Normal Emotional Reactions To Divorce. . . (It is just neuroscience)

1.    FIGHT:   You just found out your spouse wants a divorce; you are devastated, heart broken and feel blind sided.  You want to stop the divorce in any way that you can.  You try to convince your spouse that you can save the marriage and will go to marriage counseling.  Yet, things don't change and you are more and more estranged from each other; you start fighting more; you become angry and your spouse starts blaming you for the divorce, even though it was your spouse who started this.  Everything that ever went wrong or mistakes made in your relationship are now a typical angry topic of conversation.  Your hurt turns to anger and you begin feeling revengeful. Soon your anger turns to more and more fighting and wanting to retaliate to get even.  You start making financial threats and threats about taking the children.  You do not trust your spouse and want to stay one step ahead.

2.    FLIGHT:   You just found out your spouse wants a divorce; you are afraid; you see everything you worked for being split up.  You will have to start all over again to build back up what will be gone.  You realize you will not see your children everyday anymore and you will probably have to sell your house.  You are in so much emotional pain.  You stop coming home after work, you stay away from the house.  You look into moving out because the home environment is so toxic to be around, you just want to end the pain and be somewhere else.

3.     PLAY DEAD:  You just found out that your spouse wants a divorce; you knew things weren't great in your marriage and your spouse has threatened divorce many times, but never followed through.  You never thought it would really happen.  You are embarrassed and you don't want your family or friends to know.  You feel great despair and depression.  You begin staying in bed and not wanting to do anything or go anywhere.  You are feeling ill and old health issues resurface and you find you are seeing your doctors more frequently. It gets harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning and you continue to drift further and further away from your spouse.  If you ignore it, maybe it will all be a nightmare and be gone when you awake.

The spouse who wants the divorce also goes through most of these same feelings and survival strategies. Even though he or she wants out of the marriage, there is extreme guilt and remorse. The guilt leads to the need to blame the other spouse to avoid taking the full blame.  This situation escalates into fighting. This spouse also feels depression, anger and hurt, especially when children are involved. This spouse wants the divorce yesterday in order to stop the pain and has a strong desire to leave the environment to avoid the pain and conflict.  Sometimes the person initiating the end of the marriage will do anything to get out of the marriage much like a captured animal who chews his foot off to get out of a trap.

Neuroscience studies show that when our ancient ancestors were confronted with danger or a threat to their life or well being, their primitive brain kicked-in with a "fight," "flight," or "play dead" response.  When a primitive individual was confronted with a wild boar or bear, he did not have time to think about and assess the situation, instead, he had to act quickly with an effective defensive response.

Although our brains have evolved somewhat, this primitive part of our brain still controls even though the threats now are different and not physical like those of our primitive counterparts.  Our brains are still "hardwired" with a fight, flight, or play dead response to emotional trauma and psychological stress.  The body gears up to deal with the danger we perceive to protect ourselves, even if there is no actual physical harm looming. Because this primitive brain takes over, we actually lose the ability to use the reasonable, rational part of our brain.

On top of that, when a person does not know what will happen next, mainly because the person is in an emotional spiral and is experiencing extreme conflict with the other spouse, that person person starts "filling in the blanks" about what the other person is doing and thinking.  In such an emotional state, neither person is able to rationally, correctly or positively "fill in blanks" about what the other person is doing or saying or thinking.  And since communication is usually completely broken down between the two, each person thinks the other person is acting in a threatening manner and reacts accordingly.  So, this phenomenon further fuels the downward spiral.

Almost all people going through divorce need help normalizing their feelings and each person needs time to process those feelings in order to properly deal with them.  The longer both spouses remain in a limbo state, not knowing what their future holds and not dealing with these emotions, the more polarized they become causing the trauma and animosity to just intensify.  All of the responses to divorce are normal in almost every divorce and occur in different variations in each particular person and situation.  As the trust continues to breakdown between the spouses, the potency of these responses increases and can easily spin out of control.  People are not themselves; they cannot think clearly; they are scared and in emotional pain; they want revenge; they want confirmation of their side of the conflict.  Mostly, they want someone to make all of these painful feelings stop.

ENTER THE LAWYERS:  It is at this point when people see a lawyer.  Lawyers can easily take advantage of this situation, even without really meaning to do so.  When lawyers confirm the negative and revengeful feelings of their client toward the other spouse, they actually do more damage to their client and the family.  This reaction can actually stimulate and set the case on an adversarial downward spiral.  Each negative action by one spouse and his or her attorney ends up with another negative reaction from the other spouse and his or her attorney.  The traditional litigated process to get divorce sets this in motion because attorneys are only doing what they are required by ethics to do: Protect their own ethical duty to zealously advocate for their client and because of that, the case is "off to the races," eventually taking on a highly adversarial "life of its own."  Only when BOTH lawyers refrain from fanning the flames of conflict and BOTH recognize the destruction to each of their clients and clients' family can there be a small chance to overcome the usual damage from the adversarial nature of getting a divorce in the traditional system.  BOTH of these lawyers have to work together to prevent the destruction.

The strategic nature of the adversarial process does not lend itself to allowing clients any autonomy or self-determination in the decisions about their future life which need to be made.  Co-parents are pitted against one another to determine "who" will be the custodial parent and "who" will pay the most child support.  There is no joint examination of the families resources so that a mutually beneficial distribution can be made.  Instead, the idea is to get the most for your client at the expense of the other spouse.  It is a win-lose strategy and each side is fighting hard to be the winner.  

Because of this set-up, the traditional divorce focuses on the present divorce situation, itself, and does not necessarily work with an eye to the families' future.  It focuses on seeking revenge by finding "fault" for the breakdown in the marriage on both sides.  How does finding out whose fault it is move two people with children from the point where they find themselves, i.e., Point A - getting a divorce to Point B - their future lives and the future lives of their children?  

There is a process to get divorced that examines and helps both spouses through the emotional land mines of divorce.  Normalizing the feelings, dealing with the feelings and moving on from the feelings in a constructive rather than destructive manner.  This divorce process helps each person understand and deal with their conflict rather than fanning the flames of conflict or just ignoring it and hoping it will go away.  It allows complete privacy and self-determination and gives the control back to the divorcing couple to make their own decisions about their future.  It focuses on creating a dignified and respectful environment to make decisions and relearn trust and communication. It helps each spouse learn to see and accept the other spouse's feelings. This constructive divorce process is called Collaborative Divorce, or Collaborative Process, or Collaborative Practice or Collaborative Law.  The State of Michigan passed the Uniform Collaborative Law Act last year which recognizes this process as a viable means for people to get divorced.  Call 248.258.2828 to get more information.

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