Stages of Divorce: What to Expect in Each Step

Legal dissolution means the marriage has officially ended, but that step represents only one part of the divorce process. Divorcing your spouse involves shifts in nearly every aspect of life, from your home, emotions, and finances, to your social and even spiritual connections.

Divorce is different for everyone; it’s as unique as the couples who enter into it. However, many people experience a similar progression of emotional and life changes when they separate from a spouse. Here’s an example of what you might encounter in every stage of the divorce process.

Mental separation before divorce

Before words of divorce are ever spoken, one or both spouses feel separated from their spouse in important emotional or moral aspects of their life. Any number of situations can lead to divorce, including a feeling that the union never felt solid from the start, that the couple grew apart emotionally, or that their previously mutual goals or morals no longer align.

Some extreme outside stressors threaten the integrity of a marriage, such as addiction, physical and mental illness, problems with children, and issues with careers and finances.

Regardless of what precipitates this mental and emotional separation, typically one spouse voices their displeasure in the marriage, looking to the other for their perspective. Often, couples find ways to compromise and work through disagreements, and the marriage endures.

If the couple cannot agree on the next steps, sometimes they decide to physically separate in an attempt to gain perspective.

Physical separation before divorce

When a couple becomes emotionally estranged, it’s common for the spouses to find new temporary living arrangements. Being physically separated from one another presents an opportunity to gain perspective on their marriage.

This might mean one person moves into an alternate residence, such as an apartment or the home of a family member. The couple may live separately within their same residence, with one spouse sleeping in a different room and having a solo recreation space.

Legally, a married couple can decide to keep this separation between the two of them, or they can file a notice of their arrangement with the court. This legal separation offers the couple a way to set out the terms of their situation, including child support, spousal maintenance, and management of mutual finances.

During their period of living apart, the couple may realize their desire to reunite and work on their marriage. Alternatively, one or both could decide that divorce is the best course of action moving forward. 

Before you physically separate before divorce you should consult with an attorney to determine how it will affect your cases.

Legally filing for divorce

When at least one partner decides they want to get divorced, the next legal move is to file a petition for dissolution of marriage. This document indicates to the court that you wish for it to dissolve the legal contract you entered into with your spouse when you got married.

While your spouse may or may not be aware that you’re filing for divorce, only one person is needed to file. After the filing, the other spouse has the opportunity to notice and the right to be heard by the court.  A counter-petition may also be filed under certain circumstances and you should inquire with your attorney if that is appropriate given your situation

It’s important to note that these actions alone do not constitute a dissolution of marriage. To complete the legal process, you must participate in a few more steps. Alternatively, the spouses could decide to rescind the case and not move ahead with the divorce.

Social and cultural separation during divorce

As their whole life changes during divorce proceedings, most people rely more heavily on their family and social circles for emotional support. Unfortunately, as dynamics change when a couple separates, both former spouses may become estranged from previous relationships.

This stage of divorce can be one of the most emotionally challenging, as you redefine yourself within a new set of social norms. Relationships can be disrupted at every level of a person’s life.

Family: Separation from your ex-spouse’s family; disruptions in child care resources; estrangement from your own family

Friends: Some find allegiance with one spouse; not knowing what’s appropriate in some instances you become single in a group of married couples

Church: Feeling ostracized from the church community; sometimes judgment occurs in the church and social community.  Others can find solace knowing their church family is supportive.

Social outlets (clubs, etc): Attending events solo; running into your ex around town; who stays on the softball team?

Legal dissolution of marriage

If both spouses remain certain they wish to divorce, they enter into legal negotiation to determine the terms of their settlement. This includes the separation of the couple’s marital estate — the property and assets they mutually own.

Negotiations also involve figuring out how much, if any, one spouse will pay the other in spousal maintenance. If the couple shares children, they’ll work out a plan regarding the allocation of parenting responsibilities, parenting time, and child support.

All aspects of the couple’s mutual life will be examined and separated in a way the court finds equitable.

The spouses work with each other and their lawyers to agree on a settlement that they finally file with the court. A judge examines the dissolution agreement to be sure it complies with the law. If it does, the judge issues a divorce decree, the formal ruling that officially divorces the couple.  If the spouses cannot reach an agreement, a trial is held and the Court determines the final terms of the divorce.

Financial separation

When a married couple begins living separately prior to legal divorce, they likely start managing their finances independently, as well. While they likely share mutual expenses, each person is preparing for a time when they’ll be a solo earner and responsible for their own bills.

Some amount of financial independence is normal, but separated spouses should watch during this time for an illegal act called dissipation. Dissipation happens when one spouse deliberately hides money, incurs large debt, or otherwise tries to obstruct the couple’s financial situation prior to divorce. Watch for acts of dissipation by your soon-to-be ex-spouse, and be careful not to commit any financial misdeeds yourself.

Complete financial separation of a divorced couple is possible after their divorce decree is issued by the court. However, ex-couples sometimes stay connected in financial ways even after getting divorced.

If the divorce decree includes an order for spousal support, one person will provide payments to the other for a period of time or it may be indefinite. When the former couple has children together, their finances are inevitably linked for years through child support payments, health care costs, and more.


This is a legal advertisement from Sterk Family Law Group. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be construed as such. This article is for informational and educational purposes only.

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