After 15 years of a tumultuous marriage, Mario decided to divorce his wife. He had enough. His wife Vanessa cheated on him several times, repeatedly lied, her physical abuse escalated into hitting, and there was now evidence that she might be addicted to drugs. Wanting the marriage to end as quickly as possible, he skipped over counseling and hired an attorney.
Mario’s first meeting with his attorney Barbara went well and he was confident that she could move the divorce forward quickly. The problem is that Mario needed someone to talk to about the struggles in his marriage and instead of reaching out to a therapist, he talked to Barbara. The result was a huge attorney fee without a lot of legal work being accomplished.
For Barbara, she had no idea how to respond to Mario. Her attempts to stay focused on strictly legal issues during their appointments failed. She repeatedly advised him to get a therapist, but he resisted. So, Barbara reached out to a therapist for assistance in understanding the divorce process from a mental health perspective. Barbara knew she couldn’t fulfill the role of a therapist, but she was trying to gain a better grasp of her client’s emotional state and how to best respond to it. Here are the 10 things the therapist discussed.
- Divorce is like a death. During the process of divorce and once again after the divorce is finalized, Mario will go through all the stages of grief: denial (“this isn’t happening”), anger (“I’m hurt by you”), bargaining (“if only I hadn’t done”), depression (“this isn’t what I wanted”), and acceptance (“I’m ready to move forward”). These stages are not done in order, rather, in one conversation, usually evidence of all of them can be seen. As a result, Mario could sound a bit bi-polar when in reality he is just processing the stages of grief.
- Emotions are intense. In addition to the stages of grief, typical emotional reactions include: mistrust, shame, guilt, inferiority, jealousy, and doubt. Emotional outbursts should not be countered with logical arguments. This could unnecessarily aggravate the situation and make things worse. Instead, Barbara was advised to empathize with Mario and not minimize his feelings. Statements like, “It’s understandable that you feel distrustful, I would too in your situation,” are helpful.
- Thoughts tend to be obsessive. No one goes into a marriage wanting a divorce. So, when the divorce happened, Mario kept playing the traumatic, frustrating, and aggravating events of the last 15 years over and over. Between that and the intense learning curve of the divorce process, Mario had little time to think about anything else. He became afraid that if he failed to share all of these events with his attorney, he might lose more in the divorce. To help settle his obsessiveness, Barbara asked him to maintain a timeline of events that could be modified as he remembered more.
- Defense mechanisms like projection are common. Mario was hurt by the outcome of his marriage and because of it, subconsciously felt the need to protect himself even more. He did this by projecting some of his poor decisions during the marriage onto Vanessa. Vanessa became the responsible for all of the bad in the marriage and, in his mind, only he was the victim. Barbara did not have the time or energy to sort out what was projection and what was real, so she created a margin of error in her head that about 20% of what Mario claimed was actually exaggeration.
- Divorce is emotional, not business. Anytime intense emotion is mixed with making a decision, the logic of the process is compromised. Advertisers know this which is why they work so hard to generate euphoric attachments to things. Trying to cut through the intense emotions of regret and resentment to deal with the business of divorce is difficult. Barbara asked Mario to see the divorce process like a contract agreement similar to one he would generate in his own business. This helped Mario to keep his emotions in check.
- Divorce brings out the worst in a person’s personality. As a business owner, Mario was easy to get along with and his customers enjoyed working with him. But during the divorce, the worst of his personality came out and he became vengeful, paranoid, and hateful. This was so outside of his character and when he reacted in this manner, Barbara would remind him to be his business owner self. As a side note, if a divorce client seems great or charming throughout the process, they are likely to be manipulative.
- Even simple legal terms are confusing. Mario had extensive experience as a business owner with legal jargon, however, when it came to the divorce he started to struggle. He knew what things meant from a business standpoint, but from a family law perspective it was much more difficult for him. Barbara gave him a cheat sheet on legal terminology definitions as they pertained to family court. This helped to clear up some confusion and frustration.
- Divorce brings out survival mode. There are 4 responses a person has when survival mode kicks in: flight, fight, freeze, or faint. The second Mario’s survival mode activated, his body went into automatic fight mode which had been preprogrammed back in his childhood. As his body naturally prepared for engagement, the executive functioning of his brain shut down – which reduces a person’s decision-making ability and causes a person not to remember well. This is why Barbara felt like she had to say the same things over and over to Mario.
- Circle of friends should be tight. There are two common ways a person reacts with friends during the divorce process: they either overexpose or underexpose. Saying too much to others looks like a person is airing out their dirty laundry in public while not saying anything generates feelings of isolation and can make depression worse. Mario was advised by Barbara to have no more than 3 and no less than one close friend(s) that he could confided in during the divorce process. This allowed Mario to feel heard and not overuse his attorney as a one of those friends.
- Be patient. Barbara had to encourage Mario to be patient with himself and the divorce process on several occasions. Mario wanted to rush through it and just get it over with. But this doesn’t allow for his emotions, thoughts, and changes in new life routine, to come to fruition. Habits that were formed over the last 15 years needed to be broken and adjusted to a new way of thinking. This takes both time and energy. Ignoring meaningful emotions or trying to rush through the divorce process will only result in a relapse or delay in grieving.
Once Barbara incorporated these 10 items with Mario, things immediately got better. She was also successful in convincing him that he needed to see a therapist. In the end, Mario worked through the divorce process and was able to move forward in a healthy way.