Coping with divorce stress

Divorce is stressful

How to manage the emotional stress of uncoupling 

One of the hardest things about divorce is the loss of a soulmate, a best friend, a confidante. Divorce can be amicable, and some couples go on to be close friends after divorce but, in our experience, it is rare for a divorcing couple to maintain a close relationship in the throes of uncoupling. There is just too much potential for conflict at this time. However mutual the decision to part, divorce is usually a sad and painful process. It is difficult if not impossible to confide in the person who is at the heart of the emotional stress. As a result, divorce can leave you feeling isolated and alone, making divorce stress that much harder to manage. What are some of the coping strategies recommended by experts to help you get through divorce?

What does divorce stress look like?

While everyone experiences stress in their own way, there are some common factors. It’s important to recognise the signs of stress; some behaviours may not seem obviously stress-induced but are indications of tension or trauma nonetheless. Divorce is loss, and the grief you experience can be as debilitating as the grief of bereavement. It’s important to acknowledge the loss, the grief, and the stress they cause. Don’t try to “power through” out of a reluctance to “give in” to grief or appear vulnerable. Vulnerability is a normal and natural response to sadness and loss.


While the stress of divorce may have emotional causes, it can manifest itself physically. Your health may suffer at this time, either as a direct result of changes to your behaviour (eating too much or too little, for example) or simply due to the effect of stress hormones like cortisol on your body. You may find it difficult to sleep. Conversely, you may not want to get out of bed. Your blood pressure may rise.

A cross-sectional study was carried out in Denmark in 2020 among nearly 2000 recently divorced people, in an attempt to quantify the correlation between divorce and adverse health outcomes. Both mental and physical health were measured. The study found that the health-related quality of life of recently divorced people was significantly worse immediately following the divorce than in a similar non-divorcing population. The higher the level of divorce conflict, the worse the mental health outcomes for both men and women, and the worse the physical health outcomes for women, even when controlling for other variables.

Social life

You may relate to people differently, possibly without realising it. If a lot of your friends are mutual friends of you and your spouse, you may feel uncomfortable around them. You may feel that other people are judging you, even if they are not! Feelings of failure and shame are common when a relationship ends, particularly in social and cultural contexts where divorce is frowned upon.

Inability to concentrate

Another symptom of stress is distraction. It can be hard to maintain focus on work or other commitments, even parenting, when feeling stressed or worried about divorce. You may also feel an underlying, non-specific anxiety or fear. The future can be frightening when going through a divorce, particularly if you’ve been married a long time. This is especially true for a non- or lower-earning spouse, usually the wife, as they look ahead to life as a recipient of maintenance or contemplate a return to the workplace.

Coping with stress

Unsurprisingly, tools for dealing with stress apply regardless of the cause of the stress. This is because stress manifests itself in the body in predictable ways, whatever the stressor. Equally, some tips are specific to divorce stress, because of the unique circumstance of divorce.

Acknowledge and accept your feelings

It’s completely normal to be sad, angry, irritated, disappointed (in your spouse or yourself), frightened (of the future, of your feelings, of what your spouse might do), tired (emotion is draining; dealing with legal issues on top of daily life is exhausting), and confused (why is this happening? How did we reach this stage?). You may feel all of these emotions or just one or two. There are no right or wrong feelings. Whatever you feel is legitimate. You may experience a range of emotions all at once, or you may segue from one into another. Feelings may intensify, lessen, and intensify again. There is no normal because everyone responds differently. In that sense, it’s all normal. Allow yourself to feel your emotions and accept them. Accept too that you may function at a lower level of efficiency than you are used to for a while. Productivity at work may reduce, and your ability to care for your friends and family may be affected. Tell those closest to you – and any colleagues at work who need to know – what you are going through. Ask for their support, and tell them you will bounce back, but it may take a while.

Ask for help

Asking for support is important, and not just at work. You may need practical help with children or just a shoulder to cry on. Don’t try to go it alone. Discuss your feelings with a close friend or family member. If you can afford it, a counsellor or therapist can be a big help. Reach out to anyone you know who has gone through a divorce, even if they are not a close friend. You may benefit from talking to someone who has been through what you are going through.

Look after your health

Healthy eating is always important, and particularly so when you’re going through a divorce, because you may need to make a more conscious effort. It’s easy to slip into comfort eating or to lose the motivation to prepare healthy meals, particularly if you are just cooking for yourself. It’s slightly easier if you have children to think about. But ready meals and takeaways can all too easily become habit if you’re not careful. 

Exercise is an important part of your stress management toolkit. Physical activity will help you get rid of nervous energy and release endorphins, which can make you feel better. Meditation or calming exercise such as walking or yoga may help to quieten your mind and organise confused thoughts.

Try to get enough sleep. This may be easier said than done, as sleep habits can be negatively impacted by stress. There is no magic bullet to better sleep, but it’s best to avoid sleeping tablets. Follow common sleep hygiene advice – have a quiet, softly lit bedroom, avoid using devices such as tablets or cell phones in bed, don’t eat late in the evening and wind down before bed, perhaps with a hot bath or cup of chamomile tea. This won’t guarantee you a perfect night’s sleep, but it will help.

Lastly, beware of self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. It’s very easy for moderate alcohol consumption to tip over into excess when dealing with stress or grief. If you have any concerns about how much you are drinking, seek help.  

Take up painting

Or singing, or golf. It doesn’t matter what it is, but if there is something you’ve been wanting to try…or an activity you used to enjoy that has fallen by the wayside…now is the time to try it out or rediscover it. There may be things you are interested in that did not appeal to your spouse, and you didn’t pursue them. Reconnect with your own interests. Or you may want to volunteer. Hobbies, volunteering, and other activities will give you a new focus, introduce you to new people, and give you the satisfaction and self-esteem that your divorce may have depleted.

Walk away from conflict

Inevitably, divorce involves conflict. Some disputes you won’t be able to avoid, but try to sidestep power struggles and arguments with your spouse. If a discussion threatens to become heated, tell your spouse that you’ll come back to the matter later, when you are both calm. Then walk away or end the call. There is no need to subject yourself to more stress.

This won’t last forever

Most importantly, remember that you WILL get through this – both the divorce and the emotional maelstrom. You won’t always hurt this much. You won’t always feel angry. Take inspiration from other people who are divorced and have built new lives, either with a new partner or on their own. You too will make a new life. Whatever you are going through will not last forever. That knowledge can help you cope with the pain and stress you are feeling right now.

Cape Town family lawyer can help

Simon Dippenaar and Associates are experts in family law. We are not psychologists, and we recommend professional help for anyone really struggling with divorce stress. But we can help you divorce with dignity, with as little stress as possible, and move on with your life. If you would like to discuss your options, call Simon today on 086 099 5146 or email for a discussion in complete confidence.

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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