Focus on What You Can Control in Your Divorce When You Feel Terrible
In your divorce, there will be times when you feel terrible. You may be at a loss because it is a surreal time, and wonder, “How did this happen to me?” You may feel shame over the loss of the marriage and be in denial. You may be in the grieving process. Whatever stage you are in, it is not pleasant—but what you’re feeling is normal and expected.
It is not normal, though, to act terribly in response to those feelings. You may feel quite certain that there is no way you will be the one to act out in your divorce. You did nothing wrong and do not deserve this heartache. “If anyone is going to lose it in their divorce,” you may think, “it will be my (fill in the word) spouse.”
Unfortunately, otherwise normal, healthy people have made the same assumption, and they have paid for it. The reason is that it’s natural to want to act terribly in response to feeling threatened, pressured or attacked, and those states are common in high-conflict divorces. If you are a good person and catch yourself behaving as a less than the ideal version of yourself, it’s likely that you’re having a massive fight-or-flight reaction or that your defense mechanisms are engaged below your level of awareness.
For example, maybe you want to persuade your spouse to relocate back to your home country, but she refuses, even though the only reason you came to the U.S. was for her job, which she no longer has. All your family is back home, and if you were there, they could help raise the children in a loving environment where the costs of living are significantly lower than where you live now.
With deep frustration, you realize how challenging a relocation case can be, and that’s when a thought comes: Maybe you should just leave, without your children, even though you are their primary caregiver. Thoughts like this (even if they only cross your mind for an instant) are natural and normal if guilt-inducing. But it’s crossing a red line to act on them. There’s no shame in having dark thoughts—as long as you let them go.
Another scenario: Say you are already in a divorce and realize that the other side is applying more pressure on you than you expected, which is taking its toll. You calm yourself by clinging to the thought that when you get to court, the judge will immediately see your side of the case and push your spouse back. The “facts” appear to be on your side. You are the stay-at-home parent of five children, and your spouse has never taken the children alone on a trip in the 16 years of your relationship. Yet as soon as you get into court, your husband asks to take the children on a trip without you.
That triggers you instantly. You tell the court that you object to the trip because the children’s welfare is at stake. You argue that one of them has special needs and cannot be away from you, the primary parent, especially to spend a week in the care of their father, who does not have the capacity to appropriately handle five children’s needs. When those arguments fall on deaf ears, and the judge attacks you for interfering with the children’s relationship with the father, you feel lost and confused and just want to end this stupid divorce. Justice will never come your way, you tell yourself, so why waste years of your life in court? Better to get out now, even if you are not getting the child support and maintenance you feel you are justifiably entitled to.
You focus on every bad day you’ve had in court and all the “signs” that the judge likes the other side more than you, and you start to feel dejected, hopeless. Every cell in your body tells you to take rash action. Wouldn’t it feel so good to go down and “chaperone” the children on the vacation so they can be taken care of appropriately? Or maybe you should show your spouse the idiocy of his position by just saying “screw it” and leaving your children behind. Let him have them all! That’ll show him what it really takes to take care of young children on his own.
This level of pressure, anger, disbelief and frustration—and the self-destructive, out-of-control solutions your mind produces to deal with them—are what you are up against if you are in the middle of a high conflict divorce. And the only smart way to deal with all that is to shift your perspective and look at your current situation with less emotion and more cold stone strategy.
You can do this by focusing on three tips that I stress (over and over) to my clients.
Tip No. 1: Plan for the long war.
Instead of thinking that you will win or lose decisively in your divorce or that your divorce will settle quickly, tell yourself instead that whatever happens, it will be a close call and a drawn-out war! Remind yourself that you most likely will lose individual battles, but you can still win the divorce war. Prepare yourself for being treated unfairly by the court and disrespectfully by the other side.
By putting yourself in this frame of mind, you are developing the grit and space you will need to withstand the pressure of your divorce. Understand that when your thinking stems from a trigger, it may be pushing you to engage in massive fight-or-light reactions. Those reactions will make you either act terribly in your divorce (so you put up an irrational, destructive fight) or they’ll tell you that the only sane thing to do is bow out from the pressure without meeting your divorce goals (flight).
Tip No. 2: Believe in yourself and your divorce goals, even when you don’t feel confident.
Most clients ask me how we are doing during the divorce. They do it because they believe that a snapshot summary of where they are in the middle of the process will tell them how the divorce will end. I try to teach them that the “scoring system” in a high conflict divorce is such that until the case is officially over, anything can happen—even if you are sure you are way ahead or way behind!
If this does not help them shift their perspective, I advise them to surround themselves with positive people. Misery loves company, so they may well have a contact list full of people who will happily help them fuel a downward spiral. But having positive people around you—and not talking about the troubles of your divorce—may re-energize you to push further than you thought was possible to achieve your divorce goals.
I also inform my clients that time changes things. You may think you did well at a hearing or in court conference or at oral argument on a motion, but when the judge finally gets around to actually writing a decision, time may have changed his or her perspective. It has happened to me numerous times that judges have told me initially, and in strong terms, that they did not believe in my theory of the case. That has sometimes made me second-guess my theory, but I still advocated and attempted to persuade them to come around to my position once the court reviewed all the submissions in detail. And in those situations, it was not uncommon for them to change their minds.
If none of the above strategies are working for you, getting a second opinion may help you see things differently. There is only so much you can learn from your attorney. Maybe a fresh perspective can change your outlook. At the very least, obtaining a second opinion can give you the confidence you need that you are on the right course, even if things feel shaky.
Tip No. 3: Develop Rituals to Re-center Yourself.
Very little is in your control in a high-conflict divorce. Once you go to court, it is the judge who has the power. I always tell clients that the further you go into the divorce process, the less control you have. And when you have so little control over your future, it is natural to feel anxious. The trick to overcoming this feeling is to double down on what you can control so you can regroup.
Level I of this technique, for those who are mildly worried but not obsessing about what’s happening in the divorce this week, is to do fun activities, like dancing or CrossFit, and to surround yourself with a good support network, even if it is a Meetup group going hiking for the afternoon. What you are doing by engaging in these activities is building a deeper reservoir that you may need to tap into from time to time.
The second level, for those who are having trouble sleeping at night or focusing at work, is to start regulating your sleep, eating, drinking schedule. You do this to make your physical health a priority. You can also start journaling for 15-30 minutes, every day. Your writing can just be a stream of consciousness, where you designate your journaling time as your “worry time,” or you can be more directive in your journaling and list your goals and aspirations. You can also set aside 5 to 15 minutes once or twice a day to meditate. I like to meditate with a timer that chimes every minute to help me not get too lost in my thoughts. By doing this, you’ll be regulating your body with healthy foods and giving your subconscious free therapy in the form of journaling and a mental vacation in the form of mediation. Finally, I recommend visualization. Imagine what your ideal life will be like in five years, and then backtrack, really backtrack, to break down the steps that will get you there in the most movie-like way possible to inspire and motivate. You can also limit what you read and watch. Why read about things that do not affect your life? You may just be giving away your power when it is needed most. It also may just be a distraction that does you no good (unless you need a distraction to make you feel better).
Know that you need to keep living, and fueling the calm, positive parts of yourself, as the divorce wears on.
You can’t control what the other side does. You can’t expect good behavior from them or from the court. But you can find the eye of the emotional hurricane.
And the more you can keep returning to that sane, not terrible place—even when you feel the worst—the higher your chances are of getting through this divorce without losing your mind.