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This article was
published in Divorce Magazine and are reproduced here with their full permission.
the Anger of Divorce
"If you are
patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow."
- Chinese proverb
By Mari J. Frank
It's a fact: escalating anger
causes much of the sorrow of divorce. You have the right to be upset -- but how can you
deal effectively with the ire in divorce? First, it's important to realize that anger is a
natural emotion, like an alarm meant to protect you from further hurt. Even the most
agreeable people have legitimate feelings of hostility in divorce. Why? Because your
expectations, dreams, and hopes about your life with your spouse are dissolving with the
divorce, and that is painful. Your wrath grows out of the feelings of disappointment of
perceived wrongs by your "worse" half.
Since anger is really unresolved
hurt without an outlet for healthy expression, repressed hostility causes an escalation of
conflict. As a result, the legitimate suffering that both parties experience in marital
discord often transforms into a stressful, expensive, "bloody" courtroom battle.
The litigated divorce provides a costly forum for acting out destructive animosity.
Mediation, a dynamic alternative
to litigation, is a facilitated negotiation. Successful mediation de-escalates the
hostility, focusing on problem solving instead of arguing positions. The mediator sifts
out blame and helps the parties discover mutually acceptable solutions. Due to the
intensity of the emotions -- and the complexity of the legal issues -- during divorce, the
parties need a qualified neutral attorney/mediator to educate them about family-law
issues. This process empowers both parties to make informed decisions about their children
and their finances.
The expert mediator facilitates
the transformation of conflict into "solutioneering" and teaches the parties how
to manage their own anger. It's a process that builds trust and guarantees satisfying
results. Handling your own anger effectively is a challenge at any time, but it is an
especially important accomplishment during the heat of divorce.
Whether you are in litigation or
mediation, it will be to your financial and emotional advantage to understand how to
control your frustrations. You can achieve greater financial benefits, save yourself from
stress, and "win" more of what you want if you can communicate effectively with
For a long time, you and your
spouse have pushed each other's "buttons" and reacted to conflict by fighting,
fleeing, submitting, or freezing. When you repress anger, you feel diminished, yet if you
meet hostility with aggression, it fans the flame, which may lead to violence. There are
Our goal is to consciously
respond -- not instinctively react. If your spouse gets you mad, you have lost control of
yourself. As Elizabeth Kenny once said, "He who angers you, conquers you.³
When we allow our anger to rule
our reasoning, we lose our ability to make reliable decisions. We lose our sense of self,
our thinking becomes impaired, and we "lose it." That's when we make "the
greatest speeches we'll ever regret!³ We voluntarily give away our power when we delegate
the authority to anger to rule our reason.
Try the following proven strategy
anytime your spouse (or children, boss, or anyone else) attacks your ideas, actions, or
beliefs. To help you remember this 10-step strategy, you may find the acronym HARD LOVING
helpful and apropos.
Halt: Stop yourself from reacting -- don't say anything. Listen, don't express negative
emotions, and consciously breathe slowly. If you react in anger, you will invite more
Anger is a negative emotion that you can actually feel in your body. Immediately direct
your mind to your physical sensations. Some typical reactions are dryness in the throat,
tightness in the neck, knife in the solar plexus, etc.
Take a moment to close your eyes (focus), and imagine your spouse saying something that
"pushes your buttons." Identify your physical reaction to the verbal battle.
Once you recognize your body's auto-reply to verbal pain, you gain the key to override its
power over you.
You can consciously reverse this auto-reaction through your awareness. For example, if you
sense a knife in your solar plexus when you're feeling accused, gently "remove the
weapon." "Drink" refreshing water for your dry throat.
Deliberately take calm slow breaths as you make this reversal until you are calm and
centered. You still have not said a single word to the 'attacker'. With practice, this
gentle dissolving of your auto-reaction to conflict will take only a split second. Once
your body is tranquil, you will regain your composure.
Now that you have detached physically, you are ready to disengage mentally. Focus on the
issue, not the person's words or behavior. Separate the person from the problem. Just
because your spouse says something offensive doesn't mean it is true or you have to accept
it as a fact. His/her perceptions are just thoughts. You don't have to be defensive or
convince him/her otherwise. Release any need to prove you are right: from your
perspective, you are right. Disengage from the tornado of hostility and the storm will
stop. If you don't engage, the fight has ended. When you let go, you disable your
"opponent." He/she cannot control you if you don't get upset. In essence, you
win control, since the other person has succumbed to his/her own anger.
Listen to every word without resistance. (This doesn't mean you agree!) Don't think of
your response. Listening demonstrates a willingness to understand, which promotes a
reciprocal receptivity. Non-contentious listening deflects hostility and gives you
powerful information to resolve the real issues.
Voice open-ended questions
Follow up a mirrored statement with an open-ended question, such as: "What do you
think is an appropriate amount to spend for the children? Please clarify."
Information questions are simple but formidable. Pose clarifying questions like:
"What do you mean?" "How will that work?" "When can you do
that?" "Can you tell me more about your proposal?" and "What is the
basis for your reasoning?" These types of questions open the door to mutual
understanding and problem solving.
Upon hearing responses from the open-ended questions, the parties can shift to the
brainstorming stage of proposing various options for settlement. Both spouses need to
a) what they believe would be fair under the circumstances;
b) what they really need -- and the basis for their suggested solution to the conflict;
c) what would resolve the issues for everyone, so that both parties and others involved
would be able to accept the decisions agreed upon.
No matter how aggressive the other person may become, stay calm, keep breathing slowly,
and listen without engaging in anger. You may have to keep repeating steps one to four
throughout the discussion.
If you find that the other person cannot act appropriately, remove yourself with dignity
before you get hooked into their frustration. Leave the situation (or calmly get off the
phone), allowing the other party to reconvene without groveling. You will have to deal
with your spouse in the future, so release your anger before you speak again. Then start
from step nine, and revive the problem-solving stage. Take a time-out, if necessary, to
make sure you both manage your own hostility.
Anger is a tough feeling to understand, but it's important to remember that you are not
alone. Sometimes, you may believe you are furious at your spouse, but the problem is
similar to an issue that you had with a parent when you were a child. Our emotions of
challenging relationships need to be analyzed so we can learn important life lessons.
Emotional counseling during divorce is a helpful way to clarify which issues belong to you
and which are really dilemmas for your spouse. You are only responsible for 50% of the
problems in your marriage -- no more, no less.
Seek quality individual therapy for yourself and, if you and your spouse are in agreement,
try marital counseling to work on your joint issues. If you are beyond the point of
marriage therapy, interview qualified attorney/mediators who have the skills to help you
to resolve the legal issues of the divorce and decrease the hostility between you. With an
innovative, holistic approach, you'll be able to "heal" the conflict so that you
both can release the hurt, forgive one another, and move on with your lives, productively,
to find new, healthy relationships.