Why can't we all just get along?
Steve had been having an affair with Stacie for a couple of years. Yesterday, she told him she was pregnant. At first he was shocked when he heard the news. But then he started thinking about the whole situation. In fact, he'd been thinking about what he really wanted out of life all day. He realized he was happier with Stacie than he had ever been or could even imagine being with Michelle, his wife. Steve finally came to grips with what he'd been trying to avoid for years. It was time to put his fear and guilt aside and admit he wanted a divorce.
When he got home from work, he told his wife of 15 years and the stay-at-home mother of his three sons that he wanted a divorce and why he wanted it. Michelle was furious.
After explosively and expletively telling Steve he needed to leave immediately, Michelle started planning — not for how to go on with her life as a single mom, not for what she would need to do to re-enter the workforce, and not even for how to pick an attorney to represent and guide her through the divorce. No, she started planning how she would destroy him and "his whore" just like they had destroyed her life.
Her plans included emptying their bank accounts, cancelling his credit cards and posting all of the details of his infidelity on Facebook. She also started telling their sons how Daddy has a new family now and doesn't want us anymore, but she would never ever leave them. Then she found an attorney who agreed that her husband should have to pay dearly for what he had done and proceeded to file motion after motion with the result of frittering away the marital assets. (Of course Steve was incensed by Michelle's behavior and responded in kind. His actions served to prolong and exacerbate their divorce war).
Michelle had declared war the moment Steve told her he wanted a divorce. She thought she had declared war on her ex and "his whore," but what she discovered when the divorce was final and the dust had settled was that she had declared war against herself and her sons too. No one won.
This is what happens when divorce becomes war; there are casualties everywhere and no victor.
Although this is just a story, it's based on real-life events that various clients have shared with me over the years. Everyday spouses declare war against each other so they can "win" the divorce, but there's never a winner. The wars start in uncontrolled, misunderstood anger that turns to rage where the only goal is destruction.
One of the most common causes of divorce is a breakdown in communication between the spouses. During marriage, the communication breakdown causes the spouses to pick and choose what they'll attempt to resolve and what they'll sweep under the rug and let fester. As time goes by, more and more is swept under the rug and the stench of the unresolved issues is horrific and puts distance between the couple who married with dreams of happily ever after. Then, when the decision to divorce has been reached, there's no longer a need to keep all the pent up anger under the rug. The anger comes spewing forth and covers everything. It's at this point that war is often declared.
But divorce doesn't have to be like this. It probably won't be both of you sitting down together and singing Kumbaya, but there's no reason for there to be a war. The anger of divorce can actually be a good, natural healing part of divorce — if that's what you choose it to be.
Divorce anger can have two healthy purposes: sever the marital bond and highlight the need for healing.
When a couple marries, there is a joining of lives, possessions and passion. There's a connection that's forged from the moment the "I dos" are uttered. It's strengthened for good or bad every day the couple interacts. When the couple decides to divorce, the result anger can sever the bond, increase the distance between the former partners, and allow each to begin to be whole on their own.
You can only use anger to sever your marital bond by putting forth the effort to appropriately express it. Anger needs to be expressed and not just stuffed because it's an energizing emotion. Your body needs to use up the energy. Some of the ways you might find helpful for appropriately expressing your anger are screaming into a pillow, dancing to loud music, throwing ice cubes with all of your might against the sidewalk or a brick wall (one of my favorites), exercising, journaling, and talking with a friend, family member and/or a helping professional.
The second healthy purpose of divorce anger is allowing you to recognize the feelings underneath the anger. When I got divorced in 2002, my divorce anger was initially fueled by feelings of despair, hurt and disappointment. Many of my clients discover feelings of poor self-esteem, fear and sadness fueling their anger. We all experience the grief process of divorce recovery a little differently, but it's by appropriately expressing your anger that you can find the feelings that are currently fueling yours.
Though your former spouse is the target of your divorce anger, that anger is really about you. If all the couples going through divorce would use their divorce anger to aid in healing their divorce grief, they would heal more quickly, which in turn would allow their children to transition more easily too.
The alternative to using your divorce anger to help you heal is to declare war against your former spouse. Unfortunately, this is a proven poor strategy because, just as Michelle discovered, divorce wars have no victors only casualties.
Your Functional Divorce Assignment
Are you willing to choose to use your divorce anger to heal? Hopefully after reading this article, you've reached the conclusion that yes, you are ready and willing to make this choice.
- How are you choosing to appropriately express your anger? The ideas in this article are just a starting point. You may find that one of the ideas works well today, but next week it doesn't work at all. That's OK. Most people find it useful to have several ways of appropriately expressing their anger. By experimenting you'll find the ways that work best for you.
- Which emotions are hiding beneath your anger? It can be really easy to feel anger and ignore the root emotions, but it's your root emotions that need to be brought to the surface, explored and worked through for real healing from your divorce to happen.
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