Yes, You Actually Do Need to Grieve a Divorce

Relationship expert Dr. Jenn Mann — and therapist to Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Erika Jayne — shares how to do it.

HUMP DAY: Grieving Divorce/RHOBH

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I saw your recent therapy session with Erika Jayne on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.  Even though my life is nothing like hers, when you talked about needing to grieve her divorce, it really hit home for me. My husband had an affair and wasn't the man I thought I married, so I have no doubt that my divorce is the right decision. Still, all kinds of unexpected feelings have been coming up for me — there's anger but also a lot of sadness. How do I actually grieve the loss and move forward? —Flying Solo


When you get married, typically you stand before God/a higher power/whatever you believe in and all of the most important people in your lives to declare your love and devotion for one another. You make a commitment and believe with your whole heart that you will weather all of life‘s storms together and be there on each other’s deathbed. This commitment is legal, it is emotional, it is spiritual and it is profound. 

You might also make babies with this person, which only deepens the commitment and intertwines your life for a minimum of 18 years. But the truth is, marriage links you forever. When a couple divorces there are reverberating affects for them, their children, and their extended family and friends.

All of this makes the end of a marriage deeply and profoundly painful. It is a breakup on steroids.

Unfortunately, there is no way around the pain. You can try to drink, shop, eat Ben & Jerry’s all you want but that only postpones the pain. You have to go through it, not around it. Anything else just elongates the suffering. 

Grief and Loss

Even when a divorce is the right thing, it is a loss. It is the loss of an important person in your life, potentially the loss of a family you envisioned or friends and social circles you shared, and the loss of a future you thought you were going to have. This loss remains even if your partner cheated or betrayed you in some way.

Loss requires grieving. Most people don't give themselves the room to grieve after a break up. We live in a numb-out culture and very few of us are encouraged to be in touch with our feelings so when we feel sadness and despair, it's so much easier to avoid it with activity. They distract with sex, dating, eating, shopping, drinking, drugs, partying, gambling and a whole host of other gluttonies. While it's normal to feel angry when grieving a loss, as I shared with Erika during our therapy session, this grief can't simply be ignored. But you must let yourself grieve.

The stages of grief and loss also apply to the death of a relationship.

To add to the emotional challenge of ending a relationship, parents who have shared children have a whole other additional grieving process in order to adjust to shared custody. “Having to turn your child over to someone who you no longer love, and maybe don’t even trust, is hard on moms,” says divorce expert Michelle Dempsey and author of Moms Moving On: Real-Life Advice Conquering Divorce, Co-Parenting Through Conflict and Becoming Your Best Self.

The stages of grief and loss also apply to the death of a relationship. They are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. You don’t complete one and then graduate to the next. You can alternate between one or more of them in a short period of time. Give yourself the room to feel your feelings and to process them. 


Denial can show up in a lot of different ways during the process of a divorce. In the beginning, it may be denial about how serious the problems in your marriage are and that divorce is legitimately on the table. I remember one time, I had a couple in my office that I was working with. For over a year the wife told her husband every week in therapy that if things didn’t change, she would file for divorce. She desperately wanted to save the marriage but her husband was incapable of change. When the day came that she told him in couples therapy that she couldn’t take it any longer and needed to leave the marriage, he actually looked at her and said “Where is this coming from?” I wish I could tell you that this was uncommon but it happens all the time.

Denial can also be the constant thought in your head, “I can’t believe this is happening.” When we have planned a future with someone who we love and that future comes to an end, it can be difficult to wrap our head around that. The permanency of divorce is so intense and final it can be hard to grasp. 


This is the most obvious stage. You may be angry at the other person for something specific they did: a betrayal, an out of control moment, a series of hurtful behaviors, an addiction, a series of disappointments, a change in personality, a shift in morals or ethics, abusive behavior or anything else that inspires a divorce. Or, you may be angry with the other person for abandoning you, ending the marriage, or giving up on the relationship.

Anger is a normal healthy part of the divorce process. When used constructively, it can even be healthy and beneficial. If your anger lights a fire under your ass to make a better life for yourself, that is healthy. If it drives you to spend all your time obsessing about your ex, plotting your revenge or speaking ill of your former spouse to your children, it will not only hurt you, it will hurt your kids.

It is important to have a healthy outlet for your anger. Most people repress it, deny it, or avoid it. This never works. Anger gone underground tends to leak out in other harmful ways. It can make you behave in passive aggressive ways towards your ex, be short-tempered with other people, or turn inwards, which typically result in self-destructive behavior or addiction.

Some healthy ways to deal with anger? A divorce support group, taking up a self-defense course or boxing, doing something creative (like art, poetry, or music), and — you guessed it — therapy.


There are a few different ways the bargaining stage can potentially play out when it comes to grieving a divorce. The first is where you are literally bargaining with your spouse asking them not to leave the marriage. You may be offering to change your behavior, be a better partner, or be more available.

Other times, the marriage has already ended but you’re still bargaining in your head. You may think things like, “If I look really cute when it comes time to drop my child off to my ex, maybe he will rethink this divorce.” Attempting to bargain with someone who has already chosen divorce pretty much never works. You may hear about the rare story of a couple that divorced and then got back together. These are anomalies. You should not assume that you are an exception to the rule and spend your precious time and energy trying to get back into the good graces of someone who went to the extreme measure of ending a marriage with you. It’s likely to make you feel desperate, sad and pathetic. You are better off taking this fantasy to therapy and processing it with a licensed therapist who can help you work on letting go.


Depression is a very normal and important part of the healing process. It is appropriate to grieve the loss of someone you once loved. It is healthy to feel sad when a relationship comes to an end. Allowing yourself the room to cry, talk about your feelings, and mourn the loss of the person and the relationship is crucial to moving on. I would venture to say that you cannot move on without grieving that loss.

If you find that your depression gets so severe that you are having trouble getting out of bed in the morning, are having difficulty functioning, or or thinking of hurting yourself in any way it is crucial that you consult with a professional immediately. Sometimes when you are feeling so devastated, it feels like those big feelings will never end. It is important not to make any rash decisions when you’re in that state of mind. Getting support is crucial.

Shame and Guilt

Dempsey believes there is another stage of grief to add to the typical list: shame and guilt. “Even in situations where women have been physically abused, I see women experiencing so much shame and guilt around divorce,” she says. Showing up at school events, social engagements, and other situations where you historically brought a spouse can all trigger shame and guilt. Feeling a sense of failure around the marriage, even when leaving was the right thing to do, can be overwhelming. As Dempsey points out, that shame and guilt “perpetuates everything else.” This really speaks to the importance of doing the emotional work around your feelings so that it does not leak into other areas of your life.


Acceptance is when you have finally face the truth of your new situation. You may even start to embrace all of the new possibilities and fresh starts that you now have ahead of you. You may even start to see the flaws in your marriage through a different light. You may start to realize that maybe you had idealized certain things in your marriage that really did not work for you. You may embrace your new independence.

If you have children together, you may find that as much as you miss them when they are at your former partner's home, that time allows you to put gasoline back in the tank and be a more present parent when they are with you. Your life may not look like what you thought it would, but you actually start to see the positives in being out of the marriage.

The road to acceptance is not an easy one, but you can get through this and get to the other side with more clarity and strength than you could have ever expected.

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