How to Handle Anger in Separation and Divorce
Dr. John Schinnerer
How do you get through the intense feelings, such as anger, rage and hurt, that frequently occur with separation and divorce? How do you move forward constructively? Here are the best ways to divorce with dignity while holding onto your financial savings, your cool and your calm.
Understand How Anger Operates
Emotions tell you whether or not your needs are being met. When your needs are not met, you become angry, scared, hurt or sad. For many people, anger is the primary emotion experienced. It’s often easier to default to anger than discern to what you are really feeling. In my life, hurt most often lies beneath my anger. Sometimes you are aware of what is below your anger. Sometimes you aren’t. Identifying the emotion underneath anger is often the best way to manage anger. Once you’ve identified what’s underlying your anger, the next step is to share it with your loved one. For instance, instead of saying, “I’m furious you left me,” you might say “it hurts me that you are leaving.” This simple shift dramatically and positively alters the emotional tenor of the conversation. The more you can shift to the emotion beneath your anger, the better you will be heard by others.
Focus on What You Control
During a divorce, you will feel better to the extent that you can control the environment around you. To help alleviate feelings of helplessness, create a plan for you and your children. Come to an agreement with your spouse as to a temporary child custody schedule. If possible, look for 50-50 sharing of the children. Odds are, whatever you put in to a temporary custody schedule will be turned into a permanent one. As soon as you have agreement on a schedule, let your children know what to expect as it gives them a greater sense of control.
One of the biggest triggers for anger in divorce I see is when one parent discovers something going on at the other parent’s home with which they don’t agree. This might be something like staying up late, drinking too much around the kids, or leaving a child unattended. Look at these times as reminders of what you truly control. And you only really control one thing — yourself. You control your thoughts, your emotions, your actions. You no longer have any control over what goes on at your former partner’s place. You can talk to them, suggest things, and ask questions. If things get really bad (e.g., abuse, drug and alcohol use, neglect, etc.), you can address it with the courts or child services. However, unless the kids are in real danger, you have little influence. This is a really hard lesson for many people to whom I speak. Simply remind yourself that you only control one thing — yourself. And remind yourself of the importance of this lesson – as frustrating as it may be.
Distract Yourself with Relaxing Activities
A powerful way to manage your anger is distraction. Do things that are fun for you — exercise, read, watch a funny movie, go for a walk, enjoy nature, get a massage, learn to meditate, chill with friends or play Legos with your kids.
When you become aware of your thoughts returning to your ex, refocus them on a happy memory – a memory when you were relaxed or excited or joyous. Take mental photos of times when you are in awe or thrilled or content, such as when you won a baseball game, or went snorkeling in Hawaii or bought your first car. Then return to these pictures in your mind during difficult times.
Another key to alleviating anger is to breathe deeply. Breathing is probably the most important tool you have in combatting anger. When you breathe, breathe into your abdomen, not your chest. Exhale out all of the air in your lungs with each breath and fill your lungs completely with each inhalation. When you want to really relax, focus on breathing out slightly longer than you breathe in. For example, breathe in for four-seconds, hold it for a second, and breathe out for 6 seconds (and repeat!). Breathing out longer than you breathe in activates the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the rest and digest response.
Start a Journal
Another key to managing anger during divorce, and one which is proven by research, is to journal. Studies have shown that journaling helps reduce intrusive thoughts, which are negative thoughts that come into your head unwanted. And let’s face it, separation and divorce lend themselves to numerous intrusive thoughts. Journaling helps to get rid of these which will improve your mood. The other benefit is that, by noting things down in a journal, you can go back and have a written accounting of events of the day which may serve you well in the unfortunate event you have to litigate the divorce.
Keep your body in good shape for maximum energy and minimal irritation. Staying in good shape gives you a greater sense of control of the environment around you. As we discussed earlier, a lot of the anger that arises in divorce, arise due to a feeling of things being out of control. Having greater physical strength, greater flexibility, and more stamina all contribute to you having an increased sense of control over external events and less anger.
What’s more, you will want to begin to redefine your body in preparation of dating again (at some point!). This is what’s known as the post-divorce body where men hit the gym and reap the benefits of lifting weights to look their best. You will thank me for this later, trust me.
Also, for highly challenging events, such as a difficult divorce, try activities that are relaxing such as yoga, meditation, walking, or stretching. Soothing activities are helpful as well such as a shower or a warm bath.
If you are angry or furious, any hearty physical activity such as jogging or swimming is a great way to work off strong negative emotions. Lifting weights is best for dealing with anger and frustration. While aerobic activity is best for anxiety and stress.
Watch Out for Signs of Depression
Many people feel depressed when in the midst of separation and divorce. This is natural. Most men experience some symptoms of depression during divorce. Be aware of hiding away in your man cave, isolating yourself and refusing friends’ requests to go out. Watch out for an increase in your alcohol consumption. You may also see a spike in your level of irritability (which is often how depression shows itself in men). In general, indicators of depression include changes in sleep habits — either too much or not enough, change in eating habits, significant weight gain or loss — more than approximately 5% body weight in a month, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, withdrawal from family and friends, family history of depression and/or anxiety, giving away valued items, complete lack of emotion, irritability, sadness, apathy (i.e., “I don’t care.”) fatigue, diminished ability to think or concentrate, and/or recurring thoughts of death and dying. If you recognize signs of depression, seek out professional help such as a divorce support group or mental health provider.
Find the Meaning in the Pain
One of the best ways to deal with divorce is to figure out the lessons you are intended to learn from it. I challenge you to find your own personal positive meaning in your divorce. What does it represent to you? A call to action? A reminder to get in better shape? A motivation to learn to manage your thoughts and feelings? A second chance? An opportunity to do things right this time? What do you need to learn to ensure that your next relationship is happy and successful? One of the best ways we learn is through making mistakes. You are not a failure. Your marriage failed. Big difference.
What Are You Supposed To Learn From Your Divorce?
Do not sit by and idly watch your divorce go by and simply feel sorry for yourself (although you may need some time to do so). Use this as a wake up call to improve yourself and the world around you. That means you start with one individual — you. And you start changing you by changing what is on the inside.
The main reason for your sadness and ire is to help you adjust to the death of your relationship. Sadness allows time to grieve, look inward at who you are and what you are doing with your life, and understand the meaning of the loss. One of the most important things is to figure out the meaning of the loss. The particular meaning you assign to the loss matters less than merely coming up with a meaning, any meaning. But you need to come up with a reason.
Just like anger builds upon itself, sadness builds upon sadness. So if your first sad thought is followed by more sad thoughts, you risk a downward spiral.
Anger is not permanent. Sadness is not permanent. They are just passing by. Think of your emotions like visitors at a house. They are just dropping by for a visit. The sooner you invite them in and call them by name, the sooner they will be on their way. You are better off to the extent that you can learn to identify them and release them through activities such as deep breathing, exercise or journaling.
Remember The Snowball
Imagine a snowball rolling down a large snow-covered mountain. At first, the snowball is the size of your fist, something you could easily pick up and control. However, as the snowball rolls down the hill, it picks up speed and grows exponentially. After a few yards, the snowball has increased in size to the point where you can no longer handle it by yourself. Given the right conditions, the snowball can grow to mammoth size and could cause damage to other people.
The snowball is exactly the same as your emotions. For example, anger usually starts out small and manageable. However, if you are not paying attention, anger quickly grows and becomes uncontrollable. In fact you only have about ½ a second to interrupt the anger process. However, it’s doable. You can do it. I’ll tell you how. Keep in mind that I am talking about the speed of thought. So you actually have time to insert 2-3 thoughts in that 1/2 a second timeframe. It’s more time than you think!
The critical idea in controlling negative emotions, such as anger, is staying in the present moment so you can get in front of them. You have to tune in to your body’s cues – in the moment. Your body will tell you when you are beginning to get angry. Blood rushes to your fists, your face may get red, your muscles tense, breathing becomes shallow, your jaw clenches, your eyebrows furrow and so on. We need to begin to tune in to these cues. You only have a split second in which you can interrupt the cycle of anger. Otherwise the anger builds upon itself and spirals out of control. So the first tip is to become more aware of your bodily cues. Every emotion has cues which reveal how we are feeling. Fear triggers blood flowing to the arms and legs, perspiration, raised eyebrows, and a constriction of the throat. Sadness is marked primarily by a drop in energy, tears welling up, and the longing for that which is gone. The trick is to tune into these cues quickly and interrupt the cycle.
The second tip is to understand that anger is fueled in large part by your interpretation of what’s going on around you. So you can learn to change your interpretation of the world around you. Here’s one way to do this. In stressful situations, ask yourself, “Will this matter ten years from now?” In most cases the answer is no, it won’t. If the answer is “Yes,” then ask yourself, “what can I do to help find a constructive solution to the problem?” Practice these skills and you will see improvement.
Remember that this anger-inducing divorce will pass. While it is painful now, life will gradually improve, your love of life will return, and you will emerge that much wiser as you look to love once again.