Divorce Trauma: The Psychological Impact of Divorce

The echoes of your divorce can have a lingering effect 

Going through a divorce is one of the most difficult experiences that anyone can endure. In fact, statistically divorce is one of the most stressful life event in America, second only to the death of a spouse or child. This has led to studies on the potential of divorce trauma and other mental health implications of divorce.

 The psychological impact of divorce can have lingering effects for years, or even your lifetime if they are left unhealed. It is common for both adults and children who have been touched by divorce to exhibit mental health strain, shock, and behavioral shifts.

 The mental burden of a divorce is more likely to be grief than it is trauma, but that doesn’t mean the circumstances that led to your divorce were not traumatic for you. The National Institute of Mental Health defines a traumatic event as a “shocking, scary or emotional experience that can affect you emotionally and physically.” We will dig into the distinctions below.

Effects of Divorce on Adults 

The emotions and psychological effect of divorce may be closer to grief than trauma, but the circumstances surrounding your divorce can have traumatic consequences.

 It’s important to note that grief and trauma are not synonyms. While the traces of grief may dissipate with enough time, trauma more often requires the attention of a professional, such as a therapist, to guide you into healthy thought patterns that allow you to begin healing. Most commonly, going through a divorce is more like grieving a loss than processing a traumatic event.

 So what is divorce trauma and how do you know if you’re experiencing it?

 Depending on your experience and mental health, you may be facing grief, trauma, or BOTH. In some cases, it is even possible to have traumatic grief. The most obvious indicators that you have experienced trauma are when you develop behavioral patterns, disorders, or symptoms such as:

  •  avoidance
  • emotional detachment/dissociation

  • persistent depression

  • insecure attachment styles

  • anxiety

  • personality disorders

  • other symptoms of PTSD

Unsurprisngly, these symptoms can hurt or put strain on the other relationships in your life (e.g. your kids, extended family, friends), as well as on future relationships (like a future partner). If you want to begin dating again, and building trust with someone new, the above symptoms can make it difficult.

 This is especially true if your former partner exhibited personality disorders, like narcissism or bi-polar disorder, or were abusive. The abuse caused by a partner with an untreated personality disorder can be particularly subtle, and include instances of gaslighting, verbal abuse, and manipulation. The ways that your brain has reacted and built up defenses to these traumatic experiences may not be clear to you, but are important to address in order to begin healing.

Effects of Divorce on Children 

It can be a difficult balance to strike with your children: not wanting to expose them to your marital tension, but wanting to be honest with them about the reality of your divorce and how it will impact their lives. While it’s unwise to expose your child to every detail of the divorce, lying to your child or hiding it from them can have worse consequences in the form of broken trust and uncertainty. Navigating this situation requires special attention because, per most counties’ Children’s Bill of Rights, parents are not allowed to discuss the specifics of their divorce negotiations in front of their children.

For younger children, beginning the conversation can be aided with books that describe divorce in simple, child-friendly terms. This is especially helpful as the topic can be confusing and emotionally difficult.

 Unfortunately, a divorce will often be a grief-causing and potentially traumatic event in the lives of your children. To some extent this will be unavoidable; a divorce will most likely create some insecurity and fear in a child’s life.

 Symptoms when divorce has become trauma for a child can include:

  •  emotional outbursts
  • separation anxiety

  • weight change

  • nightmares

  • social withdrawal

  • other shifted patterns of behavior

There may not be a way to shelter your child from pain in the divorce process completely, but you can greatly ease the burden or mitigate trauma by approaching it thoughtfully. This will be shaped by how you talk about your ex around your children, how you discuss the divorce with and in front of them, and how you agree to structure your child custody agreements.

 Co-parents will often consider unique arrangements like birdnesting to minimize stress on their child. There are also fantastic resources like OurFamilyWizard that can help you to seamlessly and efficiently track visitation schedules without having to interact extensively with your ex OR overly expose your child to the logistical challenges.

How to Heal from Divorce Trauma 

Healing from divorce trauma is an active process that may require you to reach out for help. A licensed therapist or other mental health expert is often necessary, especially if personality disorders or mental health concerns are present.

 In situations of abuse, you may need to seek more immediate sources of help. It can be difficult to seek outside help in personal matters, but in abusive circumstances it is typically necessary.

 In addition to professional guidance, there are self-help books that can help you to delve into things like setting boundaries and prioritizing your emotional health.

 It’s also healthy to surround yourself with friends who will both encourage you and be honest with you. It can be hard to see past the haze of anger, hurt, and resentment, but these feelings can prolong your healing process. Put together a personal support network that will encourage your healing and growth, instead of indulging in negative feelings.


Going through a divorce can be one of the hardest experiences in a person’s life. While the hope of a brighter future is a great source of encouragement, there are sure to be difficult days. It’s OK for it to be hard!

If you are still in the early stages of a divorce, or have just begun to consider it, you will need an experienced family law attorney at your side. We can help.


Kelly Capps is an experienced and dedicated attorney who specializes in family law. She understands how hard and emotional divorce can be, and she can provide the peace of mind that you will be carefully guided through each step. Get in touch with us today to learn more about how we can ease the burden of your divorce.

This article does not create an attorney-client relationship. Its purpose is to educate the public about the topic of family law. This article should not be seen as legal advice. You should consult with an attorney before you rely on this information.