Dr. John Schinnerer
A few years ago, I went through a difficult and contentious divorce. It did not need to be that way. Things could have been rational, reasonable, honest and quick. It could have been done at a minimal cost. So what got in the way? Anger and entitlement.
How do you get through the intense emotions, such as anger, rage, sadness and hurt, that often accompany a separation and divorce? How do you deal with the negative thoughts? How do you move forward with kindness and compassion? Here are the top tips to part ways with your spouse while holding onto your dignity, your financial savings and your calm.
Understand How Anger Works
In general, emotions tell us whether or not our needs are being met. When our needs are not being met, it’s easy to become angry, scared, hurt or sad. For many men, anger is the dominant emotion felt. It’s often easier to default to anger than cop to what you are truly feeling. In my experience, hurt is what most often underlies my anger. Sometimes you are aware of what is underlying anger. Sometimes you aren’t. Identifying the emotion underneath anger is often the best way to mitigate anger. Once you’ve identified what’s below your anger, the next step is to share it. For instance, instead of saying, “I’m furious you left me,” you might say “it hurts me that you are leaving.” This simple shift dramatically alters the dynamics of the conversation. Anger from men is often viewed by others with fear and trepidation. The more you can shift to the level below anger, the more receptive to you others will be.
Know What You Control
Managing anger during divorce frequently revolves around being aware of what you truly control. You will feel better to the extent that you can control the environment around you. To help alleviate feelings of helplessness, create a plan for you and your children. Come to an agreement with your spouse as to a temporary child custody schedule. If possible, look for 50-50 sharing of the children. Odds are, whatever you put in to a temporary custody schedule will be turned into a permanent one. As soon as you have agreement on a schedule, let your children know what to expect as it gives them a greater sense of control.
One of the biggest triggers for anger in divorce I see is when a coparent finds out about something going on at the other parent’s home with which they don’t agree. This might be something like allowing video games all week long, poor meal choices, or introducing a girlfriend/boyfriend after dating for only a month. Look at these instances as lessons in what you truly control. And you only truly control one thing — yourself. You control your thoughts, your feelings, your actions. You no longer have any control over what goes on at your coparent’s house. You can talk to them, suggest things, and ask questions. If things get really bad (e.g., domestic violence, drug and alcohol use, neglect, etc.), you can address it with the courts, child services or with a mediator. Unless your children are in danger, you really have little to no say. This is a difficult pill to swallow for many. Keep reminding yourself that you only control one thing — yourself. You control your thoughts, your feelings, your actions.
Distract Yourself with Pleasant Activities
One of the keys to managing your emotions is to distract yourself. Do things that are fun for you — exercising, reading, watch a comedy, go for a walk, enjoy nature, get a massage, learn to meditate, hang out with friends or play with your kids.
When you notice your thoughts returning to the divorce, gently redirect them to a memory of when you were happy and safe. I recommend to my clients to take mental snapshots of times when they are happy such as when they are playing in the back yard running through the sprinkler with their children or a tropical vacation. Then you can return to these mental pictures during stressful times.
Another key is to breathe deeply. Breathe into your abdomen or stomach area, not your chest. Focus on exhaling out ALL of the air in your lungs with each breath and filling your lungs completely with each inhale. When you want to really relax, focus on breathing out slightly longer than you breathe in. For example, breathe in for four-seconds, hold it for a second, and breathe out for 8-seconds (and repeat!). Breathing out longer than you breathe in activates the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the relaxation response.
Another key to managing anger during divorce, and one which is proven by research, is to journal. Studies have shown that journaling helps reduce intrusive thoughts, which are negative thoughts that come into your head unwanted. And let’s face it, separation and divorce lend themselves to numerous intrusive thoughts. Journaling helps to get rid of these which will improve your mood. The other benefit is that, by noting things down in a journal, you can go back and have a written accounting of events of the day which may serve you well in the unfortunate event you have to litigate the divorce.
Get Back to the Gym
Keep your physical body in good shape in general to provide you with maximum energy and minimal anger. Staying in good physical shape gives you a greater sense of control of the environment around you. As we discussed earlier, a lot of the emotions that come up in divorce, arise due to a feeling of things being out of control. Having greater physical strength, greater flexibility, and more stamina all contribute to you having an increased sense of control over external events.
What’s more, you will want to begin to redefine your body in preparation of dating again (at some point!). This is what’s known as the post-divorce body where men hit the gym and reap the benefits of lifting weights to look their best. You will thank me for this later, trust me.
Also, for highly challenging events, such as a difficult divorce, try activities that are relaxing such as yoga, meditation, walking, or stretching. Soothing activities are helpful as well such as a shower or a warm bath.
If you are angry or furious, any hearty physical activity such as jogging or swimming is a great way to work off strong negative emotions. I find that lifting weights is most helpful for dealing with anger and frustration. While aerobic activity is best for anxiety and stress.
Watch Out for Depression
It is very common to feel depressed when in the midst of separation and divorce. Most men experience some symptoms of depression during divorce. Be aware of hiding away in your man cave, isolating yourself and refusing friends’ requests to go out. Watch out for an increase in your alcohol consumption. You may also see a spike in your level of irritability (which is often how depression shows itself in men). In general, indicators of depression include changes in sleep habits — either too much or not enough, change in eating habits, significant weight gain or loss — more than approximately 5% body weight in a month, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, withdrawal from family and friends, family history of depression and/or anxiety, giving away valued items, complete lack of emotion, irritability, sadness, apathy (i.e., “I don’t care.”) fatigue, diminished ability to think or concentrate, and/or recurring thoughts of death and dying. If you recognize signs of depression, seek out professional help such as a divorce support group, clergy, rabbi or mental health counselor.
Find the Positive Meaning in the Pain
One of the best ways to deal with divorce is to figure out the lessons you are intended to learn from it. I challenge you to find your own personal positive meaning in your divorce. What does it represent to you? A call to action? A reminder to get in better shape? A motivation to learn to manage your thoughts and feelings? A second chance? An opportunity to do things right this time? What do you need to learn to ensure that your next relationship is happy and successful? One of the best ways we learn is through making mistakes. You are not a failure. Your marriage failed. Big difference.
What Are You Going To LEARN From Divorce?
Don’t sit by and passively watch your divorce go by and simply feel sorry for yourself (although you may need some time to do so). Use this as a clarion call to improve yourself and the world around you. As Gandhi said, “You must be the change that you wish to see in the world.” That means you start with one individual — you. And you start changing you by changing what is on the inside.
The main reason for your sadness is to help you adjust to the death of your relationship. Sadness allows time to grieve, look inward at who you are and what you are doing with your life, and understand the meaning of the loss. One of the most important things is to figure out the meaning of the loss. The particular meaning you assign to the loss matters less than merely coming up with a meaning, any meaning, for the loss. You are happier to the extent that you find a positive meaning in past events and relationships.
Just like anger builds upon itself, sadness builds upon sadness. So if your first sad thought is followed by more sad thoughts, you risk a downward spiral.
All emotion is meant to be temporary. Anger is not permanent. Sadness is not permanent. They are merely passing by. You are better off to the extent that you can learn to identify them and release them through activities such as deep breathing, exercise or journaling.
Remember The Snowball Analogy
Imagine a snowball rolling down a large snow-covered mountain. At first, the snowball is the size of your fist, something you could easily pick up and control. However, as the snowball rolls down the hill, it picks up speed and grows exponentially. After a few yards, the snowball has increased in size to the point where you can no longer handle it by yourself. Given the right conditions, the snowball can grow to mammoth size and could cause damage to other people.
The snowball is exactly the same as your feelings. For instance, anger usually starts out small and manageable. However, if you are not paying attention, anger quickly grows and becomes uncontrollable. In fact you only have about ½ a second to interrupt the anger process. However, it’s doable. You can do it. I’ll tell you how. Keep in mind that I am talking about the speed of thought. So you actually have time to insert 2-3 thoughts in that 1/2 a second timeframe. It’s more time than you think!
The most important thing in controlling negative emotions, such as anger, is nipping them in the bud. You have to tune in to your body’s cues. Your body will tell you when you are beginning to get angry, for instance. Blood rushes to your fists, your face may get red, your muscles tense, breathing becomes shallow, your jaw clenches, your eyebrows furrow and so on. We need to begin to tune in to these cues. You only have a split second in which you can interrupt the cycle of anger. Otherwise the anger builds upon itself and spirals out of control. So the first tip is to become more aware of your bodily cues. Every emotion has cues which reveal how we are feeling. Fear triggers blood flowing to the arms and legs, perspiration, raised eyebrows, and a constriction of the throat. Sadness is marked primarily by a drop in energy, tears welling up, and the longing for that which is gone. The trick is to tune into these cues quickly and interrupt the cycle.
The second tip is to understand that negative emotions are created in large part by your interpretation of the situation around you. So you can learn to change your interpretation of the world around you. Here’s one way to do this. In stressful situations, ask yourself, “Will this matter ten years from now?” In most cases the answer is no, it won’t. If the answer is “Yes,” then ask yourself, “what can I do to help find a constructive solution to the problem?” Practice these skills and you will see improvement.
Remember that this difficult divorce shall pass. While it is life-shattering now, life will gradually improve, a smile will eventually return to your face, and you will be that much the wiser as you look to love again.
Graphic by Luis Prado (https://thenounproject.com/search/?q=abuse&i=38107) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons