The Four Divorces

We think of divorce as a single event – you get divorced and you’re done. The truth is that you need to go through these four divorces: the Legal Divorce, the Financial Divorce, the Social Divorce, and the Emotional Divorce. Here’s how each will affect you.
By M. Marcy Jones
Updated: October 05, 2015

The Four Divorces

Most people going through a divorce have certain expectations and end up surprised when things go off track. The reality is there is so much more involved in the divorce process than just the legal piece.

The truth is there are really four divorces happening all at the same time, and over a period of time. Everyone goes through each of these divorces differently and over different periods of time. The Four Divorces are:

  • The Legal Divorce
  • The Financial Divorce
  • The Social Divorce
  • The Emotional Divorce

As you and your spouse experience each of these divorces at your own pace, problems may come up that make communication difficult and disrupt attempts at settlement.

Let’s take a look at each of these divorces and examine how they affect your overall experience of divorce.

The Legal Divorce

The Legal Divorce is what most people think of when they think of “divorce.” It’s simply the legal framework for finalizing your divorce. Papers are filed in the court initiating the process, certain procedures have to be followed, and then a judge will sign a document stating that you are officially divorced. The process varies by jurisdiction.

A divorce is either contested or uncontested. A contested divorce is when both of you haven’t been able to reach an agreement on the issues involved and ends up in litigation with a judge making all the decisions.

An uncontested divorce is when both of you agree on how to resolve the issues regarding custody,support, and division of property, and you have a written agreement that both of you have signed. An uncontested divorce doesn’t take as long to complete, it’s less expensive, and less stressful than a contested divorce; in many cases, it can be finalized without going to court.

The Financial Divorce

The Financial Divorce deals with your money, what you own, and what you owe. You need to make decisions about how to divide your marital assets and liabilities. These decisions can be difficult, as now the income that used to support one household will be supporting two. This is a harsh reality for many divorcing couples.

Being open, honest, and cooperative about the marital assets and liabilities makes this part of the divorce go more smoothly. If you have trouble getting through one of the Four Divorces, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to make the financial decisions necessary to complete the divorce process.

What happens if you can’t resolve your issues and have to take your divorce to court? You end up spending money on legal fees that should otherwise be going into your pocket and your spouse’s pocket. On the other hand, if you work together – privately, or in mediation or collaboration – you can create your own custom solutions that set yourselves and your children up for the best financial divorce possible.

The Social Divorce 

The Social Divorce deals with how your friends and family adjust to the fact that you and your spouse are no longer together. Divorce is a family affair. Everyone around you is affected. Your friends, family, and co-workers have related to you and your spouse as a couple, and now they must learn to relate to each of you as single individuals. Each person reacts differently and on his or her own timetable. Be respectful and allow people to go through their own adjustments to the end of your relationship.

It’s helpful to keep your family and friends out of your divorce and keep the focus on what is best for you and your children. Your family and friends likely have strong feelings and support you, but their well-meaning advice often makes things worse.

The Emotional Divorce

This is the most difficult of the Four Divorces and the one that catches people off guard. Ending a marriage feels a lot like losing a loved one; it’s a loss you must grieve. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you know what this is like. Everyone goes through the emotional phase of divorce differently, just like everyone grieves in his or her own unique way. Not only do you grieve the loss of your spouse, partner, lifestyle, and dreams, but now you also have to figure out how to keep walking around on the planet with your ex-spouse in a socially acceptable way.

It’s difficult to think clearly and to make good decisions when you’re in the early stages of this grief and recovery process. Being aware that it is a process – and knowing where you are in the process – is critical to you being able to make the best choices. Recognizing that your spouse is going through this process as well can help you understand his or her behavior – which is especially important during settlement negotiations.

How you negotiate and communicate with one another during your divorce is always impacted by where each of you is in the Emotional Divorce. If the two of you are in very different places, you need to allow some time to pass before trying to negotiate anything except the most pressing matters.

Working through the Four Divorces

Take some time to reflect on the following questions. Then take your journal (or a piece of paper if you don’t have a journal) and write out your answers in as much detail as possible. Ask yourself:

  • Where do I fall in the Emotional Divorce?
  • If I initiated the divorce, do I need to slow things down and give my spouse a chance to catch up? What’s going on now that would help me answer this question?
  • If I’m the one who was left, what do I need to do to get the help and support I need to cope with what’s going on in the best way possible?
  • Am I willing to seek out the help I need? If not, why not?
  • How am I handling other family members and the Social Divorce?
  • Am I making efforts to maintain relationships?
  • How do the Four Divorces affect the different areas of my situation?
  • What can I take from this article that will help me in my own divorce situation?

By understanding where you and your spouse are in each of the Four Divorces, you’ll be able to make conscious choices as you go along. You’ll be better able to maintain your emotional balance, and to make informed and responsible decisions.

Graceful Divorce Solutions

This article has been edited and excerpted from Graceful Divorce Solutions, A Comprehensive and Proactive Guide to Saving you Time, Money, and Your Sanity (Balboa Press, 2014). M. Marcy Jones is an author, speaker, lawyer, and advocate for change. She has practiced family law since 1995, and is a settlement expert and conflict resolution advocate, specializing in collaborative practice.

Source: The Four Divorces

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