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Feature Article


Divorce transition is a journey

Nina Chen, Ph.D., CFLE, Human Development Specialist, University of Missouri Extension


Life is full of transitions which can be minor or major, accidental or developmental. The process of going through a transition is a journey. Each journey involves time from the beginning of the transition to the end. Some of the transitions take a few minutes, whereas other transitions take months or even years. William Bridges, author of Transitions, developed a model that explains the process of transition. He suggests that every transition involves three phases — Endings, Neutral Zone and New Beginnings.


Divorce is a transition. The three phases and tasks that relate to the divorce transition must be worked through. The divorce journey may take between 18 months and 4 years or even longer. It is common for people to go back and forth between the phases in the journey. Everyone going through the journey is different, working through it at their own pace.


Ending Phase


Transition begins with an ending. The decision to separate or divorce is the beginning of the divorce transition. Divorce brings changes in the meaning of a person's life and the meaning of who an individual is (intrapsychic losses). The system or network of family and friends that were built in the marriage may no longer be available either (systemic losses). This phase involves significant loss and grief, such as loss of the relationship, roles and material possessions, and it is the most painful part of the process.


This phase may take at least one year or longer to get through. People experiencing the losses of divorce will experience a great deal of grief. They also need to work through other emotions such as sadness, anger, fear, loneliness, etc. In order to move on in the divorce journey, they must be able to do the grief work, develop a caring support system, handle the practical matters, and say goodbye.


It is important to vent and process the feelings of grief and loss by sharing them with a close, supportive network. Handling the practical matters of divorce is also critical in this phase. The practical matters affect all aspects of an individual's life including emotional, mental, economic, co-parental, legal and community. By avoiding the practical matters, people continue to remain linked to the past. Saying goodbye means letting go of the past and letting go of the resentment, blame, hurt, insecurity, envy and hopelessness. It is one of the most difficult steps in the healing journey. Forgiveness plays an important role to help heal in the process of saying goodbye.


Neutral Zone Phase


Grief does not go away automatically. Feelings of loss and grief continue, especially when significant events of the marriage come up such as anniversaries, birthdays, etc. The important support system shifts from helping with the grief to helping with the reconstruction. In this phase, practical issues are more manageable and they focus on individual growth and change such as going back to school, moving to a different location, finding a new job, etc. It is a time for personal growth, self-reflection, self-discovery and personal reconstruction to discover who you are and where you are going. People start thinking about establishing new rituals for the family and for self. This phase is an important part of the healing process and preparation for the New Beginnings phase.


New Beginnings Phase


This is a time of moving ahead into the future and taking charge. Grief and the feelings of loss can still reappear, but it is not as painful as in the past and the significant events of the marriage are not as important anymore. The support system may continue. Some people may develop a new support system as they move into new activities or a new work or living environment.


People feel more confident about handling practical matters. In this phase, people begin to act on the goals they reflected on during the Neutral Zone phase. After working through the past, people start reaching out to take on new opportunities and realize that the journey is a process. The New Beginnings phase provides a sense of freedom, hope and joy.


Some people may want to jump from the Endings to the New Beginnings phase and start a new relationship or get married soon after the divorce. Although a new relationship may provide a sense of immediate hope, many of these relationships end up broken as well, which leads to more loss and grief.


The divorce journey is a healing process that takes time to reach the New Beginnings phase. It also takes courage, understanding and patience to walk through the journey.



Williams, F. R. (1999). Divorce Recovery Group Leader Manual. Divorce Recovery, Inc. Tucson, AZ.


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Last Updated 03/09/2015