Bitter Divorces Are Destructive

Acrimonious divorces can bring you down to your knees financially, and destroy your health. Worse, they will emotionally injure your children.

The difference between a bitter and a healthy divorce depends on the choices you and your ex-partner make. A divorce involves a couple, not individuals. One or both of you can choose to have a bitter divorce. Conversely, both of you can choose to have an amicable one.

Most separations start with civility. However, one of the many causes or outcomes of divorce involves issues that developed during the marriage, such as resentment or an injury to self that can no longer be healed throught talking and repairs attempts. Divorce allows a partner to express their hurt and anger by opposing their former mate through the legal processs.

The fight might involve manipulation, generally about the children, the finances, or any form of social pressure. As one party throws allegations, the other feels a need to protect themselves and to respond in kind. An inexorable, escalating spiral of tit-for-tat retaliation takes place.

Characteristics of acrimonious divorces. They:

  • Lead to litigated adversarial stances.
  • Make it difficult for you not to counter if the other is warring against you.
  • Create bad feelings and anger that cannot be kept under control, and usually include  attempts to vindicate the past (e.g., he was unfaithful, she was a neglectful mother)
  • Involve mutual self-defeat.
  • Cause the children to suffer emotionally, as negative emotions cripple the parents
  • Mess up your health  during the process, which could last several months if not years. It could ruin any opportunity to rebuild a better life and relationship.
  • Are costly. Your economic resources could be used for your and your children’s’ benefit instead of being squandered.
  • You all lose.

Characteristics of healthy divorces:

  • They are civil, cooperative, and sometimes even amicable. Animosity and battling are kept to a minimum.
  • The reasons making a divorce go bad are fully understood and avoided (see next paragraph).
  • Have legal, economic and emotional objectives: they end the marriage within a reasonable timeframe without massive legal and other fees, distribute assets and income fairly, economic sacrifices are equally shared, both partners are allowed to grieve the end of the marriage and each can move on to new relationships without baggage.
  • They foster a sense of economic justice and basic trust as the other is not demonized. Communication remains effective, with mutual goodwill.
  • They achieve legitimate and positive goals for yourselves and your children.
  • Settlement agreements are negotiated before going to court. Economic issues such as child and spousal support are resolved, the property is equitably divided, and mutual rights and responsibilities as parents are spelled out in a fair custody agreement.
  • They minimize emotional impact on children and help them adjust to a new situation.
  • They transition to a new life for your all.

Reasons divorces go sour:

  • Though separating, you are still married. No matter how much distrust, pain and anger you feel, and the need for vindication or revenge, you are still emotionally connected. Fighting through a divorce is a means to ‘stay together’ for the duration of the proceedings.
  • There is no economic justice, such as an enormous financial disparity between the partners, where one feels victimized by the other.
  • There is no trust: one has demonized the other and has not given the benefit of the doubt when disputes arise.
  • No communication skills: communications are uneffective and their style is not conducive to future cooperative parenting.
  • There is no goodwill. Each expartner wishes ill upon the other and does not support the children in accepting the other’s new mate or lifestyle.
  • The nature of the legal system is adversarial and based on opposition instead of cooperation.
  • One or both partners’ behavior is abusive, stemming from a need for control or revenge, anger, flaring emotions, and because all that was disliked in the other and messed the relationship up is  now resurfacing during divorce: years of managed dysfunctions will now explode in the space of a few weeks. Tactics will include:
    – Contesting parental fitness (invoking drug abuse or various addictions, irresponsible, neglectful or abusive parenting, mental instability, reckless spending, etc.)
    – Endless spats of grounded or groundless allegations, some designed to drag the divorce and cause financial harm.
    – Intimidation and scare tactics, with threats  such as “I’ll get custody of the kids”, “I won’t pay”, etc.
    – Hiding assets well ahead of requesting for divorce or during the divorce, or failing to account accurately for one’s possessions.
  • The impossibility to reconcile emotions and rationality. On one hand, one must fight against the fear of becoming economically destitute, to protect self against the new ‘enemy’, or worry that the children might be stolen or their mind  poisoned by the other. On the other hand, there is the memory that there  was love once and the knowledge that the expartner is the key to the children’s emotional and psychological health.
  • If settlement agreements are unfair and unworkable or incomplete,  the feelings of bitterness and injustice that emanate from them lead to regrettable actions, such as defaulting on child support obligations or not adequately meeting the children’s economic needs. When flawed, the settlement will need to be reworked in court.
  • Negative feelings interfere with readjustment, growth, and new relationships.
  • Social circles are broken as family, friends and acquaintances take side, and sometimes even interfere with the divorce process.
  • Fears about custody arrangements and alienation from the children.

You can take measures to protect yourself and the children, and to  ensure a reasonable divorce or at least,  contain the effects of a bad one:

  • Minimize stressors in your life. Allegations and fights may be part of your divorce process. Each time you are accused of whatever fault by your partner’s lawyer , you will be emotionally flooded. Flooding impedes rational thinking and you could make a mistake in defending yourself as you create doomsday scenarios in your head and succumb to panic.
  • Whenever an allegation is thrown at you, sleep if off. Do not answer immediately. Allow your feeling of  injustice or rage to wither before you formulate an answer.
  • Be prepared. Anticipate your worst case scenario, such as losing significant parts of your assets, losing visitation or shared custody of the children, not getting enough financial support, etc. Plan accordingly. Follow up with a best case scenario and a realistic scenario will emerge.
  • Answer allegations one at a time. One at a time. Sort and address each issue separately when several are raised all at once. Collect whatever evidence you have, text messages, documents, statements, pictures, videos, any recorded media, and organize them in a folder, one for each allegation. Give that folder to your lawyer. Keep adding to it. Whether you ex partner’s allegation is correct or baseless, you need to collect mitigating evidence or evidence to the contrary. If you make an allegation, be prepared to stack supporting evidence.
    – Was he a big spender who imperiled family finances? Was she a gambler? Back it up. Get the receipts and credit card statements, match them against your documented income by way of bank or other statements.
    – Did he abuse the children? Back it up. Get records from doctors and counselors or ask for psych evaluations of the children. If you have photographs or texts exchanged after such incidents, print them out. If you are the accused, and you are certain that she purports such allegations so to deprive you of your custody rights, then appoint third parties to do the discovery for you. As paid and impartial professionals, they’ll bring their findings to the table.
    – Does he say that you are preventing access to the children? Keep a record of calls and visits. Stop attempting to minimize visits if no visible abuse has taken place.
    – Does he say that you are a drunk….. and you are? Mitigate. Show proof that you are seeking help for your alcoholism.
    – Does she say that you have some mental issues, and you do? Show evidence that you are undergoing therapy, taking medication, and seeking help.
    – What if you are not an alcoholic, you are not suffering from mental issues? Get a report from a GP and a specialist, then get a psych assessment.
    – Does he say that you are unwilling to compromise and you make unreasonable demands? Call a mediator, and show proof that you attempted conciliation on whatever issue he accused you of stalling.
  • Concentrate on the big issues. Petty ‘he says-she says’ fights  get expensive when handled by lawyers. Get third parties to help you, understanding that you, and you alone can keep your agents in check.
  • Do not attack the character of your ex-partner, especially to the children.  This could be construed as an attempt to alienate the children.Concentrate on managing your partner’s behaviors instead.
  • Keep it business-like. Don’t add fuel to the fire. If answering emails or texts is too emotionally taxing and risk a scathing reply, then have someone else handle it, or wait to read them.

Note: I  worked for the State of Colorado district courts as an investigator,  and as advocate in cases involving  custody of children caught in domestic disputes, separations and divorce. I was appointed to act in the best interest of the child. As such I am very familiar with acrimonious domestic and divorce cases, and I am fully trained to assess  impacts on the children caught in such situations.

We broke up: now what?

Leaving a relationship is difficult and may be one of the most emotionally painful experiences you will live. If you decided to be the ‘quitter’, you may think that this is easier because you are prepared and you have already mentally adjusted. The person being left, your partner, is likely to have more difficulties handling the breakup, as s/he is not fully prepared mentally and emotionally. S/he may have missed the cues, and is taken by surprise. However, leaving is not easy for either side. Each role brings its own issues. In any case, the break up will affect many areas of your life as you pick up the pieces and deal with the disappointment of a broken experience.

A break up affects people at many levels: emotional, social, psychological and material. No matter who breaks the relationship, the partner with the most economic power will “win”, i.e., will suffer the least damage at least in the social and economic realms.  The aftermath of the breakup may result in resentment, retaliation, and anger from your partner and your own anger.  Then there will be material demands such as dividing property, finding a new place to live, deciding on child custody, working with lawyers, and setting new boundaries with your ex partner. This whole process may take weeks or months and even years, as you adjust and rebuild your life and create new beginnings.

You may be hurting right now, even if you are the one who decided to break it off. The pain tells you that you need to heal and learn from this experience. Yet, many of us seem to rush into a new committed relationship before we have had time to take stock about what went wrong and why the relationship ended.

Although we are all different people, breakups follow similar patterns. Moreover, all crises, as they end, follow a similar pattern!

The following may help you make sense of the feelings and situations you may experience with the end of a relationship and other various crises. It is a road map to what to expect over time, until we can say that we have recovered and became wiser about the experience. These feelings and attitudes may happen in succession,  a cycle, or concurrently.

Denial comes first, no matter if we are the one who leaves or the one left behind.  Denial is a wonderful mechanism that allows us to only feel as much pain as we can handle in a given moment. Denial prevents us getting overwhelmed. As we adjust we come back to realities and over time accept what is. Denial subsides gently over weeks, months, or sometimes years.

Acceptance that the relationship has ended breaks denial.  It involves asking honest questions about what caused the separation. If you are the one leaving, part of that work is already done, yet if the separation results in a flare up of destructive emotions involving anger and retaliation, there will be denial as you are experiencing the outcome of your partner’s wrath… and the consequences of enacting your own.

Fear.  We don’t know what comes next as the fabric of our life disintegrates and we have now an empty slate, where we are free to recreate, alone, whatever future we want for ourselves, not knowing whether we have the courage to move on and meet the unknown.

We now slowly start adapting to new circumstances. Some of us are now single parents and must become self-supporting. We have an empty slate. This can be paralyzing.  Unless we can identify and face our fears, the main one being fear of an unknown future, we are likely to experience all of them, unprepared.

The next feeling we experience it of loneliness. Some habits must be altered as you are now totally alone and no longer including another person in what you do. You need to transmute loneliness to aloneness, a state where you are comfortable being on your own and with yourself.

Let’s look at friendship. We may need the presence of friends more than ever when we separate, yet separation and divorce may be threatening to friends as they feel they may have to side, or the separation forces them to question their own relationship. You must be aware that some social relationships will end with the breakup. This may be a time to assess who around you understands the emotional pain you feel and your new status, without rejecting you.

Guilt and rejection are natural feelings during a separation and generally the person who breaks it off feels guilt for hurting the other, while the other feels rejected. Those feelings last as long as the “separation honeymoon”. During that stage everyone tries to behave. Then, within generally three months of the separation, anger is expressed, and the outcomes may be devastating. But, anger is necessary in the process of letting go.

Whether you are the one who leaves, or the one left behind, we brought a lot of our past in that relationship, and the past often determines the present course of events.

Anger can be the most explosive step, and still is absolutely necessary.  Many people discover a brand-new side to themselves and experience rage to an extent they never thought possible. The rage is generally directed at the ex-partner and their property. Rage, if handled properly, is an excellent means to distance yourself emotionally from your ex-partner. In some cases, this emotion becomes extreme, as it also always involves vindictiveness and bitterness. Besides physical harm, an extremely destructive form of expressing anger consists in using the children as a vehicle. If you need to hit below the belt, do not use the children. It is they who will suffer most. Also, remember that if anger could not be expressed in the course of the relationship, it will erupt as you separate and divorce because buried feelings are now allowed to surface.

Grief is the most emotionally draining part of a crisis, yet it is critical to the recovery process. It combines sadness and despair, and may come out as a continuous self talk about the situation, feeling drained, emotional numbness, loss of reality, depression, sleeplessness, significant weight loss, rapid mood changes, and developing illness. A particular note: suicide ideations are common in approximately 75% of persons experiencing grief.

Letting go is another step that happens progressively. It is important to stop investing emotionally in a dead relationship, as this is an investment without chance of return. It is best to invest in your personal growth and fully disentangle. Adopting a no-contact policy for a while and removing mementos are good policy while you still feel fragile. It doesn’t have to be forever.

Then come self-worth. Some relationships that end in separation were destructive to one or both partners’ self-esteem and their sense of self-identity. Self-esteem is often at its lowest when the love relationship ends. To improve self-worth, you must come to terms with the various feelings experienced during a breakup. A separation can become an opportunity for growth and self-discovery. But to do this, you must make a decision to change.

After all this,  there is a period of transition. You want to understand why the relationship ended, perform a kind of autopsy.  This allows you to work on yourself and built different relationships in the future. During that stage, if you do the job, you will understand the various influences  of your family of origins, your social circle, how your own habits and patterns contributed to shaping the relationship. Now is an opportunity to work it all out.  This transition, if well handled, will prepare you to become free to be yourself.  Here are some of the qualities you might work at:

Trust. Build a basic level of trust in yourself as you adjust to singlehood. Too often, we think we cannot trust anyone from the opposite sex anymore after a separation. Loving means to risk being vulnerable again and risking being hurt again. It does not mean that you have to withhold your trust.

Openness. Stop pretending to be someone you are not and to be feeling what you’re not.  It is time to take off the mask and drop the shield. Wearing a mask cannot be sustained over time, as it consumes too much emotional energy and prevents intimate connections. Be yourself, at least with your (new) mate and friends.  Keep the veneer for work and social, non-intimate relationships.

Love. A relationship forces us to ask what love means to us. Often we think that a relationship fails because we are not lovable enough, when in fact it was our partner’s definition of love that was, maybe, not appropriate for us. Learn to love yourself first and foremost, so that you can give love and receive love.

As children, we ought have received unconditional love from our parents. When this was denied to us we turn to our partners and we’re bound to be disappointed because the only unconditional love we can get as adults is the love and unconditional regard we give ourselves.

After a relationship end, we may find another relationship very quickly. It seems that this new relationship has everything which lacked in the previous one. It is not necessarily so. What has happened instead is that we are becoming who we want to be and we are taking back our power and taking responsibility for what we feel as we become clearer about what we want.

Too many people believe that rushing to a new committed, long-term, relationship is going to make them feel ok again. This will not work out. The healthy way to look at those new relationships post-separation is as “rebound.” They are transitional and designed to make you feel whole again. They fulfill the  purpose of making us feel better about ourselves and emphasize passion and romantic love. Yet, be aware that they are built during a needy time in our life. Ensure that your new partner is aware of this. Also learn the skill of healthy termination.

Sex. Conventional wisdom has it that being single guarantees lots of free sex. The other side of the coin is that having a partner ensures stable and safe satisfaction of sexual desires.   People may fall into extremes after a separation: that of no sex at all because of the pain, or that of near compulsive sex, – one night stands – by beaming anger, loneliness, self-doubts to their sex drive. What matters is to find how the emotional aspect of your relationships supports your sexual relationship and whether you can respect your partner and share similar moral value systems about what you consider appropriate sexual behavio

About being single.

There are a few more hurdles that you need to overcome before you can say that you have handled your separation successfully and that you have rebuilt a life to your liking, such as learning to live alone and become once again an independent person. It has drawbacks, especially for women. Single women do not fare well economically compared to single men and couples.  It is also a stage in which you may become stuck for fear of being hurt again if you haven’t done your homework. Look at the benefits: now you have the freedom of choice. As you look backward and take stock, you have come out stronger and more emotionally resilient. You know more about yourself. You have worked through many feelings and experiences. You are free to choose to remain single or try another relationship!

A special word about children. Children of divorce go through the same process described in this article and need to rebuild too. As they follow your example, they will adjust more quickly as a result and grow emotionally resilient. Also, research points to single parents becoming more responsive to the needs of their children, because of what they have learned during separation and divorce.

We broke up: the worst case scenarios

As I explore the  various steps of  separation and divorce (see my blog “We broke up: now what?)in order to  better understand the dynamics involved in a break-up, here is what I find the most notable as a worst-case scenario for both roles, that of the dumper ( the one who leaves ),and that of the ‘dumpee’ ( the one who’s left behind).

Separation is painful even when both parties behave and stick to  good dumper’ and ‘good dumpee’ roles.

However, when a bad-dumpee is also a bad-dumper (roles alternate in some separations) all hell can break loose.  S/he wants out of the relationship but does not have the strength nor courage to be the dumper. S/he will make life miserable for their partner to force them to become the one who leaves. This is a form of abuse as the one who wants to make the relationship work finds themselves cornered into doing what they wanted to pre-empt.

At that point, the bad-dumpee not only enacts the rejection they provoked in the first place, but they also become a bad-dumper.  A bad-dumper is like a runaway kid.  They see the grass greener on the other side of the fence, and all that is needed for them to be happy is to get out of the relationship. There’s often a new love partner conveniently lined up. The bad-dumper avoids dealing with feelings, actions and attitudes that need to be changed and s/he does not provide closure to the dumpee; this is another form of abuse.

The ‘bad dumpee turned bad dumper’ is the partner most  likely to enact the anger that naturally follows  initial  feelings of guilt (dumper) and rejection (dumpee) as these feelings are strongly felt during the separation.

It is therefore essential, if you find yourself pushed into the role of reluctant dumper, that you take self-protective steps, by first carefully assessing the risk of abuse before doing so, and then ensuring your safety well before walking out. For instance, start describing the situation to relatives, friends and professionals and start collecting documentary and photographic evidence before you leave. You could well need it!

The following stories illustrate worst case scenarios involving a bad-dumpee who is also a bad-dumper.

A client discovered her partner’s series of infidelities and took time out after discussing with him her reasons for doing so; their daughter found him and his assistant in their bed a couple of days later. When she confronted him about it, he threatened to leave her penniless if they were to divorce. She filed a week later after breaking down, and was physically threatened soon after, with a gun no less.

Another person found himself denied access to his children until the courts produced an order. He didn’t see his children for 18 months.  He says, she asked him to leave and then changed her mind a few weeks later, after he’d moved out. He did not agree to a reconciliation. She felt dumped and she retaliated using access to the children as leverage.

Another person had counter-filing against her, when she reported to police that her broken arm was the consequence of him getting into a rage when she told him she wanted to separate. He did not like being the one left. He told her “then get out of my house” in no uncertain terms after shoving her . He had to now become the dumper, regain control, and did so by breaking her arm .  He had the economic power, and could afford to bring the matter to court. She spent much needed money defending herself.

Another person found all his clothes cut to pieces and his CD collection destroyed after telling her he wanted out. He succumbed to anger as a result, and smashed her vintage car in return.

And finally, one client walked out on her partner, and was threatened to be ‘ruined in court’ by him if she refused to sign a potentially reputation ruining blackmail letter – his reputation more than hers!!! – in exchange for monies he owed to her. The letter was squarely putting the responsibility of the breakup on her victimising him. She refused to sign the letter and cried wolf publicly. He retaliated by destroying her property and writing to acquaintances that “she was both mentally unstable and a thief, and he had to break off the relationship to distance himself from such a dangerous person.”

And so it goes. The rule of thumb is: beware of what you thought you knew about your mate. If you believe that you are placed in the role of the dumper, be cautious.  Separation may start well, but, just as there is a “honeymoon period” in any new relationship, there’s something called “a separation honeymoon” in a break up. Don’t trust it, because no matter how well behaved you are or you believe s/he will behave, once your ex-partner’s feelings of dumper guilt and dumpee rejection are exhausted, and the ‘deal is done’, anger will invariably follow, and may be enacted in devastating ways.

Will you or will your partner destroy property, blackmail,  threaten, break arms, produce a  gun, defame, refuse access to children?  Or instead, will you take time out with no contact for as long as it takes to exhaust the post break up rage?

Realise too that when a bad dumpee/dumper aggresses you, you have every right to ‘retaliate’ as you feel necessary to protect yourself, and that sometimes, rather than fight fire with water, it is best to fight fire with greater fire… A good lawyer should do.

And please, if you have lived through scenarios similar to the any of those described, it is possible that you have experienced trauma, even if you are not yet aware of it. In that case, it’s time to get professional help.