Don't let the it get the best of you!
Why is it that people who seemed to be fairly rational before divorce turn into complete paranoid, hyper-defensive maniacs once the separation and divorce process begins? Couples who promised to do this divorce thing respectfully suddenly turn into ferocious warriors, letting their mean-and-petty streak show through, especially when they get into the pit with their attorney.
Sure, some people are just jerks, but what makes otherwise good people behave so poorly? It turns out this "crazy" behavior is fairly predictable and normal in such circumstances. That's not an excuse for it, but when you better understand what's pushing your buttons so badly, you can finally begin to make healthier choices and address the feelings of overwhelm that are triggering such unseemly (read: king of the jerks) behavior.
Here are the panic-button pushing reasons that divorce makes us act so out of character:
1. Disappointment Over Unmet Expectations
When you said "I do" you did so with expectations about what marriage is all about. But maybe you never fully shared those expectations with the person you actually said your vows to. Many times we don't articulate our expectations specifically because we assume everyone just knows this is how marriage is supposed to be. But, "everyone" may only be your family and the way they did things, or your closest friends with whom you have discussed this over and over. It never included your now soon-to-be-ex-spouse who (don't forget) came into marriage with some unspoken expectations of their own. When our deeply held expectations (like "marriage is forever, no matter what") are unmet, we often feel betrayed, making it easy to feel indignant and cast our ex as the enemy. We believe they let us down. But, if we're honest, were they ever fully on page with us to begin with?
The big challenge of marriage is putting both partner's expectations on the table and then working together to create a mutually agreed upon vision for how your marriage will actually work.
2. The Fear of Change
During periods of immense and drastic change (such as divorce), your mild-mannered brain goes into survival mode, ready at a moment's notice to fight or retreat, thanks to that reptilian brain you inherited from your ancient ancestors.
Whether is it your fear of losing status (social, financial, etc.), a sense of uncertainty about the future, a worry that you don't belong anymore in your social circle, or just a feeling like this whole situation is so unfair—the problem-solving part of your brain can't do it's job until your panicked reptilian brain calms down.
Uncertainty and fear about how things will turn out take a steep toll on you mentally and physically. Stress from staying in an "I'm in danger" primal mindset can short-circuit your patience, your willingness to listen, and your ability to communicate effectively. Your health is also likely to take a dive as well, making you prone to sleep deprivation and low stamina at a time when you are taking on mountains of critically important paperwork, decisions, and details as part of the divorce. So, even if you want to make good choices, the stress response of facing so much uncertainty and change at once is sure to cause you at least some temporary loss of rational thought and behavior.
3. Feeling Powerless and Out of Control
In normal life, you are used to being competent and in charge, but now you are thrust into the unfamiliar, unsure of how to get things done right in the divorce process (and in the new life waiting after it). You are being forced to make important decisions immediately. You have to hire a high-priced expert to navigate you through the legal aspects. And hiring a lawyer kicks off what could be seen by the other as an attack; you have drawn up sides and are now ready for war.
Communication is out the window when you feel powerless and unable to fully control things that profoundly affect your life. You have to trust your attorney (who was likely a complete stranger to you before this situation) to lead the charge and make decisions that will affect your future (and your childrens' future) for years to come. It all costs a fortune. Is it any wonder each side feels like they are being screwed?
4. A Sense of Entitlement
Splitting apart all of the property (and associated memories) the two of you acquired through your sweat, equity, and hard-earned money can feel like a spiteful business transaction. Each of you has a sense of ownership and "it wouldn't have happened without my efforts" point of view. Your decisions right now are dominated by your emotions, not your logical problem-solving self.
If you have kids, there is likely an overwhelming sense of guilt and worry that this divorce experience might be damaging them. They may even think it is their fault that mommy and daddy are splitting up. The kids end up as pawns in a fight over what you and your ex believe you each deserve or never deserved. Each of you are in it to "get yours" in the name of fairness. But the ego battle waging between you both in the pursuit of "emotional justice" ends up feeling more like scrambling down an endless tunnel with no cheese at the end.
So, what's a stressed out person to do in order to keep divorce-induced jerky behavior in check?
- Take back your dignity. Get in touch with who you are when you are at your best. Be clear about what is important to you and why, and how you want to remember yourself when this is over. Now, behave your way into that outcome.
- Assemble a good team to support you in this transition from married to single. Identify where you need more information, different perspectives, and validation that will get you through this in a way that lifts you up (versus pulling you down). Pick people who can support you in being your best. Fight the urge to surround yourself with people who will urge you to seek revenge, act petty, or take your ex to the cleaners. When you look in the mirror, you want the best version of you reflecting back as you move into your new future.
- Listen, listen, listen. Communicate, communicate, communicate—with your children, with your ex-spouse, and with the experts you are relying on to help you make the best decisions based on your needs, wants and values. Don't be afraid to acknowledge your role in how things are going. If you misstep and act like a jerk for a moment, own it, and then apologize and move on.
- Remember your past successes. Take care of what is important to you, ask for help, and remember the times when you successfully dealt with challenging times in the past. What allowed you to be resilient then? How can that help you here and now? You've been through hard times before—you can handle this.
Dealing with a difficult ex certainly doesn't make the divorce process any easier. But neither does being a difficult ex. So keep yourself in check. By understanding some of the hot buttons that you both are pushing in each other, then maybe you can pause, take a breath, drop the jerk behavior and and make better choices.
Pegotty Cooper is the co-founder of the CDC Certified Divorce Coach® Training and Certification Program and co-author of Divorce: Overcome the Overwhelm and Avoid the Six Biggest Mistakes in Divorce - Insights from Personal Divorce Coaches. Download the first three chapters of the book from www.certifieddivorcecoach.com to give you insight into who should be on your divorce team.