Grief Responses following a Marital Breakdown and How to Hold It Together

Grief Responses following a Marital Breakdown and How to Hold It Together


“To have and to hold from this day forward in sickness and health till death do us part” is what we all think it will be when we take the leap into the unknown territory of marriage believing that “forever” exists and despite cold feet we go into it reassuring ourselves that the commitment to this one individual will be everything we need. We agree to be friends as well as lovers and despite having other relationships with friends and those other less intimate relationships marriage is our sanctity -our main commitment to another human being to which all other relationships pale in comparison. But what if this ideal cannot be reached? What if what once was two souls living side by side, is no longer.

Researchers have normed stressful life events and have found that breakups of marriage or intimate relationship breakups are the second most stressful life events after death. A breakup in a marriage or de facto partnership is akin to a “mini-death” and therefore a process of mourning will take place. One thing is for sure that no matter who calls the end it is really difficult for both parties and it will be a process which requires a lot of patience, persistence and the mobilization of external support.

Owing to the fact that we are all different and unique human beings what mourning the breakup of a marriage looks like to one person going through it can be vastly different to another. However, there are some characteristic stages or emotions that individuals or the couple who are divorcing or separating will go through.

Dr Elizabeth Kubler Ross a psychiatrist who pioneered the stages of grieving on death and dying developed 5 stages of grief responses that she held people who are mourning go through. However as mentioned the breakup of a marriage is second to a death of a loved one and is a huge loss that is a trauma and will result in powerful emotional responses being evoked.


1) Denial and Loneliness
There is shock and disbelief that the marriage is actually breaking down and this can be seen where one partner may not want to accept that it is going to be over. This is anticipatory grief where the individual is feeling the pain at imagining what it will be like to no longer be in the marriage. This can be for a variety of reasons. Often it is that the individual does not actually want out for a particular reason or could be if their partner is having an affair or they may fear being alone and not finding someone else or have fears of not being financially stable. There are feelings of a loss of control and often when children are involved parents are really anxious about how they will be able to tell their children and the effects of the breakup on the children may be a worry. The practical aspect of finding oneself without a partner is difficult for the person or parties to comprehend which may cause them to wonder if this is actually “real” and happening.

2) Anger
This usually occurs once the legal divorce has taken place and also where there are custody issues and where parties struggle to agree on who will have responsibility for what, child access and custody as well as division of assets and finances. Often where there is infidelity there is a lot of anger and it can act as a strong defense to ward off feeling the pain and loss. At this stage the individual will often blame his or her partner and will struggle to avoid accusing or confronting. At this stage it is difficult to intervene and often mediation is necessary. Anger and sadness are ‘two sides of the same coin’, when we grieve, we become defensive/protective of ourselves to attempt to avoid “falling apart” and it’s at this anger stage that we can “justify” the breakup due to the “other” being insufferable to us.

3) Bargaining
“If only I had been more available for sex”, “spent less time at the office” “less distracted” “hadn’t cheated” “etc. are often some of the statements that people make trying to bargain with themselves to feel less helpless and often less “guilty” or “I will work on myself and start to drink less and communicate more”. The promises or “compromising” that takes place is different from when the marriage wasn’t breaking up and this is due the fact that it has become an eventuality and a realization that it is “over” which can make the individual feel regret and want to hold on and have hope. This stage doesn’t last long once a marriage breakdown has been cemented.

4) Depression
I have had 6 foot 4 grown male basketball players, as well as men and women holding high profile positions fall completely apart wailing uncontrollably into pits of pain and despair basically ravaging my tissue box at this grief stage! Sadness or melancholia as Shakespeare would term it, is at its peak affecting the person’s appetite, sleep and functioning, when they “permit” themselves to feel the loss of the breakup. There is often an element of defeat and helplessness.

5) Acceptance
This stage most commonly occurs once the decision to breakup has been finalized, or the divorce has already begun or been made final, however this can occur at the very beginning of the decision to separate phase. It is characterized by the realization that the marriage is over and may be characterized by some relief.


– Realize that these are normal stages and that they may occur in a roller-coaster like fashion i.e. Altogether, in a different order and may last for a long or short period.

– Be compassionate towards oneself in realizing that you are going through a life transition which is traumatic and will be life-changing

– Enlist the support from family and friends-use them to debrief and talk about the breakup, your feelings and ask for what you need i.e. A hug, a coffee

– Be boundaried in your talking about the breakup. Often people feel so at a loss so uncontained and preoccupied that they will talk to anyone and everyone about the breakup. There needs to be a balance between talking about it and holding back. Although it is normal to want to talk about it all the time or in some cases not to talk about it at all, neither state is desirable. The talking to entrusted friends and family is important but too much information and spilling over can result in rumours being spread and in people “knowing your business” which may affect you in the workplace etc. and is undesirable. Not talking about it at all, can result in a person internalizing all the feelings which may lead to severe anxiety and depression and where children are involved result in anxiety and problematic behavior.

– Don’t feel judged or ashamed-sometimes people feel to blame, like the breakdown of themarriage will be seen as their fault where they may feel like they have failed in their marriage. It is very important to understand that no one is to blame and not to pre-empt judgement from others.

– Neuroscience has shown that exercise is a natural anti-depressant and helps to release endorphins which help us to ward off stress and help to release tension build up and sadness experienced from the breakup or impending breakup.

– Yoga-breathing and assuming postures in yoga can be a great source of healing when going through a breakdown in marriage.

– Meditation-Helps to calm an individual and when practiced regularly can help to reduce the trauma symptoms from the breakup and help one to cope with the daily routine and grief symptoms.

– Massage-Aids in reducing muscle tension due to stress and can help one to feel nurtured at a time when they feel so at a loss. The sensation of touch is very powerful

– Keep daily routines as normal as far as possible and keep distracted-this will provide structure and allow for normalcy. Although one may want to just “collapse” keeping busy and distracted helps to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and sadness.

– Journal one’s thoughts and feelings-which helps to get them out and can make them feel less overwhelming

– Go for psychotherapy-Additional support from a professional who can be objective and containing will help enormously.

The breakdown of a relationship or marriage is a significant loss, one in which we feel we have lost part of ourselves. Eventually we need to come to terms and learn to re-order our sense of self and rediscover our unique place in the world without the partner we originally thought was going to be there forever. Like with all situations time heals and the grieving symptoms will abate.

As Nicole Kidman’s father said to her when she experienced her marital breakdown “Nic, it is what it is, it’s not what it should have been, not what it could have been, it is what it is”.

Romy Kunitz is a qualified Clinical and Developmental Psychologist (Cum Laude), she is also a Clinical Social Worker and an Executive Coach. Her specific clinical interests include stress management, eating disorders, personal loss, trauma and parenting, working with adults, couples and teenagers. Contact Romy HERE

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