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Divorce and Your Emotional Needs: What You Should Know to Survive Your Divorce
(provided by Deborah Hecker, Ph.D.)

While a divorce can be one of the most traumatic events of an adult's life, the keys to dealing with divorce can be found in the behavioral patterns of early childhood. Dr. Deb Hecker explores the similarities between developing oneself as a human being and redeveloping oneself as a newly single person. Understanding these similarities and how to better address the psychological issues of divorce can make the process easier and much less painful to endure.


The transition from being part of a couple to being successfully divorced has as much to do with exercising emotional intelligence as it does legal intelligence. While a divorce attorney plays a vital role, some of the most difficult impasses in divorce are based upon unresolved emotional issues, not concerns over division of assets, property, or even custody issues. At these times, focusing solely on the facts or the content of the case simply cannot break the emotional stalemate.

Most of the literature on the psychology of divorce treats divorce as the death of a relationship and focuses on the necessity of grieving that death in order to move forward as a no-longer-married person. The end of a marriage can be as traumatic as the actual death of a loved one in its capacity to wrench life apart and carve out a piece of the soul. You may have experienced this emotional chasm which Abigail Trafford in her book Crazy Time, Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life refers to as "temporary insanity."

In order to more fully understand why divorce is such a devastating transition and why otherwise nice people behave so badly during divorce -- badly enough to inadvertently interfere in the process -- it is crucial that you have a grasp of the psychology of separation. You should understand how transitioning from being part of a couple complete with the emotional, social, and financial security that comes from being a part of a team to being single and self-reliant can create such emotional upheaval.

The metamorphosis from being part of a marital couple to becoming a single, unattached person can best be described as a series of developmental stages paralleling the early years of the mother-child bond, as described by pioneering researcher, Dr. Margaret Mahler. In her groundbreaking book, The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation, Mahler outlines her model of child development which can be directly applied to the interactive characteristics of a couple's relationship.

The following brief description of Mahler's theory on separation-individuation provides the framework for understanding the process through which a child must transition in order to achieve a separate identity from its mother. After exploring the mother-child dyad, we will look at how it serves as the foundation for the marital relationship and what happens when that relationship dissolves.

Child Developmental Stages

Mahler saw the infant as being born into a normal autistic phase whose primary task is to establish equilibrium outside the womb. At around two months old, the infant's sensitivity to external stimulation increases, and he moves into the symbiotic phase. The term "symbiosis" in this context is a metaphor describing the "undifferentiation" -- a fusion with the mother in which the "I" is not yet differentiated from the "not-I". According to Mahler, it is the symbiotic phase that becomes the template for all gratification, as well as empathy and love in future relationships.

At about five or six months, the differentiation phase begins, and the infant becomes more alert to his external surroundings -- exploring both the mother and the environment. Using his body, the baby learns his outer physical boundaries, thereby experiencing greater differentiation from the mother. Soon thereafter, the practicing phase begins in which the child, according to Mahler, develops a "love affair" with the world, learning to crawl and walk away from the mother. Assuming she is comfortable with this leap of autonomy, the child will successfully enter the rapprochement phase, a difficult time when the child is more ambivalent about his growing independence and begins to manifest a lot of push-pull behavior. Finally, consolidation of individuality begins to take place and all previous mother-child interactions become internalized and begin to form the basis of the child's feelings of well being and capacity for healthy future relationships.

The Marital Couple's Developmental Stages

Using Mahler's early-childhood developmental stages as a springboard, we can explore the evolution of a couple's relationship.

The first stage of couplehood, that of being "madly in love," can be likened to Mahler's second stage of infant growth -- symbiosis. The purpose of this stage is attachment. In this stage, singles begin merging lives and personalities and go through a period of intense bonding. If each person receives nurturance from the other during this stage and the agreement to form a couple is clear, the relationship will begin with a solid foundation. The partners conceptualize their relationship in terms of a fusion model; together, we shall be one. They look to each other for completion and fulfillment.

During the subsequent differentiation stage, individual differences emerge, and each partner is taken down from the pedestal and viewed more objectively. Greater boundaries are established. Disillusion and disappointment are inevitable.

Continuing the parallel with Mahler's model, the couple enters a normal period of practicing in which each participates in activities and relationships away from the other. Separateness, autonomy, and self become more important than developing the relationship. Conflicts intensify, and a healthy process for conflict resolution becomes necessary in order for the couple to maintain an emotional connection while developing themselves in the world. After each has developed a well-defined, competent identity, the couple alternates between periods of increased intimacy and efforts to reestablish independence. This rapprochement stage achieves a balance between "me" and "we". Finally, the couple reaches a stage of mutual interdependence where, ideally, two well-integrated people are individually and mutually satisfied.

Loss of Mate: The Psychology of Divorce

Inevitably, the early mother-child bond will fall short of perfectly meeting all of the child's needs and desires. Looking to one's spouse to meet these unfulfilled needs often becomes a convenient way to fill the gap in adulthood. Unconsciously, dependency is shifted from the parent to the mate who becomes the recipient of these unmet needs.

While this may appear on the surface to be a reasonable solution, it is, in fact, fraught with real problems. Left unattended, these problems can lead the couple to serious conflict, even divorce.

Let's look at a common marital dynamic. The typical couple starts off their partnership in the symbiotic phase, the fusion model, where they are both working toward oneness. What happens if one partner transitions into the differentiation or practicing phase and begins seeking greater independence, while the other remains in the symbiotic phase, still yearning for the security of the marriage and locked in the maternal fantasy role? The result is likely to be a bumpy ride with one partner seeking closeness and the other distance, creating a kind of seesaw effect. With the help of a marriage counselor, some couples can remedy this imbalance. For others, the disparity is too difficult to change, and divorce becomes the only solution.

The depth with which marital partners touch each other in their intimate lives, striving to achieve a balance between closeness and distance, must be understood in order to grasp the severity of the loss through divorce. Losing a spouse who is perceived as a protector and savior, much the same way that a parent is perceived, can be a devastating and frightening blow. When you understand divorce in the context of uprooting a deep psychological anchor from its mooring, the dramas that attend the process are much easier to comprehend.


Since many, if not most, individuals in the midst of divorce will find themselves feeling alone and frightened at some point, it can be very difficult and sometimes nearly impossible for them to make rational decisions that are in their own best interest. People in this vulnerable state often become dependent on their divorce attorney -- looking for someone to "take care of everything" and promise them a better life.

Fearing for your emotional survival, you may see the world through childish eyes, repeating the early behavior patterns described by Mahler. Instead of assuming that your attorney has all the answers, which he does not, you need to actively flex your independence muscles and collaborate with your attorney in constructing your future. Remember, it is your life.

In many divorces much of the time spent on the process revolves not on your legal needs but on your emotional needs resulting from the loss of your marriage. Understanding how the separation process provides ample triggers for hurt, sadness, anger and fear will help you avoid having those emotions throw up roadblocks to progress and interfere with successful legal resolution.

In some respects, matrimonial lawyers face many of the same challenges that trained psychotherapists do, but without the benefit of training in how to manage these emotions. While it is important for you to seek out a divorce attorney who can empathize with the multiple losses you are experiencing and can listen to your personal pain, it is critical that you assume responsibility for recovering from the emotional stress of your separation.

If you are overwhelmed by your feelings and find that they are affecting your ability to deal with the legal issues of divorce, it may be time to seek professional counseling. A counselor who specializes in separation and loss can help you to minimize the potentially destructive impact your emotions can have on the legal process as well as facilitate your acceptance of the divorce and your adjustment to life as an unmarried person. You must think beyond the immediate issues and work to ensure your emotional health both during and after the divorce. It's too important to leave to chance.

Information provided by:
Deborah Hecker, Ph.D. located at

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