Here's How to Get Through an Emotional Divorce, According to Experts

The walk-away spouse vs. the left-behind spouse.

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If your partner has decided they're ready for divorce and it's time to emotionally leave a marriage, it can be a trying process. Going through an emotional divorce means you're distancing yourself emotionally from your partner. For some spouses, this happens before the divorce. For others, it doesn’t happen until after the divorce process.

What Is Emotional Divorce?

Emotional divorce often precedes a legal divorce. It is a psychological mechanism some spouses use to separate their emotions from the marriage when they feel the relationship has become a threat to their well-being.

"An emotional divorce is just as it sounds," says licensed marriage and family therapist Virginia Williamson. "It's essentially emotionally exiting the marriage. During an emotional divorce, a spouse divests from trying to work on or repair the marriage and typically moves through the stages of grief in an effort to let the marriage and their partner go."

Meet the Expert

Virginia Williamson is a licensed marriage and family therapist and the founder of Collaborative Counseling Group, a multidisciplinary counseling practice based in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Most divorces are one-sided. Very rarely will a couple sit down and come to the decision to divorce together. Normally, the spouse who has already separated themselves emotionally from the marriage requests a divorce. That spouse has gone through an "emotional divorce" and now plans to be legally divorced from their spouse. And while divorce is certainly difficult on both sides, the partner who has already had the chance to go through the emotional divorce before taking any steps for a legal divorce may find the process simpler than the partner who is feeling shocked by the news. "Sometimes people are going through both the emotional and the legal divorce simultaneously, which, of course, can be incredibly stressful," Williamson adds.

But as difficult as it is, there are ways to cope with divorce. Read on for expert advice on how to emotionally leave a marriage.

The Walk-Away vs. Left-Behind Spouse

Some spouses struggle for years with feelings of emotional distance before they realize that divorce is the solution. These spouses are commonly referred to as a “walk-away spouse.” A walk-away spouse may become emotionally detached for a variety of reasons. Most commonly, detaching emotionally from the marriage and spouse is a mentally assertive way of allowing the spouse to maintain boundaries when they feel they are being hurt or the marriage has become unsafe for them. 

Emotionally divorcing a spouse helps a person maintain a sense of psychological integrity if faced with what they feel is an emotionally demanding situation. Basically, emotional divorce comes before legal divorce for some because they’ve felt the need to withdraw and protect themselves from problems in the marriage. 

The spouse who is left to deal with their emotions after the legal divorce is commonly referred to as the “left-behind spouse.” No matter which role you find yourself playing, you have to come to grips with the end of your marriage and begin to view yourself as a separate individual and no longer a husband or wife. 

Characteristics of a Walk-Away Spouse

  • Uncommunicative after spending years trying to communicate frustrations
  • Cold and distant; finally given up, no longer interested in working on the marriage
  • Spends large amounts of time away from home to escape an unhappy marriage
  • Irritable and impatient; resents spouse's attempts to save the marriage
  • Wants the divorce process to move along quickly

Characteristics of a Left-Behind Spouse

  • Shock; had no idea there were problems in the marriage
  • Looking for ways to save the marriage
  • Becomes clingy, often begging and pleading for another chance
  • May stalk or harass
  • Feelings of anxiety and fear about the future and being single again
  • Tries anything to delay the divorce process and cling to their marriage and spouse

Exerting Control Over Your Emotions

The basic instinct of a left-behind spouse is to control the situation. They may feel as if they failed to see the warning signs and don’t know how to respond effectively. As a result, they respond in ways that push the walk-away spouse further away emotionally. 

The left-behind spouse wants to do or say something that will draw their spouse back to the marriage emotionally. Due to the fear and emotional pain that comes along with losing someone they love, the left-behind spouse often causes conflict during the divorce process that is unnecessary.

"While being the left-behind spouse may cause them to question their reality, the validity of the marriage, the signs that they missed, if they were the spouse they wanted to be, and [if] the marriage was real to them, how their partner experienced it does not invalidate that," says Williamson.

It is important to understand that a spouse who has already divorced themselves from the marriage is not a bad person. They are not carrying around an agenda of hurt and pain; rather, they are looking for an escape from a situation that is causing them hurt and pain. This may cause them to respond to their spouse's shock and pain in what appears to be a cold and calculating manner. 

Tips for Coping With Divorce

It's important to recognize that your feelings for your spouse won't go away overnight. And while there may be feelings of pain, anger, loneliness, or hopelessness, it's crucial to lean into those feelings to be able to come to terms with them. "Taking a look at what was satisfactory and unsatisfactory to you about the relationship, what worked and didn't work, what you want to find again, and what might need to be different in future relationships are helpful in healing from a divorce," says Williamson. "When we can be honest about these elements of ourselves and our relationships, it is possible to learn in meaningful and valuable ways how to recover from divorce." 

According to Williamson, speaking to a therapist is helpful to gain support. However, there are plenty of other resources for help such as a faith leader, a life coach, and trusted friends and family members. "As much as the left-behind spouse may want to isolate due to their sadness and, at times, a sense of embarrassment or shame, it's important to continue to reach out and hopefully have times of laughter, joy, and comfort," she says. "These experiences will also help a person to restore their belief that they can and will move on."

At the same time, be sure self-care is still top of mind. Williamson suggests exercising regularly, using meditation or relaxation resources, or scheduling massages. "Trying to maintain a consistent self-care routine is important across the board. But certainly in times of increased stress, keeping these things in place will ease the emotional burden of divorce," says Williamson. "Be patient and gentle with yourself."

Article Sources
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  1. Ubaidi BA. The Psychological and Emotional Stages of Divorce. J Fam Med Dis Prev. 2017;3(3). doi:10.23937/2469-5793/151006

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