Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

The Temporary Psychosis of Divorce

How divorce can create insanity in sane people.

I was watching a recent episode of HBO’s hit drama “True Detective,” and I was reminded of my guardian ad litem (GAL) work. Essentially, GAL work is when a psychologist evaluates a divorcing family to help shape a parenting plan that serves the best interests of the children. Among other things, it’s an assessment of the formal divorce process that bleeds out of a deteriorated marriage (with children).

“True Detective” is about two cops - Rust and Marty - “working murders” together in Louisiana. Marty’s wife is Maggie. Throughout the show’s first season their marriage has ranged from “shaky” to “utterly severed,” and it’s in the most recent sixth episode (Haunted Houses) that the slow bleed finally gushes.

Over-simplistically, the problem is that Marty just won’t stop cheating on Maggie…you know, such a habit can really strain a marriage (cue sarcastic eye roll).

The gushing starts when Maggie catches Marty being unfaithful, yet again (it’s at least the second or third time, I lost count) via sex-pics on Marty’s cell phone. I suppose Marty makes the first “insane” step by ignoring his normally astute-detective instincts and leaving compelling evidence of his unfaithfulness out in broad daylight...an act that seems even more insane when considering all the hard work Marty did in the previous two episodes to repair the damage his “cheating” had caused. Well, now, it’s Maggie’s turn to take a step in this insanity dance.

She twirls, pivots and straddles Rust (as well as the line between sexual coercion and rape)...before Rust knows what’s hit him, Maggie has completed her one-sided affair and is smugly satisfied. She’s achieved her primary objective - hurt Marty so exquisitely that reconciliation, for him, is impossible (if you’re a cop’s wife it seems that sleeping with your husband’s partner is the most efficient means of severing a relationship).

Their insanity dance has whipped into a fervor. And while Marty and Maggie clearly have their issues, they’re more like the rest of us than not. If anything, I’d argue they’re slightly above average in emotional stability, intelligence and life success - Marty’s serial cheating not withstanding (this destructive pattern is the one thing that really puts Marty in rarified “pathological” air).

And their relative normalcy, prior to the dance of insanity, is my point.

Sure, there are plenty of marriages that are doomed from the start (either because one or both members of the relationship are too dysfunctional to create a stable partnership to begin with); just as there are plenty of marriages that end without dysfunctional fireworks.

But, again, what has surprised me about GAL work is not the proportion of divorces that turn ugly, but how ugly the ugliness gets, and how functional each partner seems to be in every other aspect of his/her life. In fact, I’ve ONLY seen situations in which both partners present as high functioning, and bring with them stories of happy beginnings….and very unhappy endings.

It seems to me that the real-world divorce process propel soon-to-be ex partners into the worst, most dysfunctional versions of themselves. It’s a form of insanity that emerges for a temporary period of time (the divorce itself) and remains within the ex-romantic relationship like an invisible toxic mist that distorts reality, blocks healthy impulses, and plays-up pre-existing character flaws. 

I can recall a perfectly nice stay-at-home dad, for instance, who sheepishly admitted that he’d taken to pouring ice water on his wife’s side of the bed toward the end of their marriage. He did this, presumably, so that she’d be miserable. Don’t ask me why (I don’t think he even knew), or why she continued to sleep in the marital bed thereafter.

When it comes to divorcing couples, and the negative emotions/destructive behaviors they “fire” back and forth, this anecdote is merely the tip of the ice berg. I’ve listened to divorced couples recall every abuse under the sun - emotional-psychological, financial, physical, and sexual - and it’s all just so surprisingly dysfunctional.  And while I can’t cite specific research on prevalence rates, these tragic allegations are either completely true, completely false or somewhere in-between. And whether an act of abuse actually happened, was subtly misperceived/exaggerated, or intentionally falsified, the point remains the same - two relatively normal people mistreated each other in abnormally nasty ways.

There are a few lessons to be learned from this ugly trend.

One, it speaks to the sheer intensity of pain that divorcing partners cause each other. Once you’ve loved someone, emotionally committed (developed expectations of a life-long story) and hitched your wagon to theirs (mortgage, children, etc.)…and that loved one betrays you by becoming rigidly unreasonable/overwhelmed (which, in turn, makes you rigidly unreasonable/overwhelmed), it’s a long fall from grace. On top of that, it seems to take divorcing partners an oddly long time to walk away from such a clearly miserable situation - Maggie needs almost a decade to cement her separation from Marty.

The lesson - don’t wait. Either seek couples counseling, mediation or a separation before too much wasted time and damage has unfolded.

Two, the ugly trend speaks to the sheer distortion in perception that a divorce context can create. The person you now view as a monster was once a loved one…this loved one wasn’t just a relatively healthy, stable, and reasonable person, he/she was someone you were so excited about that you gradually and knowingly built a life together.  

What’s going on here? I’ll tell you one thing, it’s not that the other person (or you) stepped in a puddle of toxic goo and transformed into the hulk. Well, maybe it’s a bit of that, who knows, but it’s mostly two things: a whirling cycle of co-constructed misery (Marty drinks-Maggie’s cold and mean-Marty cheats-Maggie gets verbally abusive-Marty cheats some more…you get the idea…), and stress overload.

Our perceptual filters are hardly full-proof to begin with, and we perceive our surroundings less and less accurately as the stressed accumulates. Life starts to feel like a war zone when the home front creates stress instead of stability, and the “battle mode” perception that gets created out of self-protective necessity turns the other partner into an “enemy.” Once you start perceiving/assuming/expecting an enemy…then an enemy, you shall get.

Lesson - seek couples counseling to sever the vicious cycle (Emotion-focused Couples Therapy specializes in severing such vicious cycles)…and get a reality check. It’s likely that your partner isn’t as bad as your mind is making him/her out to be. The mind can become a very distorted place when stressed to the max, and make no mistake, a divorce (especially a divorce from a long-time marriage with children) is an event that incites maximum stress.

Maggie used to be happy and healthy; similar to my stay-at-home dad client. And yet sexual coercion and ice-water pranks are par for the course in a souring marriage in which neither partner takes effective action.

For all the potentially divorcing couples out there, take note, temporary psychosis is entirely plausible.

Fair warning.

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

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