Rose was so mad she could hardly see straight. She and her husband, Jim, were six months into their "trial separation" when she discovered that he had been dating someone else. Reeling from the impact of the painful news, she sped over to his new apartment, intent on learning every last detail about the new woman in his life. Her heart pounded and terrifying questions flashed through her mind as she drove: "How could he have lied to me? Who was this other woman? Was she attractive?" And, perhaps worst of all, "What was I thinking when I suggested that we should separate?"
At Jim's apartment, a deep and uncontrollable rage rose up inside Rose's chest as she pounded her fist again and again on the dining-room table. "How could you do this to me?" she cried, as Jim sat and watched, white-faced and speechless as the breakfast dishes flew off the table and smashed into pieces on the floor. He had no idea how to react – or how to begin to defuse the scene that was unfolding in front of him...
Anger is a very familiar emotion for all of us. And in healthy relationships, it can be an overwhelmingly positive force in our lives. “Healthy anger can tell us if there’s something wrong – something painful and threatening that we need to take care of,” says Dr. M. Chet Mirman (Ph.D.), a licensed clinical psychologist at The Center for Divorce Recovery in Chicago. “It helps us protect ourselves, and lets us know when people are crossing our boundaries.”
But for couples who are going through separation or divorce, anger is often anything but healthy. When anger is coupled with divorce, it’s often used as a misguided means of hanging on to a failed marriage; for some people, a bad relationship is better than no relationship at all. Divorce anger allows someone to punish his/her ex 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 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 innocent victims.
Divorce anger is also often expressed through the legal process itself. 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 divorce-related 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.T.), the author of Mindful Anger: A Pathway to Emotional Freedom (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014). “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 are 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 management.
- 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 suppressing and move past the anger.” You could also benefit from a support or anger-management group where you can share your story and develop greater self-awareness around you anger.
- Re-examine your “core beliefs.” Anger can be based on something that you observed or were told in early childhood, and that you grew up believing. Ask yourself if that belief is actually true, and if it’s still serving you well.
- 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,” notes Dr. Ahrons.
- Do some personal growth work. 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,” Dr. Ahrons says.
- Keep conflicts at a moderate level, and 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 Dr. 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/she isn’t being heard; 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.
- Don’t be afraid to take a “time-out.” Walk away from an angry attack if you can’t handle it. Say, “I think we need to take a break and continue this conversation when we’re both calm.” 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 Dr. Ahrons. “If we are passive, it is like throwing more logs onto the fire...”
- Defuse the situation. Try agreeing or sympathizing with with your ex whenever possible. When you agree or offer a genuine apology, it tends to quiet people down pretty quickly. You’re not feeding the flames, so the anger usually starts to burn itself out.
- Try not to take your ex-spouse’s comments too personally. Anger is a projection of your ex’s inner feelings; accept that he/she is angry because he/she is going through turmoil right now.
- Stay calm. It can really help de-escalate the anger. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, can be effective when you’re listening to someone who’s really angry. A mantra can be helpful, too, adds Dr. 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. Instead, try thinking of you ex’s angry words as simple information rather than an attack.
- Try to feel a little compassion – no matter how hard that may be. Your ex may be feeling fearful that they’ll be alone forever or that they’ll never see their kids again. Try to hear what’s beneath 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 Dr. 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 rocks.
- 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: remove yourself from the situation and refuse face-to-face contact if you sense any danger at all.