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Divorce-related anger can
literally make you crazy -- causing you to say and do things you'd never dream of if you
were thinking clearly. Even though it's a normal part of the healing process, anger can
become a destructive force in your life. Here's how to cope.
By Jane Nahirny
Anger is a very familiar emotion for all of us. And in
healthy relationships, it can be an overwhelmingly positive force in our lives.
"Anger is a very healthy emotion," says Chet Mirman, Ph.D., a licensed clinical
psychologist and director of The Center for Divorce Recovery. "Healthy anger can tell
us if there's something wrong -- something painful and threatening that we need to take
care of. It helps us protect ourselves, and to know when people are crossing our
But for couples who are going through separation or
divorce, anger is often anything but healthy. In her informative book The Good Divorce,
Dr. Constance Ahrons defines divorce-related anger as "an extreme rage,
vindictiveness, and over-powering bitterness that is felt when a love relationship is
ending. It is a special kind of anger that usually hasn't been experienced before."
When anger is coupled with divorce, it's often used as
a misguided means of hanging on to a failed marriage
When anger is coupled with divorce, it's often used as a
misguided means of hanging on to a failed marriage. After all, for many people, a bad
relationship is better than no relationship at all. Divorce anger allows people to punish
their ex as often as possible, all while maintaining an ongoing (bitter) relationship with
him/her. It's a situation that leaves both partners in divorce limbo -- a perilous
situation that obstructs growth and self-awareness.
Some people hold onto their anger so tightly -- stoking
the fires on a daily basis -- that their rage takes over their whole lives, coloring and
informing all their thoughts and actions. They weigh every action to see how much
emotional or physical harm it will inflict on their ex-spouse -- even simply being a
nuisance will do in a pinch -- without seeing the injuries they may be inflicting on
Divorce anger is also often expressed through the legal
process itself. Here, it's very important to remember that your lawyer is your advocate,
not your therapist or best friend. Expressing anger to your ex-spouse through the legal
process invariably leads to prolonged, emotional proceedings that will ultimately leave
you -- and the family resources -- drained dry.
Using the court as a venue to vent your anger is a bad
idea for a couple of key reasons: it's the wrong venue, and it's very expensive
(financially and emotionally). Unfortunately, the legal divorce process itself tends to
add fuel to the fires of anger. Dividing property (some of which has great sentimental
value) and trying to prove your case for custody and/or support can be very emotionally
charged because these issues underline what is being lost or changed because of your
divorce. Some degree of upset is inevitable, but driving yourself alongside your ex into
bankruptcy is truly cutting off your nose to spite your face.
So how can you cope with this new and intense anger? The
key lies in understanding its roots, and in finding constructive ways to express the hurt,
disappointment, and loss that both you and your former spouse are feeling now as you
proceed through separation and divorce. "Anger can really be a very healthy and
positive tool, but if we use it destructively, all we do is scare people and alienate
them," stresses Dr. Andrea Brandt, Ph.D. M.F.C.C., and a specialist in anger
management with the California-based LifeWorks Company. "People have to learn to have
anger work for them, not against them."
Here's some advice about coping with your own and your
ex-spouse's divorce-related anger.
If you're angry:
- Write it out. Work through your anger by keeping a
journal or by writing letters you don't mail, suggests Dr. Brandt.
- Shout it out. "If you can roll up the windows
in your car or put your head in a pillow and scream, it can drain some of that negative
energy out of your body," she adds.
- Talk it out. It's important when you're angry to
develop your own personal support system. Instead of directing your anger at your
ex-spouse, talk to a good friend (or two), or find a therapist who specializes in anger
- Get some professional help. "Remember -- anger
acts as a shield. Your anger suppresses other vulnerable feelings that may be too hard to
deal with. It's easier to feel angry than to feel lost, confused, and worried," says
Dr. Mirman. "Talking to a professional can help you begin to feel those emotions
you've been supressing and move past the anger." You could also benefit from a
support or anger-management group where you can share your story. "Support groups
help people develop much greater self awareness around their anger," explains
therapist Deborah Rodrigues. "They remove the sense of isolation and help people move
to a position of growth and development."
- Re-examine your "core beliefs." When we
point a finger at another person in anger, we're really pointing three fingers back at
ourselves, says Sharon I. Roach, S.S.W., a certified Core Belief Engineering practitioner.
"Often, anger is based on something that we observe in early childhood and form a
belief about. The problem is that as we grow older, our beliefs and decisions can become
- Take responsibility for your part of the marriage
break-up. "It's a rare couple in which both partners were exactly equal in the
breaking of the marriage, but it's an even rarer couple in which one partner was solely at
fault," writes Constance Ahrons in The Good Divorce. n Do some personal growth work.
"Anger is a great motivator towards action and can propel you to take steps in your
life to change situations," says Cynthia Callsen, a New York-based counseler and
psychotherapist. "Your anger can help you identify old patterns, and then you can
take the steps to stop repeating them."
- Learn what "pushes your buttons." Try to
understand your anger -- and what triggers it -- before you express it. Don't be afraid to
say that you need some time to think about your response.
- Protect your children. Never make them part of your
conflict with your former partner by withholding visitation or support or poisoning their
minds against your ex. "For the sake of the children, if for no other reason, learn
constructive methods of expressing anger," Ahrons says.
- Keep conflicts at a moderate level, Rodrigues
advises. "The other person will often match your level of intensity." And be
sure to choose your battles carefully. "Expressing every little irritation and
disagreement provokes resentment. Think about the most important issues -- and let go of
the small stuff."
- Use "I-messages" when expressing anger.
Say: "I feel disappointed when you don't call," not: "You stupid idiot,
you're always late!"
- Give yourself time to recover from the loss of your
marriage. On average, experts say that the healing process takes about two years.
"It's important to realize how sad you are," says Ahrons. "This won't
necessarily make you more vulnerable to your ex-spouse; your successful handling of your
emotions puts you in a more powerful position."
- Forgive, let go, move on. Anger can become a
comfort, a constant in our lives, but as long as you continue to nurse your anger against
your ex, you will never have a happy, fulfilled, post-divorce life. Own your
responsibility for the break-up, and realize that you have the power to make the choice to
forgive and move on, or stay angry and remain stuck. It doesn't matter what your ex does,
you can still choose forgiveness.
If your ex is angry:
- Listen to and validate your ex-spouse's comments.
"Your ex may be feeling like he or she isn't being heard," says Callsen.
"By really listening to his or her concerns, you may realize where the anger is
coming from and identify what you can do to help." It also really helps to defuse the
situation, by saying something like, "I understand why you're angry with me."
- Don't be afraid to take a "time-out."
Walk away from an anger attack if you can't handle it. "You can always say, 'I'm not
going to talk to you until you calm down,'" suggests Callsen. "You might be
feeling angry yourself that you were just attacked. So walk away, or end the call. Put
limits on what you'll take and how you'll be treated."
- Get some assertiveness training to boost your
self-esteem. "Anger is like a fire that must be burned up into the ashes of
forgiveness," writes Ahrons. "If we are passive, it is like throwing more logs
onto the fire..."
- Use your response to defuse the situation.
"When someone is angry, they're likely to pull in a million different issues,"
says Rodrigues. Insist on dealing with each issue separately, and one at a time. You can
also try agreeing with your ex, she says. "When you say 'Yeah, you're right,' it
tends to quiet people down pretty quickly. There's nowhere to go with it, so eventually
the anger shuts down."
- Try not to take your ex-spouse's comments too
personally. "Remember that anger is a projection of one's own inner feelings and
one's own world," says Roach. Rodrigues agrees: "Accept the fact that this
person is angry because they're going through turmoil. It's not your anger, it's theirs,
so don't own it."
- Stay calm. It can really help de-escalate the
anger, says Rodrigues. "Tell yourself 'I can handle this' during an angry phone call
from your ex. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, can also be effective when
you're listening to someone who's really angry." A mantra can be helpful, too, adds
Brandt. "If I'm speaking with someone who's really angry at me, I'll always say
silently to myself, 'This is good for our relationship.'"
- Learn to recognize your own hot buttons.When
someone pushes one of your buttons, your response is going to be way out of proportion to
the offense. "Other people's feelings and words are simply information,"
stresses Roach. "If you're affected by them, there may be something that trails
behind them from your history that is bothering you."
- Try to feel a little compassion -- no matter how
hard that may be. "Now that the relationship's over, the other person is probably
feeling fearful and threatened that they'll never love again or they'll never see their
kids," says Rodrigues. "Try to hear what's underneath the anger. Quite often,
it's fear, pain, or shame." Showing empathy or compassion for your ex can go a long
way to defusing his or her anger.
- Be honest with yourself. Recognize that when
someone is angry with you, there may be something in what they're saying. "Very
often, you might hear something that's really valuable," says Brandt. If your ex is
yelling at you, you can choose to think he/she's a jerk and start yelling back, or you can
"dig for the gold" in what he/she's saying. Keep the gold; discard the dirt and
- Value your safety above all else. If your former
partner's divorce anger seems to be headed in a dangerous direction, put some boundaries
in place and communicate through a third party. "Threats should always be taken
seriously," advises Rodrigues. "Remove yourself from the situation and refuse
face-to-face contact if you sense any danger at all... put the answering machine on and
screen your calls."
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