Getting divorced isn’t what you picture. Experts share what it’s really like when a marriage dissolves.
When you hear the word “divorce,” there’s a handful of images that probably come to mind—two adults arguing, a sad kid or two stuck in the middle, and maybe even a contentious courtroom battle. But when a marriage ends, it’s far more complex than that. For one, it’s wholly possible you’ll never even be in a courtroom with your ex and secondly, there are some truly positive effects of a divorce that you may not have seen coming. We talked to relationship coaches, divorce lawyers, couples counselors, and more to find out what really goes on when a marriage ends. Here are 23 effects of divorce that you may not have heard before.
1. It’s a grieving process.
Reality TV and sensational tabloids may give the impression that a divorce is a time of high drama and intense emotions. But in reality, divorce feels less like the latest twist in a soap opera and more like a death.
“There are so many losses inherent in a divorce and you need to allow yourself time and space to grieve for all those losses,” says relationship coach Susan Trotter, PhD, of divorce education organization Vesta. “The grief process though is not linear. Understanding that will help to normalize your emotions and can motivate you to get the support you need.”
She urges anyone going through divorce to seek the professional help they need, and to pay attention to the people they surround themselves with. “Find people who are positive and have good energy, and that will help you to stay focused and more positive, too,” Trotter adds. “Mindset is critical in the divorce process.”
2. But it’s also a business transaction.
But just as it’s an emotionally fraught time of grieving, divorce is above all a business transaction. What surprises many newly divorced people is just how much paperwork (and money) is involved in the process. And keeping one’s attention on these mundane aspects of the split can often be the healthiest approach to getting through it.
“Learning how to take the emotions out of the settlement process, and instead focus on the division of assets as a ‘business transaction’ will help you to make better decisions in that regard for you and your family,” suggests Trotter. “It will also help you decide what is worth fighting for and what is not.”
3. You may never be in the same room with your ex during the divorce proceedings.
Something that surprises many individuals as they split from a spouse is how rarely they see their ex-partner as the proceedings unfold. Rather than dramatic courtroom showdowns, many decisions are made without you ever having to see your ex.
“Many times your case isn’t settled in a courtroom even if you’ve hired an attorney,” explains Charles MacCall, chief operations officer for Rosen Law Firm, which specializes in divorce cases. “You may come to the terms of your settlement on a FaceTime call with your attorney while you are rushing between work meetings across the country, or you may figure out who gets the pots and pans while sitting in different rooms at a mediation.” MacCall says that if you do have a mediator, they are the only ones who will see both of you, going from room to room to reach a settlement.
4. You won’t have to compromise as much as you’d expect.
Like marriage, divorce usually requires plenty of compromise. But it’s not as much compromise as you might initially fear, particularly when balanced with the many freedoms that newly divorced people suddenly realize they have.
“One of the stories I hear over and over from my clients is the surprise when they move into their new place and they get to pick out what color to paint the walls,” says MacCall. “There is no debate, there is no negotiation; they alone get to decide. And it isn’t just the little personal preference parts either—financially, many of my clients feel both a sense of fear and a sense of excitement when they realize that making decisions over large purchases and investment strategies are theirs alone.”
5. A “clean break” is much harder than it sounds.
It’s far tougher to extricate yourself from the person to whom you’ve been married than you might have expected. “It takes forever to untangle yourself from your spouse—tax documents, car registrations, changing your name,” says Carmel Jones, who writes about sex and relationships for The Big Fling. “Going through the documents when getting a divorce to put everything you have into your name is going to a take a very long time, and you will need to communicate with your spouse often.”
6. It can be a big relief.
Divorce is a major disruptor in one’s life and can bring tons of stress—financial, emotional, even spiritual. But many people who go through it also describe feeling an incredible sense of relief.
“As a young Catholic girl, I was terrified that getting a divorce would be devastating,” says Sonia M. Frontera, a divorce attorney and author of Divorce Dilemma. “Yet, once I empowered myself to leave my husband, I found much more joy and freedom being alone. The divorce process and rebuilding my life took over all the fears that stopped me from leaving sooner and I am grateful for the experience.”
Frontera says her divorce allowed her to turn the page on the pain of the past, releasing grudges and moving forward with a much greater feeling of freedom.
7. You may feel sorry for your spouse.
Even in the case of a bitter divorce where there are plenty of bad feelings toward the end, those warm feelings you used to have for your ex don’t just disappear, particularly since they’re going through many of the same difficulties you are.
“Even though my husband was vicious to me, once I decided to leave, he turned to mush,” says Frontera. “Although I wasn’t going to change my mind, I did feel sorry for him and behaved with compassion throughout the divorce process and beyond.”
8. You’ll lose some friendships.
You expect to lose one of the most important relationships—if not the most important relationship—in your life during a split. But there’s a good chance there will be some additional collateral damage as your marriage dissolves. Many of those who go through a divorce describe how mutual friends are often lost in the process. And it might not be a matter of a friend choosing one member of a couple over another so much as the change in dynamics. If you usually went on couple dates, for example, the split can throw off the balance.
“While most people were supportive and were happy to see me end my marriage, some people distanced themselves from me and kept me away from their husbands,” says Frontera. “You will become a threat to insecure friends and may need to let them go.”
9. But other friendships may grow.
But just as you lose some friendships during a divorce, you may find that other friends you hadn’t seen much in recent years come back into your life. Divorce often means you have more time than you did before, and you’re more likely to spend that time with friends and family who you may have lost touch with. “I have seen many friendships renewed once the divorce dust has settled,” says relationship therapist Layla Ashley.
10. You will have more time to yourself.
Newly divorced people are often astounded by the amount of free time they suddenly have. It turns out, being married is very time consuming. Even those with kids will find they have more time on their own as the children split their days and weekends between parents.
“Many seem to think a divorce means more work in terms of childcare, but in a joint custody situation, you will actually have more time for self-care,” says MacCall. “Taking the time to take care of yourself will also make you a better role model for your children.”
Ashley describes how that newfound “me” time can lead a divorced person to feel a stronger sense of their own identity, separate from the relationship that was once central to their life. “Married partnerships usually involve merging your practical lives, such as sharing a home and day-to-day activities and decisions,” she says. “After divorce, the tendency to get ‘lost’ in another person is now replaced with a newfound freedom to explore and discover your individual self.”
11. You’ll miss your kids.
While each member of the former couple will have more time to themselves, they will definitely miss their kids in a big way. When you’ve been used to having your children around at all times, their absence will be felt powerfully after your divorce.
“For the first few months, you are going to feel extremely lonely for your children and your family life if you have split custody,” says Jones. “It might even make you question whether or not you made the right decision. Eventually, you’ll realize that this time means longer hours of sleep, relaxation, and a time to rediscover yourself.”
12. But you’ll become a better parent.
Sure, the instability brought about by divorce can be difficult for children, but the effects are not all negative. In fact, in some cases, parents find that they actually raise their game as a parent as a result of having more limited time with them. “One of the effects of kids having two separate homes and spending time with each parent, if this is the arrangement, is that you spend more individual time with your child than ever, and your bond can grow much stronger,” says Ashley.
MacCall even says that divorce can lead you to become a better parent. “Because you will likely now have a joint custody schedule, you will have time to work late and run errands when your ex has the kids,” he says. “This means that you will be able to dedicate 100 percent of your attention when it is your time with the kids.”
13. And your ex-spouse will also become a better parent.
You will probably see your ex boost their parenting efforts, too. “No one wants to be labeled the ‘deadbeat dad’ or the ‘absentee mother’ in a divorce—all of a sudden the spouse who couldn’t be bothered to come watch their daughter play soccer is now coaching the team,” says MacCall. “The good news is, these new habits tend to stick. Your ex will realize how much they have missed out on, and how neat hanging out with their kid can be.”
14.You’ll need to buy your kids a new set of essentials.
Moving between two houses means going out and getting a whole new set of everything your kids need—whether that’s sheets and a bed or toys and toothbrushes. “If you get divorced and split custody of your children, you will realize that moving them between houses means that things get lost, damaged, or simply cease to exist,” says Jones. “For example, your children will need lunchboxes for each home, toothbrushes, even sports equipment at times. It will normalize the separation for them while also saving you tons of time dealing with forgotten cleats before soccer practice, or a missing pair of glasses.”
15. Co-parenting can be exhausting.
Shifting to a co-parenting approach can be a very trying experience, both emotionally and physically. “Put simply, the challenges change as children grow and develop, but it’s not easy to have a cooperative relationship with an ex-spouse over many years,” says Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW, author of The Remarriage Manual.
As a couple, you could divide up duties a bit more easily, so once the divorce has taken effect, each member of the former couple is largely on their own.
16. Your relationship with your ex might be better than it was when you were married.
Those who come out the other end of a divorce often describe getting to a better place with their former spouse than they were at while married.
“After some time—and we could be talking years—if you begin to co-parent correctly, you’ll be surprised to learn that you can be grateful for your ex as a friend and happy for his/her achievements and relationships outside of your own,” says Jones. “This desire for them to be happy might mean your friendship is stronger than it was when you were actually together romantically.”
17. But it takes time before you can be friends again.
While you can get to a place of civility and even warmth with your ex, you will nonetheless want to proceed with caution before attempting to get chummy with the person who was once the most important person in your life. Trying to shift to “friend mode” too quickly can often backfire. “Being friends with your ex usually doesn’t work out soon after divorce,” says Gaspard. “Most of the time, a post-breakup friendship is a setup for further heartbreak, especially for the person who was left and probably feels rejected.”
18. It can be dangerous to jump right back into dating.
The old adage that when you fall off a horse, the best thing to do is jump right back on does not hold true when it comes to relationships. For one thing, moving too quickly into a new relationship can be a means of avoiding dealing with the issues that led to the marriage’s dissolution in the first place—leading you to do little of the work you need on yourself to prevent the same problems from coming up in your next relationship.
“The divorce rate goes up for second, third, and fourth marriages, in part because people are repeating patterns that they don’t recognize,” says Trotter. “It takes time to process everything, and even though you may feel ready to date, you will have more success in future dating and relationships if you take the time to process the divorce [and] learn from your past relationships—what worked and what didn’t, and what your role was in the dynamic, and what you want and need now, which is likely very different from what you wanted and needed when you got married.”
Frontera says holding off on getting back out into the dating scene was valuable for her personally. “Even though I felt unloved during a toxic marriage and longed for love and appreciation afterwards, I enjoyed my freedom so much that I didn’t date for four years post-divorce,” she says. “And those were some of the best years of my life.”
19. You may repeat the same patterns with a new partner.
Divorce may cut ties with a spouse, but you are still you. Many people who go through a divorce expect it to be the turning over of a new leaf—and are surprised to find a similar dynamic surfacing with a new partner that they had with the person they divorced.
“Divorce is often pursued with the intent of getting rid of major relationship problems, which tend to be tied to core patterns,” says Ashley. “So it can be quite surprising when, after the honeymoon phase of the next relationship, you circle back around to the same dynamic with the new partner.”
20. Time becomes more important than things.
Those who go through a divorce often have much greater clarity about what matters most in life—and usually “stuff” turns out to be less important than it seemed during their former life. That’s partly because recently divorced people usually have to move to a smaller place, or give up some (or many) of the things they valued during their marriage. But it also reflects how time becomes more scarce.
“In going through all of your things, dividing them up during the divorce, and scaling down, you’ll have a newfound appreciation for the time you spend with the people you love, and less focus on materialistic items,” says Jones.
21. Your physical health takes a hit.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that both middle-aged men and women are at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease after going through a divorce, compared with married people of the same age.
But there’s a gender element here, too. “[The study] also revealed that middle-aged women who get divorced are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than middle-aged men who get divorced,” says Fran Walfish, PsyD, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent.
22. And your mental health does, too.
Divorce can severely impact your mental health—not because you feel sad that things didn’t work out with your ex, but because it tends to ratchet up your anxiety levels.
“You don’t have a companion in the big, bad world anymore, and the future that you once pictured no longer exists,” explains Walfish. “Plus, there’s a ton of uncertainty, which can lead to feeling insecure. Depending on the circumstances, you might suddenly have to move, get a new job, and survive on less money than before.”
23. You learn to forgive yourself.
Guilt, self-doubt, and a general sense of harshness toward yourself are often byproducts of a divorce. But just as often, these unpleasant feelings give way to a much healthier understanding of oneself and forgiveness about what you feel you did wrong in the marriage.
“The dumper, or person who leaves or ends the relationship, may experience feelings of guilt,” says Gaspard. “[But] an important part of divorce recovery is forgiving yourself.”
Additional reporting by Grant Stoddard.