An Emotionally Healthy Divorce in 5 Easy Steps

Today, I am going to talk about the 5 critical emotional needs that every person needs to have fulfilled in order to have productive and peaceful relationships.

In his book How To Raise Emotionally Healthy Children: Meeting The Five Critical Needs of Children…and Parents Too! Updated Edition
Gerald Newmark, Ph.D discusses these 5 emotional needs in relation to children, but as we are all just grown-up children, they can apply to adults as well and to any relationship.

When going through a divorce it is important to keep these needs of yourself, your ex, and your children in mind in order to have as peaceful an experience as possible.

1. The Need to Feel Respected

Respect is a word we throw around a lot.  But if you ask someone to define what respect is, they may have a hard time coming up with a black and white definition.  We tend to think of it as a “I’ll know it when I feel it” kind of thing.  And we definitely know when we feel disrespected by others.

Dr. Newmark says respect translates to the need “to be treated in a courteous, thoughtful, attentive, and civil manner – as individuals deserving of the same courtesy and consideration as others.”

So how can we show the people in our lives respect?

We can avoid being rude or discourteous.

We can avoid lying.

We can stop demeaning others when they make a mistake.

We can avoid interrupting, ignoring, or half-listening to others.

It is a sad but true fact that we often treat strangers, acquaintances, co-workers, etc with more respect than those closest to us.

Next time you find yourself in a conversation with your ex or anyone else where you feel things getting close to that respect/disrespect line, ask yourself “Would I say that to a stranger? to my boss?”  If the answer is no, then you probably shouldn’t say it at all.

2. The Need to Feel Important

“A person needs to feel – ‘I have value.  I am useful.  I have power.  I am somebody.’”

I know you may feel that your ex should not be an “important” person in your life anymore.

But if you have children together, than you can bet that they are still important in your children’s lives, whether they are there on a day to day basis or not.

Also, at one time, this person was very important to you.  If you suddenly pull that “importance” completely away, you may be met with less than ideal behavior in return.

As humans, we need attention.  If we don’t get positive attention, then negative attention will do.

It is a fine line when dealing with attention, importance, and your ex.  You don’t want to give the wrong impression, but you can do a few things that will help your ex feel important as a person and hence lessen his need to “act out” negatively.

First and foremost, listen.  When having a conversation, don’t just react to the first thing you hear and go off.  Listen hard.  Get to the root of the conversation.  And then act accordingly.

Give positive reinforcement.  I know this sounds like advice for dealing with a dog or a small child (and hey, keeps those snide comments to yourself, we are being respectful here), but it works with adults as well.

When your ex does something positive, whether it is paying his child support on time or taking soccer practice duty off your hands, say “thanks”.  Tell him you appreciate it.  You are more likely to get more of the same in the future.

Involve your ex in the decision making, even if you are not legally obligated to.  Ask his opinion.  You can still make it clear that the final decision is yours (if indeed it is), but by giving him his say you are showing that he is still important in his child’s life.  And who knows, he might have a good idea.

3. The Need to Feel Accepted

I love this quote from Dr. Newmark regarding acceptance: “We need to recognize that feelings are not right or wrong; they just are.  Acceptance does not imply liking or agreeing, nor does it have anything to do with condoning behavior.”

We need to help the people in our lives (yes, even our ex) know that their feelings are accepted – whether or not we agree with them.

That means not trivializing, ridiculing, or ignoring their feelings and ideas.

It also means not trying to talk them out of their feelings.  Feelings themselves cannot be wrong.  You feel how you feel  -  and someone telling you it’s silly or wrong does not make you feel better.

We always want to encourage people to feel free expressing their feelings to us.  It is far better than what happens when people keep their feelings inside only to come out in a negative way later.

4. The Need to Feel Included

When you have gone through a divorce, the family unit has been changed unequivocally.

However, if  you have children together you will always be a “family” whether you like it or not.  If you can’t bring yourself to like it, at least get used to it.

It is important that all members of the family and especially the children still feel as if they belong and that they are connected to other people.

It may be hard in the beginning, but if at all possible, it can be helpful to still engage in some activities or projects together as a family.  Maybe something to do with the holidays or school functions.

In addition, it might be helpful to have family meetings to discuss things that are happening in the divorced family.  This can be especially helpful to figure out how the children are coping with the divorce or to counter-act the playing parents against each other that older children tend to experiment with.

If the parents display a united front and regularly communicate both with and about the children it can help all members of the original family feel that they still belong to that family community.

5. The Need to Feel Secure

Divorce is a time of upheaval for everyone involved.

It can seem like the security and comfort of our previous life is gone in a second.

It is important to settle down into a new routine as soon as possible so that everyone can feel secure and know what to expect.

When dealing with your ex, it is important to not be ambiguous with your expectations.  Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.

That way there is no misunderstandings about rules and/or consequences.

And when something doesn’t go the way you would have liked – don’t freak out.  Be rational.  Avoid inappropriate or excessive consequences.

You want everyone to know what to expect.  When people are constantly afraid that you are going to over-react to every little thing, they tend to keep you in the dark a lot more.

Don’t make threats unless you intend to follow through.  If your ex is doing something you don’t like – ask yourself “Am I really prepared to go to court over this?   Does this really warrant him not seeing his kids?”  If the answer is no then don’t even make the threat.  And if the answer is yes, then get on with it instead of making empty threats.

Nobody likes to live on pins and needles, worrying about what you may do next.  Replace that voodoo doll with a security blanket.

Final Thoughts

As you read this article you may have been saying to yourself “well, it would have been nice if my 5 critical emotional needs were met during the marriage.”

Unfortunately, the fact that the divorce happened probably means that one or more of the needs was not being fulfilled for you and your ex.

But it’s not too late.  Oh, for the marriage it may be, but for the family unit that will continue to be in existence for the life of your children it is never too late to improve.


More on Dr. Newmark:  Dr. Newmark is President of The Children’s Project.  He is dedicated to awakening American consciousness as to how failure to meet critical emotional needs of children, and adults too, is a root cause of our recurring crises in schools, families, communities, businesses and society at large.  To learn more about Dr. Newmark  and How To Raise Emotionally Healthy Children go to:





  1. Excellent article! Can you imagine couples and their children actually still loving each other after the divorce. Would save lots of money on lawyers too!

    • Thanks Deborah! So often divorcing couples forget that they are still (and always will be) a family. Healthier families of any kind lead to healthier children which will lead to a healthier world for all.

  2. I agree completely with the intention and suggestions of this article. The problem I have is this…

    All five of these steps/needs I expressed to my husband when things took a turn for the worse. And, for six months I did a damn good job of walking these steps! When it is not reciprocated or appreciated, it’s a whooooolllle different climate. And, eventually I took all I could and allowed myself to fight back. The next “problem” is… That is ALL he focuses on… Not the six months I endured, poured out grace, patience, love, trust. Some might say, “you should have continued with these steps.” And for the past six months I’ve beat myself up for not being stronger, not being more trusting and faithful to God– to the point of severe depression.

    And now… I’m a little better. I am human and one can only walk these steps so long alone (i.e. without their spouse doing their part).

    I have been in counseling for six months and the past three years of ,y life have been one devastating blow after another. I grieve terribly. I am angry. I am hurting. I know the grief cycle… I get that. I simply am so disgusted that I opened myself up after a lifetime of abuse and dysfunction, once I finally realized and believed I deserve the promises God has for me, once I allowed Him to heal and change me… Only to be utterly DUPED.

    My long-winded point is this… If two people can realize, care about and walk out these steps with intention– they probably wouldn’t be getting a divorce.

    • Your right. As I said at the conclusion of the article, if all of these needs were being met during the marriage, you probably wouldn’t be getting divorced!

      This is about moving forward. The marriage may be over, but if you have kids together there will always be a “relationship” there. Why not try to make it as peaceful as possible?

      It is true that you can only work on YOU. The hope is that if you start to work on these steps (maybe start one at a time), maybe you will see a change in your Ex’s behavior too. But maybe not. The point is that YOU are making the attempt. YOU can feel good about trying to be a more positive role model for your kids, and YOU have stepped out of that negative, down-in-the-dirt mindset.

      Wishing you peace and serenity,