Taming Divorce-Related Anger

Anger not faced doesn't go away; it is redirected. A "divorce hangover" begins when anger becomes directed toward whatever or whomever (including yourself) you consider responsible for the divorce. Here's how to release your divorce-related anger.

By Anne Newton Walther
Updated: March 21, 2017
Taming Divorce-Related Anger

Divorce is a profound, life-changing experience. It's painful, it's confusing, and it turns your world upside down. But at some point, it should be over.

If it's not -- if the pain, anger, resentment, depression, or emotional confusion seem to go on forever -- then you're in the clutches of a divorce hangover. A hangover is an ongoing connection with your ex-spouse or former life that keeps you agitated or depressed, unhappy, and stuck in the past.

Anger is the core emotion of divorce. The hangover begins when clean, honest anger at the losses and changes of divorce is converted into a secondary, once-removed anger -- usually directed toward your ex-spouse, his or her new partner, their children, or even your new partner.

Anger Once-Removed

The losses and changes are so painful that many people will do anything to avoid feeling them. When you don't face these losses directly, you don't experience the natural anger that they create.

Anger not faced doesn't go away; it is redirected. A divorce hangover begins when anger becomes directed toward whatever or whomever (including yourself) you consider responsible for the divorce. It becomes a protective device to keep you from feeling the pain of all that loss.

Grant had loved Jackie since high school and built his whole life around their relationship. When she told him after two years of marriage that she had fallen in love with Patrick and was leaving, Grant was devastated. He simply couldn't face the fact that his great love didn't love him anymore. He had lost the most important thing in his life, and on top of everything else, he felt like a complete fool.

Instead of experiencing and expressing his anger at those losses, he redirected it toward Jackie's new lover. Patrick became the villain, and Grant could act out against him with threatening phone calls and even a fistfight, rather than deal directly with his feelings about all that he had lost.

Clean Anger

Divorce is a kind of death; it is healthy and natural to mourn the end of a marriage and the loss of expectations, illusions, and false hopes -- and an important part of that grieving process is anger.

In On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross cites the five stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When you finally admit your loss and experience that pain, you are likely to be furious. If you let yourself experience the clean, raw, natural anger of grief, you can avoid a hangover.

You have a right to be angry, and to express your anger. It's not fair that your marriage is over. You did the best you could and it didn't work out. You may feel like railing against fate, "I set out to have a good marriage, I did everything I could, and I wanted it to work out!" This kind of anger resolves into acceptance, and has an end. At some point, it's over.

If you can't let yourself grieve the end of the marriage, then it's not really over for you. Some part of you can still pretend those losses never happened, or that you'll wake up someday and everything will be back where it was. It's not that you haven't lost something; you just aren't telling yourself the truth about it. You're living in an illusion -- frozen in time, stuck back in the marriage, and unable to move forward.

Sharon said, "As long as I didn't cry and scream about losing the house, I felt I hadn't really lost it somehow. Of course, I hadlost it. We'd put it on the market, and other people had bought it and moved in. But part of me still lived there, even though it no longer had anything to do with my real life. I felt kind of funny and had to push myself a little to let go and bottom out, to scream and cry about losing that beautiful, beautiful home. But if I hadn't, I'd probably still be 'living' there."

Tricky Business

Hangover anger is slippery. You can't control it, you can't release it appropriately, and sometimes you can't even find it until it suddenly erupts.

"I just couldn't get rid of the anger," Kevin said. "Whenever I thought about how she took me to the cleaners in the settlement, I sat down and fired off a scathing letter to her. I couldn't figure out what else to do, even though it usually made me feel even worse."

Since Kevin's anger was directed at his ex-wife rather than at its true source -- the losses and changes that had turned his life upside down -- it never was released. It was a loose cannon that never stopped firing, but never hit the target because it was pointing in the wrong direction.

A Perfect Target

The most frequent target of once-removed, hangover anger is your ex-spouse: the person without whom there would be no loss or change, the person who seems to be standing between you and your ability to recapture the past. That person -- or his or her new mate -- becomes the villain, the one responsible for all the hurt and pain.

This is not a conscious decision. Usually you are not even aware of redirecting the anger, but it shows up in a variety of ways. Here are a few:

  • Revenge: Carolyn had tried to ruin her ex-husband in the financial settlement, and their court battle became extremely ugly. "I'd lost my marriage and somebody was going to pay for it. I knew -- somewhere very deep inside me -- that he was hurt, angry, and bewildered, too. But I couldn't have cared less. I was fighting for my life, and I went after him with both barrels. I made that guy pay for what he'd done to me and the kids. Of course, he came back at me with four barrels and two lawyers.
    "Neither of us had a clue we were doing all this just to keep from feeling the pain. It was totally unconscious. Who knew? Instead of avoiding pain, we were really just creating more of it. It was crazy..."
  • Blame: Frank, who had left his alcoholic wife, said, "I kept thinking of her in that house and obsessing that if it weren't for her damned drinking, I could be living there, too, and we would be happy."
  • Sabotage: Jerry paid all his bills on time except for one -- his alimony check to Ellen. He knew that Ellen relied on his check to make the mortgage payment and that the bank charged her a late fee when it didn't arrive on time. Sometimes he "forgot" to sign the check so that by the time it was returned, signed, and sent back, another week and a half had passed. (He admitted that he smiled as he licked the envelope.) He told me later, "I felt cornered, and so I attacked. Ellen was the easiest target."
  • Forced and Inappropriate Control: Betty told me, "I just wanted to fight my way out of all the upheaval and disruption, to find some firm ground to stand on, to somehow say, 'This is who I am. This is where I am. This is what I'm going to do.'"
    One way that Betty made her stand was by refusing to drop her three sons off at Ted's office on Friday nights. This meant that he had to drive an hour out to the house, and an hour and a half back to his apartment, after a 12-hour work day (he worked overtime to provide more child support). Her lack of cooperation irritated him, started his weekend with the boys on a sour note, and aggravated Betty's boyfriend because their Friday nights out couldn't begin until 10:00. And when they finally did get together, she spent most of the evening complaining about Ted.

Anger with a Life of Its Own

Hangover anger takes on a life of its own. It doesn't even have to be triggered; it's just there -- always and everywhere. It becomes your baseline point of view, the fundamental attitude from which you relate to other people and the world.

David's anger had taken on such a life of its own that his ex-wife, Sandy, didn't have to do much to make him furious. He lived in a perpetual state of turmoil. In his mind, she was the source of all his pain, the arch-villain who was out to make him miserable.

When she actually did do something -- like take him back to court -- he went to town, retaliating by telling their friends ugly stories about her and being late with alimony and child support.

Hangover anger so sapped his energy that even his career was suffering. In our initial counseling session, he said, "My whole life is in shambles. Now even my career is up for grabs." Throughout the discussion, he kept talking about "that damned woman and that damned divorce."

David saw that he had not wanted to face the loss of his children and home, so he had misdirected that anger toward Sandy and life in general. He was no longer angry at people or things; he was simply angry.

The Ultimate Release

How can you tell if yours is the clean, natural, healthy anger of grief or the self-destructive anger of the divorce hangover? The clean anger of grief cleanses your spirit and goes away. Divorce hangover anger persists and turns ugly, attacking both the people you hold responsible for your bad feelings and innocent bystanders. If you're ever in doubt, ask yourself how far removed the anger is from its true source -- the losses and changes. The farther removed it is, the less healthy it is.

Peg was chronically furious at her ex-husband because he was not giving her enough money. She realized her anger was the result of being broke after the divorce and not yet being able to find good work. The anger at her ex was futile (he was a disabled veteran) and kept her in her divorce hangover. When you recognize how you have misdirected anger over loss and change into anger against your ex-spouse or others, a huge portion of that anger simply disappears.

The anger that remains is much easier to manage because you understand it. You know how it works, what it's trying to do, and where it's likely to show up. You're always a step ahead of it.

There's no magic formula to letting go of anger. It is very simple. You have to want to give it up -- notice when it raises its head, and let it go consciously. You have to choose being happy over being right. The clearer you become about where your hangover anger lies, how it works, what it is protecting, and what it is costing you, the more quickly and easily it dissolves. The exercises in "Releasing Anger" at the end of this article will take you through the process of releasing hangover anger.

Unmask your Hangover

Hangover anger has many clever disguises. If you recognize it, it will start to weaken and disappear. It has to stay hidden in order to survive.

The Cover-Up
Any good disguise presents illusion as reality, so it really does feel as if you're angry at the other person and that your anger is justified.

Karen and Charles were divorced five years ago, but she keeps dragging him back into court to revise the financial settlement. Charles says, "I don't understand it. No matter how much I give her, it isn't enough."

When they were divorced, Karen simply couldn't deal with the loss of their beautiful home, her standing in the community, and the connection with his family, with whom she was very close. Taking Charles back to court again and again gave her an outlet for the anger and also maintained her connection with him, with their marriage, and with his family.

That's not how it felt to Karen, though. In her mind, she was doing it so that justice would be done and she would get what she deserved. He had promised her a certain lifestyle and then broken that promise. To her, the anger had nothing to do with loss; it was a question of right and wrong.

Perhaps Karen was right and had a perfectly good claim on everything she was demanding, but she was ignoring her own responsibility in the marriage and her participation in the divorce, and keeping herself in the role of a victim. She was also ignoring the present reality, which was that she was no longer married to Charles. As long as she overlooked those two things, the hangover would continue.

Your anger and outrage may seem as real and justifiable as Karen's righteous indignation at Charles. The giveaway is how you feel. Are you happy? Are you relaxed? Are you spending energy on the old relationship, or are you getting on with your life? Are you accepting your own responsibility in all this? Are you accepting life as it is, or pretending it's how you would like it to be?

Everyone masks the hangover differently, but because they are unconscious, these masks are often hard to pinpoint.

If you have a divorce hangover, you have a mask. Without the mask, you'd have to face the pain, the anger at your losses, and your responsibility for your life as it is now. If you did that, you wouldn't have a hangover.

These are a few of the many masks a hangover can wear:

  • The Sexual Mask: Bill couldn't say enough bad things about Cheryl to their friends, but was aggressively sexual when they did "run into each other." This set up a "star-crossed lovers" drama between the two of them, which they both enjoyed playing out to the audience of their friends. "What a great couple they made! What passion! What a tragedy it didn't work out!" This drama kept them from having to admit that their marriage was over or feeling the pain of that loss. It also kept them both out of other relationships.
  • The "Poor Me" Mask: Lisa has been depressed ever since her divorce from Saul two years ago, but whenever he's around, the depression becomes much worse.
    When he comes to see the kids, she greets him at the door with a martyred look, a sigh, and perhaps a "reluctant" tear in her eye. She doesn't know how she is going to make ends meet this month with only that small amount of child support, and Tommy's extra soccer expenses made the burden worse. She's afraid Samantha's "I hate boys!" stage has something to do with what her father did to her. She supposes it doesn't matter that she's too old for another relationship or that men no longer find her attractive; she's just trying to make ends meet and hold herself together for the sake of the children so that they, too, won't be ruined by the divorce.
    This mask hides a very angry woman, but Lisa won't have a chance to deal with that anger as long as the "poor me" mask is in place.
  • The Crazed Bitch/Bastard Mask: Boyd and Dayna have been the original Bickersons since their divorce and just missed being cast in Hollywood's divorce hangover epic, The War of the Roses.
    She tries to bleed him with a new financial settlement almost every year. When this happens, he delights in revealing the details of his other relationships, even when the children are present. Last Thanksgiving, he sent her a dozen dead roses. When he came to pick up the children later that afternoon, she threw cold, leftover gravy on him.
    Recently, they found themselves at the same cocktail party. Loud, ugly words were exchanged, and before the evening was over, she had drawn blood with a fingernail slash to Boyd's new wife's cheek.
    These are very powerful emotions, but it's not as simple as it seems. If Boyd and Dayna's problems were strictly with one another, the anger would release after it was expressed. The strength of their hangovers suggests how deep their losses were.

There are as many masks as there are people with divorce hangovers, and you know best what yours looks like. When you can get beyond the mask to what you're really feeling, you begin dealing with reality rather than illusion.

The Faces of Anger

Anger shows up differently in assertive and non-assertive people, and can turn either outward toward others or inward toward oneself.

Assertive people tend to act out. They move, but they move in circles. They call in the middle of the night, never miss a chance to be sarcastic or critical, spend hours figuring out how to thwart the other person, and may use the children or money as tools to "get" their ex-spouse. They send their kids to the other parent's house with messages like: "Dad, Coach says I have to have a helmet to play hockey and Mom says she can't buy it." They may also instruct their children to say hurtful things to the other parent's new mate.

The ultimate divorce hangover for this personality takes the form of actually killing the ex-spouse. All too often we read of the tragic murders of ex-spouses and even children and other relatives by a crazed and enraged ex-spouse.

Less assertive people are likely to be depressed, which is anger turned inward, the "flight" part of our instinctive "flight or fight" reaction to fear and pain. Rather than acting out, they tend to withdraw and run away. This is fine for a while if you just need time alone to heal, but can become destructive if you hide because you never want to risk being hurt again.

Depression is anger bottled up inside. Life seems filtered through a screen, without spontaneity or expression. But even depression can be used to punish the other person if he or she can't get you to talk, smile, or communicate.

Sometimes depression becomes mired in self-pity. It can be an attempt to garner sympathy and make others feel responsible for your situation, but unfortunately, it usually backfires and pushes others away.

Depression brings on inertia. Everything stagnates and deteriorates. You don't take care of the house, the kids, or yourself. Pete tried to save his marriage by working through his "emotional kinks" in therapy. Just as he felt he was making real progress, his wife, Helen, "bailed out." He was desperate to make the marriage work and pleaded with her to hang in there just a little longer, but she insisted on leaving and they agreed to be friends. There were no children and they had enough money for each of them to buy and furnish separate homes.

Helen went on with her life, devoting more time to her career and eventually becoming interested in another man. Pete knew that there was a new life out there for him somewhere, but was too afraid to explore it. He began to feel sorry for himself and lose himself in the inertia of depression.

He was angry that he had treated Helen badly during their marriage, and even angrier that he hadn't been given another chance to show her the man he felt he had become, but he was afraid to say much to her for fear of driving her even farther away. Instead, he turned it all back in on himself. He wasn't working, he slept a lot, the new house went to ruin, and he was preoccupied with the second chance he never got.

The ultimate divorce hangover for this more passive personality is suicide. Rosemary became more and more withdrawn in the year following her divorce until, finally, she rarely left the house. She made it clear that she wanted to be left alone, and so that's what people did. Everyone was so surprised when she showed up at a cocktail party one June night that no one really noticed she was dressed entirely in beige. She had always worn bold colors. She was gracious to everyone and, although she left a bit early, her friends were glad to see that she was making an effort to get out.

A week later, she was found dead from an overdose of pills. All her affairs were in order and she had even left notes covering every detail of the children's schedule, down to when their clothes had to be picked up at the cleaners. Her friends realized that the night of the cocktail party, she had come to say goodbye.

Take the first step

By deciding to heal your divorce hangover, you'll make a courageous commitment to yourself and your future. That's the first step -- and the most important one. The healing process can be a springboard to a whole new way of relating to yourself, to other people, and to life. Your success will give you the skills and confidence to handle anything that comes up. Some of the steps will be easy for you, and some will be more difficult and require more attention. Stay flexible, and stay vigilant.

Exercises: Releasing Anger

Recognizing Hangover Anger

  1. What forms does your anger take?
  2. Next to each behavior, write who the target is.
  3. What reactions does your anger prompt from these target people?
  4. If there is a reaction from them, what do you do next?
  5. What do they do in response to that?
  6. Does your anger produce any change?
  7. Recognizing that loss and change are the causes of your anger, rank the ones that anger you most.
  8. Think of ways, post-divorce, that you can bring some of these things back into your life without harming anyone.

Unmasking Hangover Anger

  1. Which mask(s) do you wear to act out your hangover anger? The sexual mask? The "poor me" mask? The crazed bitch/bastard mask?
  2. Is your anger more assertive (directed outward) or non-assertive (directed inward)? Give examples.
  3. Do you see a relationship between your hangover mask and the form your anger takes? What is that connection?

This article has been edited and excerpted from Divorce Hangover: A Successful Strategy to End the Emotional Aftermath of Divorce by Anne Newton Walther, M.S.. As an outgrowth of her counseling practice, Walther identified the "divorce hangover" syndrome and developed a strategy for ending it. This book will enable you to put down your emotional baggage and move into new, healthy relationships -- with yourself and others.

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January 10, 2010
Categories:  Coping with Divorce

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