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Divorce, Anger, and Revenge: Overcoming Reactivity

DIVORCE, ANGER, AND REVENGE:

Why We're Drawn Into Battle, and Why It Hurts Us

My aging parents recently told me about a contentious dispute they've been having with the prior owner of their new home. In listening to their story I became anxious for them, and found myself thinking "Well, we'll just see what a judge says about that!" My heart rate even picked up a bit as I went through a mental list of lawyers I might recommend.

But wait! I'm a professional therapist and a mediator. I recognize how righteous feelings of being violated spin up into decisions and actions that can be emotionally and financially costly, and then difficult to unwind. Is this what I wanted for my parents (or anybody else)?

Our conditioned anger reflex runs deep. When someone hurts or threatens to injure us or those whom we love, anger is a normal and healthy response. Anger at its biological and chemical roots is a hardwired emotion that functions to energize us into setting boundaries and so meet or survive situations where we are vulnerable and at risk. Albert Camus famously observed that "the body shrinks from annihilation." Anger is at its core a reaction to fear. In our culture it seems less shameful to admit our anger than to confess our fears. This disconnect creates difficulties: If we then wish to change our experience to become unstuck from anger we may not see that we are focusing at the wrong level.

In relationship disputes, anger expresses the fact that "This hurts me. It is not ok!" In divorce our hearts and ego feel as though they are being extinguished, rather than our physical bodies (although many people report crushing body sensations). We might not even be able to explain why we feel hurt or threatened - but we know we're angry about it. Most of us can express anger more easily than the often ambiguous feelings of hurt and vulnerability. In a relationship that is ending, these feelings that arise to guard us are evident and abundant. It is easy for them to become dysfunctional and maladaptive unless we are very attentive. Isn't it ironic that we know not to touch a hot stove and so be burned, but that we return to the hot stove of angry and destructive emotions repeatedly as if to sometimes to lie upon it?

Anger needs something or someone to be angry AT. It wants to focus upon an object, to communicate our distress to those whom we believe have wronged us. Angry feelings are not emotions that we like to experience by ourselves; anger is difficult to "sit with" and contain. Many people are extremely uncomfortable "owning" their anger, imbuing the emotion with qualities of a being that is separate from the actor that is us. We usually blame others as the cause of our anger, forgetting that whatever it is that they've done or not done, anger needs fuel in order to burn and we have to sign up for it in order for it to have the potency that it does. In that sense people - especially couples in conflict - become unconscious co-conspirators. We may manipulate others to join with us in this cycle of reactivity, and as co-dependents we may seek out personalities that we become enmeshed with.

We may wish to pour our anger into the perceived offender, so that that person will know, personally, what effect our disappointment has had upon us through them feeling a like pain. Symbolically this is a kind of striving for mutuality, a peculiar kind of oneness through shared tension. When anger arises at the end of relationships and communication ceases, we risk seeding perpetual revenge, or play-out retaliatory fantasies and behaviors that our society seems to approve as contentious divorces and custody battles. Where anger plays out in speech and control (over money, property, or children, for instance), this dance continues until and unless we become interested in managing it. There is a risk that we may come to enjoy these strongly felt emotions because they allow us to avoid what lies beneath them.

Revenge is born of anger. Anger is born out of hurt. And hurt is hard to talk about, especially in a marriage if the intimate and honest talking ended long ago. This leads to a kind of impotence with how to modify our circumstances. One response is to engage in harsh legal tactics as a "communication" of last resort; there is often a desperate sense that all other ways of getting through to the other person have failed. We may decide that we need a legal warrior as a sword and shield who will crusade for us and crush our antagonizers.

The mental health professionals at LAFMS understand the toxicity of the emotional roots of conflict and how it cycles and recycles. We also respect people's experiences, history, fears, and anger. It is not our goal to diminish or dismiss a mediation participant's experiences, but instead it may be useful for people to learn why they feel as they do and even to identify potential 'buy-ins' that we undertake to perpetuate these strong emotions. As mediators and co-mediators we are not imposing therapy upon disputants, but we are helping the identify destructive patterns of interaction and how to reframe their speech and even their thinking.

For people coping with the dislocation and upset of the end of relationship, co-mediation can be an effective tool for avoiding the detour into emotionally damaging legal battles. It is possible to restore a more balanced level of communication. We all know what it's like to want to strike back. Co-mediation honors that hurt and pain as a reasonable incident to a divorce or custody argument, but it aims to remind us we can rework our communications to support mutual safety and understanding without attacks.

Using a psychological and legal expert to assist the parties in mediation is akin to having interpreters of a foreign language accessible and ready to translate, whether the language is that of emotions, behavior, or gender differences. We can help you to focus on seeing through vengeful language and retaliatory behaviors, and help you to remember what you value and prize most. This clears a path for setting aside the need to reinflict pain, and promises hope and even a kind of personal liberation.

You have the power to manage your heart and your mind. I am passionately devoted to helping mediate your family impasses because I know that far more people can succeed than not, or that even try.

And I've suggested that my parents consider using a neutral third party to work through their potential dispute!

David Hayes, M.A., M.F.T.

david hayes, mft


Posted By David Hayes, M.F.T. on June 06, 2011 06:16 pm | Permalink 

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