A husband and wife verbally lash out at each other during the divorce. It’s in text messages, emails, phone calls. They know what they’re doing is foolish. Maybe each spouse also knows what they’re writing will be used against them in court, especially if there are admissions made that become relevant in a custody case. But they can’t help themselves. Rehashing bitter moments during the marriage is too easy. So is blaming the other for the breakup and the problems that have followed since separation. Sound familiar?
The heightened emotions in divorce
If you’ve ever been through a divorce or know someone close to you who has, it should. It’s pretty common. We divorce lawyers see it regularly although our lawyers (the ones in our firm) do a pretty darn good job of educating our clients about both the foolishness and legal consequences that could follow such conduct. Still though, nobody is immune from the melt down.
Understanding the triggers that cause the emotional turmoil
So how do you stop it? I have talked to colleagues, judges, psychologists and many others who have a professional or clinical perspective on this. But the best perspective didn’t come from them. It has come from experience in studying the triggers that cause such verbal attacks. You see, you cannot stop humans from being human, which is to say we will all stay things we regret from time to time but if you study the triggers for such behaviors (what led to them), control is no longer an adolescent illusion.
What are the triggers? I am glad you asked.
History is your enemy in emotional outbursts
The first trigger is history. Put another way, the past. More than 50% of every tirade I have ever read between spouses or ex-spouses is triggered by a discussion of the past. These include rehashing of:
- Major past events such as infidelity or incidents of emotional or physical abuse;
- Minor ones like an argument over dinner that was particularly memorable;
- Recurring ones or what I call the “under the skin” themes such as “you never helped around the house or with the kids” or “you were never supportive of my career.” These are the ones that have built up over time.
Insecurity triggers an emotional response
You may be wondering “what is Robert talking about?” It’s simple. When we feel insecure, we feel cornered and when we feel cornered, we tend to lash out. It’s not coincidence that spouses lash out at the things which make them the least secure. If the wife was the homemaker and the husband is suddenly pressing on parenting time with the children (time the wife believes he doesn’t really want or cannot handle), the wife can become insecure. Suddenly, her control over the parenting issues may feel like it’s slipping away. What happens? Sadness. Anger. All kinds of negative emotion.
Similarly, if the husband was the breadwinner and used to being in control of the money and now he is facing child support, spousal support and attorney fees that he feels are strangling him financially, he will blame the person easiest to blame – his wife. This results in, you guessed it, sadness, anger and those same negative emotions.
How can I control my emotions during a divorce?
By recognizing their triggers and anticipating them. The moment your spouse wants to bring up the past, a bell goes off in your head. Let’s say it’s the husband who did it. What does the wife do to avoid getting sucked into the nonsense? “My husband is brining up the past. This will result in an argument. Disengage.” That disengage is turning off. “I am sorry, we’re not rehashing history. That’s not a solution to anything.” Boom. Situation diffused. Now, you may think your spouse may press on. You may be right but so what? You have disengaged. Your have recognized the situation before it has become an argument. The moment the past has come up, you have placed your foot on the proverbial brake pedal , stopped and said “no, you will not cause me to react.”
It works the other way too. You are upset, for whatever reason. Your just cut the child and spousal support check. You’re picking up the children. You are upset. Finances have gotten tight. You recognize how you feel and remember well that it is in these moments that you tend to go into verbal attack mode. You pause and realize it’s the act of cutting those checks that triggered the insecurity about it. You know this because the same rush of emotions comes through you. Pause. Take a breath. “Nothing good is going to come out of me being angry over this. Let the legal process run its course. I will not let this upset me unnecessarily.”
Does recognizing triggers really stop the emotional attacks?
I will put it to you this way. This is part of the dialogue I have with my clients. This is what our lawyers talk about from time to time about helping our clients manage these complex emotions. And we have been doing this for years and the results speak for themselves. Unlike so many spouses and ex spouses I see who cannot control their emotions, our clients do a darn good job of it. Do they slip from time to time? Yes, but it’s the exception, not the rule and, hey, what did we say at the outset of this? We’re human. Perfection is not the standard. Emotional growth and maturity is.