Certain parts of divorce are easy to understand; for example, feeling devastated after a spouse comes to you, seemingly out of nowhere, and announces that your marriage is over.
But it’s less easy to grasp feeling just as devastated when you're the one who has asked to end things. Sure, you might have more verve if you’re exiting a marriage that you’re ready to leave behind. But if you peek behind the curtain, you might find grief, too.
In fact, although the majority of divorces are initiated by women, that doesn’t change the fact that divorce raises our risk of depression and anxiety — no matter how much we know the marriage should end.
“A lot of times when people want to divorce, the mental preparation occurs prior to the actual event of asking for a divorce,” says Lisa Bahar, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Newport Beach, California. “But adjusting to any sort of life change on that scale can be hard, even when it’s something you desire.”
The Stages of Grief Apply to Divorce, Too
We don’t only grieve an unexpected or unwanted loss. Sometimes, we grieve for the life we had and are now leaving, even when it’s a life we weren’t satisfied with.
“When divorce is a part of your life course, it has an existential quality to it,” Bahar says. “There’s a meaning to your grief, and you might carry it with you for a long time.” That doesn’t mean you’re pining for your ex or that you made a mistake asking for a divorce. “This person was in your life. They were a part of your family, and maybe they still are. You’re working through the loss of someone who was a big part of your life.”
When it comes to grief regarding death, it’s a common axiom that someone’s proximity to the person who died plays a role in the depth of their grief. You may be emotionally closer to your far-flung bestie than to a more casual friend you see three times a week, but if that casual friend dies, you’re left with a more concrete hole in your life. You can apply that same logic to divorce; your routine, your leisure time, your social life, and even your home might be dramatically altered, which can have a major impact on your day-to-day existence. No wonder it can be hard to find your bearings.
Ending a marriage can also trigger latent issues that might have been soothed by a long-term partnership. Bahar points to abandonment as an example. “Whether it’s real or imagined abandonment, it can come up a lot in divorce,” she says. “Even if someone wants out, they might still feel abandoned, like, ‘I hate you, but don’t leave.’”
If you’re concerned about your sadness after a divorce but are functioning relatively well, consider a reframe: By accessing your emotions now, you may be less likely to hit a wall later. “People get into survival mode,” Bahar says. “They find a way through a crisis without making it worse for themselves in the moment, and that’s sort of grinning and bearing it and putting their best face on. But I’ve seen clients grin and bear it, and then crumble after it’s all done.”
In other words: Your sadness may actually be a protective mechanism that will allow you to move on. Eventually.
Depression After Divorce: What to Know
“I respect grief,” Bahar says. “It’s a very soulful experience: Something is missing, something is gone now, something has changed. And somehow, you learn to fill that, hopefully in a healthy way.”
But what happens when you don’t fill the space of grief healthfully? Depression may be a classic stage of grief and loss, but there’s a difference between a brief period of depression as a part of the natural mourning process and a longer-term depression that interferes with your functioning.
“Justified sadness can be self-care; it’s soothing to honor your emotions. But once you get to a certain place and it’s interrupting your life, that sadness can be maladaptive, and that’s when we’re going into depression,” Bahar says.
If you’re among the 29% of American adults who have faced depression at some point in their lives, you might know the drill. But depression at midlife can take a different flavor than it may have 20 years ago. “If you’re 27 and your life isn’t working out the way you thought, that may be experienced as depression,” Bahar says. “If you’re divorcing someone and there’s a long history there — cohabitation, your children might be involved, finances, housing, work, things that people experienced together — that might also be experienced as depression, but there will be a relational dynamic that that same person might not have had at age 27.”
People experiencing perimenopause and menopause may also be at greater risk for depression due to hormonal shifts and other physical issues, such as disrupted sleep. Mixing in major life changes like divorce can raise that risk even further.
Depression has specific criteria — if you meet a certain number of symptoms (such as fatigue, significant weight change, sleep disturbance, and loss of pleasure) for more than two weeks, you may be clinically depressed. If you find yourself in that zone, it’s time to seek help from a healthcare practitioner who can recommend a course of treatment, which can include therapy and medication.
How to Cope with a Desired Divorce
Assuming you’re grieving but not depressed and that your grief isn’t interfering with your ability to function, you can use those feelings of loss to gently repair and rebuild.
“At some point in your grief, you’ll ask yourself, ‘What did I take away from this relationship?’” Bahar says. “Eventually you’ll emerge and start to think about things in a different way. Your character is built because you have a new lens on life. Maybe it had been skewed toward distrust and rage before the divorce, and now that it’s ended, you can adjust that lens to have it be more about strength and acceptance. But finding that meaning behind grief is crucial.”
You may have to go through that doorway alone, but turning to your community can help you reach that threshold. This is the time to commit to activities you may have let lapse, or to find new ones — church or community groups, brunch or coffee dates with old friends, even support groups for newly divorced people.
However, it’s key to remember: Just as every marriage is unique, every divorce is, too. What helped one person get through a divorce — say, joining a pickleball league or playing the field — might help you, but it might also make you miserable. Take the well-meaning advice of friends and family with a grain of salt, respect your feelings, and consider what you need at each stage.
“When a client comes in who is just coming out of a divorce, some of them just need to talk about it, and others are ready to get out of their comfort zone and explore certain things about where they want to go next,” Bahar says. “But all of that has to be on their timeline, and that’s different for each person.”
If there were a trick to getting through a big split without pain, we’d tell you. But just as there’s no singular secret to an enduring partnership, there’s no secret for avoiding some level of pain during a divorce. The closest thing we have is to remind you that just by being here and honoring where you’re at — glad to be divorcing, not so glad to still feel mucky about it — you’re getting through it. And as the saying goes, the only way through is through.
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano has been writing and editing content for and about women for 25 years. Her book, Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives (Simon & Schuster, 2016), has been called “a valuable addition to contemporary feminist writing” and “smart, even-handed, and personal” by leading media outlets.