When my ex-husband and I decided to divorce in 2002, we came to the decision rationally just like we'd come to most decisions in our marriage. Being two rational human beings who had never fought, we thought it would be in our best interest to save money and effort by continuing to live together until we were able to sell our home.
Sounds reasonable, right? Well, it wasn't reasonable at all.
Neither of us had been through divorce before, and we had no idea of the changes we would be going through or the intense anger we would feel toward each other. I remember one instance when we were talking about something that made my husband angry. So angry that he punched the wall in front of my face. I had never seen him do anything of the sort before and it made me angry in return. Instead of punching the wall, though, I took it out on myself. I remained outwardly calm, but internally I blamed myself for the divorce and generally made myself miserable.
Now I realize that the intense anger we were experiencing during divorce was actually the accumulation of all the little angers that we had never addressed during our nearly 18 years of marriage. For years, we had been sweeping our angers and irritations under the rug because they just didn't seem to be worth dealing with in the moment. Unfortunately, we didn't forget them; we hid them and they grew. They grew so much that by the time we decided to divorce they had turned into a mountain of frustration and anger. There was no longer a reason to try to make our marriage work and so the slightest insult or frustration could set us off. Our anger was like Mt. Vesuvius erupting; it threatened to explode and erase all evidence that our marriage had even existed.
We all have similar experiences when we divorce. Some of us experience the eruptions during the marriage. Some of us experience the eruptions once the decision to divorce is made. Some of us even experience the eruptions long after the divorce is final.
Believe it or not, divorce anger can serve an important purpose and it's not all bad. Divorce anger can help you to separate and sever your marriage bonds. However, you don't need to experience the anger for prolonged periods. In fact, if you do, then you've probably gotten into the habit of being angry and are stuck.
If you're stuck in the anger, don't worry; you can get past your divorce anger. Here are some steps to help you get unstuck and defuse your divorce anger.
- Accept that everyone (including your ex and his or her attorney) is doing the best they can with what they have at every moment. You're just not going to be able to make your ex be someone they're not. Lisa Nichols has a great way of teaching this. She says you can't supersize people. Some people just have a 24-ounce capacity and when you expect them to give you 64-ounces, they just can't do it. So if you're expecting your ex to be kinder, smarter or more responsible than they're capable of, you're going to be disappointed. When I teach this concept to my clients, I suggest they take a picture of a shot glass and use it as the screen saver on their phone. That way the next time they get angry at their spouse, they can look at the shot glass and remember that their ex just isn't capable of giving or doing any more than they are.
- Acknowledge that you and your ex have different priorities, capabilities and motivations. When you and your ex were married, your priorities and motivations probably were the same, but that is no longer the case. Only you can decide what's right for you. Only your ex can decide what's right for him or her. And if your ex didn't have the capabilities you wanted them to have in the marriage, there's no way they're going to magically develop the capabilities now that you're divorced.
- Check for residual anger and express it — appropriately. Anger is an energizing emotion. I've never heard of someone who was so angry they fell asleep, have you? So, even though you've defused the anger intellectually, chances are that you've still got some adrenaline flowing around your system that needs to get used up. To check this out, take a couple deep breaths. Is there still a part of you that wants to do something active like taking your ex to task, cleaning out the junk drawer or punching a pillow? If so, you need to burn up the adrenaline. Some of my favorite ways to do this are exercise, punching a pillow, screaming into a pillow and dancing to some really loud music. Find an activity that allows you to safely and appropriately work your frustration out while you adjust to your new thoughts of acceptance and acknowledgment.
Taking a deep breath and following these steps the next time you start to feel furious with your ex will allow you to defuse your divorce anger and get on with living your own life instead of continuing to be entangled with theirs.
Your Functional Divorce Assignment
Think of one recent situation that you're angry with your ex about. Sometimes the easiest way to learn something new is to practice, so let's take this situation through the three steps above.
- How can you change your thoughts about your ex so that you can accept they were doing the best they could in this situation? Remember that accepting that someone is doing the best they can doesn't mean you have to like what they did. It also means that you're never going to be able to make them into someone they're not.
- How can you acknowledge that your ex now has different priorities than you do? Even if the only priority you can think of that your ex has is that they want to live their life without you, it's still different from your priorities.
- Take a deep breath and check your body for signs of residual anger. Can you feel that your blood pressure is elevated? Are you clenching your jaw or your fists? Are you feeling energized to just take action? If you answered yes to any of these, then it's time to get active and burn off that residual anger.
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