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Dealing With Denial

"Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature's way of letting in only as much as we can handle."

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Divorce signifies the passing of a relationship, so it’s only natural that you experience grief in the process. Even if you wanted your divorce, you may be overcome with intense feelings of loss. And that’s okay. Grief is a universal experience and mourning is a natural human response for people of all walks of life, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. 

In Elizabether Kübler-Ross’s influential book On Death and Dying, she identifies denial as the first of five stages of grief. Today, mental health professionals recognize that we all experience grief in different ways and that there is no perfect roadmap for the grieving process. Nevertheless, denial is a common experience for those going through divorce, and one you may experience before, during, and even after the divorce is finalized. So don’t try to rush through this stage. 

Instead, understand this: denial is a normal, healthy reaction to the shock of loss. 

And it can be a good thing.

Denial is a coping mechanism which helps you manage the onslaught of powerful emotions you may be experiencing. Denial is a refusal to admit or acknowledge the truth, which is your psyche’s way of allowing you to grasp what is happening without being overwhelmed by feelings you can’t handle. 

Denial can manifest in many ways. You may pretend that the divorce is not happening and hold onto the hope of fixing your relationship even though, deep down, you know it’s too far gone. You may imagine that nothing about your home or financial situation will change, even as you live apart. Although denial is a helpful temporary coping response, remaining in denial too long can be unhealthy and may prolong your healing process.


“When the mediation process began, I felt overwhelmed by all the tiny details I knew I’d have to confront, from financial issues to custody. But once I realized that it was OK to put some of these issues out of my mind temporarily – to be in denial of them, in a sense – I was able to calm down and focus on addressing one issue at a time.”


Start by getting practical

Moving through denial is hard because the truth of divorce can be difficult to accept. Whether you are experiencing the consequences of your own actions or the actions of others, the best you can do is to have patience with yourself as you move towards accepting the new reality of your life. 

We’ve found these steps can help. 

Acknowledge your feelings

Allowing yourself to suffer the pain of loss is one of the most important steps in starting to heal. Don’t hold back. Let yourself cry, be angry, and feel whatever it is you are feeling. Like the weather, these feelings will come and go. Just avoid making any big decisions while you pass through these intense emotions. Once the feelings dissipate (and they will!), move forward. It may feel like two steps forward and one step back sometimes. But keep going. 

Do a reality check

Many people dealing with divorce may cling to the idea that they can talk things out with their partner and that they’re just going through a rough patch. Stop and do a reality check. Accept that things are difficult at the moment and won’t end perfectly. You can still continue to work toward healthy solutions with a positive attitude.

Take five

Having one or more partners temporarily “parked” in denial is a common way for divorces to drag on, costing both of you more time and money. Take a breath. Give yourself space. It’s okay to say, “let’s revisit this in a week and ask our lawyers not to work on it until then.” 

Accept a helping hand

It can be hard to talk about any marital issue, let alone divorce. While it might be difficult at first, talking can be instrumental in helping you accept reality and getting the support you need.  Start with your inner circle, what we like to call your Power People. These might be family, friends, even co-workers or acquaintances, that show up for you and provide you with energy and support. You’ll find they want to help and can provide you with guidance, strength, and camaraderie. Draw from their love and joy when it’s hard to find your own. 

Try this: Create a list of your Power People. Think of three trusted friends or family members and promise yourself to reach out to at least one of them per week. Don’t sugarcoat your situation. Tell them the truth. Your Power People can handle it. Listen and let them help. If you have divorced or divorcing family or friends, invite them to share their stories. You’ll find strength and gain a new perspective on your own. 


Get moving. A body in motion stays in motion. Set attainable goals and make a list: things you need to do and things you want to do. Start with easy things like household chores or errands. Take it one step at a time. This can help train your mind to not feel stuck, and to keep moving onward and upward. Here’s some ideas: 

  • Read one book per month

  • Take three walks per week

  • Reorganize a closet

  • Donate items you no longer need

  • Take yourself out to the movies

Don’t punish yourself

Ruminating on “what ifs” and “if onlys” is not only unproductive, it’s a form of self-punishment. Instead of doing something about the situation, you instead linger in the past, mired in regret (what might have been), and on reflection (what once was). This is why you need people around you—to offer another, healthier perspective, to call out any damaging thought patterns, and to help you keep moving.

Tips for rolling out of a rumination rut:

  • Identify the things about the marriage that were not good or did not make you happy; get a realistic sense of what you have lost, not an idealized one. 

  • Keep a gratitude journal. This is a proven way to focus your attention on the things that are good in your life rather than the things that you have lost or that are bad. 

  • Notice the positive changes in your new life. You don’t have to hang out with your sucky in-laws. You can take the beach vacation your spouse never wanted. You have newfound me-time without the kids. You can watch your guilty-pleasure TV shows.

  • Do something (anything). It is harder to ruminate when you are actively doing something, even if it’s the dishes. Go further: sign up for a new class like kickboxing or yoga to challenge your body and your mind, stop ruminating, and even meet some new people.

  • Let yourself be sad. Crying releases hormones that help us feel comforted and peaceful so we can move through sadness.

Look forward

When a marriage ends, you might focus on thoughts of “what once was.” These flashbacks of happier times can trap you into delusions that feed denial. You can waste your time obsessively trying to attain something that is no longer possible. “What once was” can progress into “what might have been.” This is even more futile. You are wasting your mental energy on something that did not happen and will not happen. It is okay to mourn the loss of the idea of being with someone for a lifetime, the loss of the family unit, the loss of being a spouse. All the dreams you had for your adult life should be acknowledged and felt.

Allow yourself to experience these feelings when they arise, and once you’ve felt them, deliberately move your focus to something positive over which you have control. Feelings will come and go, and over time you will find you are able to shift negative energy from the past into a positive opportunity for your future.

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