk about feeling happier after divorce.

By the time you get to this stage, you’ve hopefully been able to create some family routines that work for you and your children. You may still be reminded of your divorce by ongoing legal matters, such as child support or alimony, but you’ve been able to let go of the most stressful divorce-related details.

Now it could be time to sprinkle in some fun and do more things that are good for you.

That could look like:

  • Going for walks or hikes at a park you haven’t been to before
  • Signing up for a dance or art class or your local gym
  • Buying that book you’ve been eyeing, but didn’t have time to read until now
  • Visiting a loved one you haven’t seen in a while
  • Cooking dinner with a new friend
  • Starting a gratitude journal or writing sweet notes to your children

If you’re enjoying your alone time and don’t feel like having a buzzing social life, that’s OK too. You can do lots of the above activities on your own to liven up your routine and contribute to your mental and physical health.

Settling into your life after divorce doesn’t have to be boring. Sometimes adding in simple things keeps life feeling fresh and meaningful.

How you know you’ve made it through this stage: You’re letting go of paperwork and household management and starting to really live this new life you’ve built.

Divorce Stage 6: When You Feel Ready to Start Dating

Couple holding hands in a cafe

There is no timeline for entering this final stage. Some divorcees start dating after six months to a year while others wait several years before they start. And some never feel like seeking out a new partner at all. Do what’s right for you. It’s absolutely imperative to follow your gut on this, rather than any convention you believe you have to follow about dating after divorce.

If you’re ready to put yourself out there, first think about the areas of your life that could facilitate meeting someone new. Do you have a work or social environment that might offer chances for new connections? Are you a fan of online dating? Perhaps there’s already someone you have in mind, but you need to work up the courage to approach them.

There are lots of ways your dating life could pick up again. Try not to force an encounter with a potential partner. You’re most likely to meet a good match when you’ve gone through all of the above stages at a slow, steady pace and paid attention to your own emotional healing.

When you’re co-parenting, bringing a new partner into your children’s lives can introduce some extra complexities. I highly recommend taking it slow if you’re considering introducing someone new to your kids.

How you know you’ve made it through this stage: The truth is, there’s no end to this stage! All that matters is that you’re content with your relationship status and its effect on your family life at any given point.

Move Forward With Dignity Post-Divorce

The above advice applies to life after divorce for men and women alike. Your particular situation will be unique, so these stages may look a bit different for you.

Starting over will probably require letting go of what you thought your new life might be like and allowing it to unfold as it will. By maintaining patience and compassion for yourself, you can go well beyond merely recovering from your divorce.

Start managing shared expenses with your co-parent easily!

Chelsea Williams

Chelsea is a twice-divorced mom of two boys. She is happily single parenting and doing her best to balance two simultaneous co-parenting relationships. Despite the complications, Chelsea can see the beauty in her story and believes healing is possible for the whole family.