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Taking Back Your Power in a Bad Divorce

Using Therapy to Help You through a Malignant Divorce

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Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFE0-LfUKgA

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While I've lost count of all the divorces I've seen, it's the malignant ones that continue to haunt me. These are the divorces that are truly dangerous, and need attention, like doctors need to attend to some cancers. And like malignant cancer, much research is required to figure out how to help people in this predicament. The reality is that Malignant Divorces are found in all social groups and are not going away.

This article is the third part of our series on the Malignant Divorce, which was provoked by a horrendous murder/suicide in my neighborhood in Westchester, New York. According to news reports, the Friedlander family—a mother and her two children, and a deranged husband—all lost their lives to a bad divorce that went terribly wrong. These blog posts are dedicated to having tragedies like this one happen less often.

Today, I will demonstrate the urgent need for therapeutic support if you are dealing with an ex spouse who may be dangerous in one way or another. If you are going through a horrendous divorce, you may want to share this piece with your therapist. It may bring up some useful questions that are worth discussing. To quote from the original article on the Malignant Divorce:

What you do have control over is your sanity, and the innocent ears of your children. Therapy is really a must.  You will have to grieve the loss of your marriage and much of what you hold dear, including that the world is fair. You can't short circuit grief, but you cannot let it disable you from acting intelligently. Also, all your outrage and fear must be mobilized productively, in the best interests of you and your children.

If you are concerned that your ex may be trying to hurt you, the first order of business is to come to terms with the kind of person that you are truly dealing with. This is why, in the previous blog post, we looked at the problem of Character Traps; when an ex is so regressed that he or she is capable of awful behavior, and all at your expense. Now you must dig in and look at yourself, because, without getting a grip on your emotions, reactivity and sense of clarity, you are vulnerable to be hurt.

Psychotherapy is a method to help you pull back and look at yourself with more objectivity. In philosophy we call this metacognition. In regular terms, it is the ability to look at yourself honestly and make the changes that are necessary. This is important because you were married to someone who knows your weaknesses. Perhaps you don't take his drinking seriously enough. Maybe she triggers you to lose your temper, only to get you into trouble. Maybe you were raised by an angry mother, so you give in all the time. Or, perhaps he is violent and you are in denial because domestic violence is something that you've gotten used to. All these assumptions about an ex require examination; followed by an effective plan that can ensure that you and your children remain safe.

Grief Work:

First and foremost, therapy will help you deal with your grief, which is inevitable because divorce represents the death of your marriage. You wanted a great marriage and now that dream is over. Grief can consume you with powerful emotional states that may include denial, bargaining, anger, depression and then acceptance—not necessarily in this precise order. Most people, when grieving feel overwhelmed by recurrent emotional tsunamis (regret, hurt, anger, fear etc.), so use your therapist to help keep you steady. You will need to keep your wits about you when dealing with a very difficult ex.

  • Denial can work well in the average divorce, because it protects you from being overwhelmed from loss and worry. But in the case of an ex spouse who poses a danger to you, denial unfortunately works against you. Therefore the message is—Wake Up. You can be very effective, even with the most difficult ex spouse, but you have to be prepared to deal with him. This takes forethought, because, as we said above, most of your previous strategies probably didn't work—and he knows your weaknesses very well.
  • Bargaining is a useful part of grieving if you have a good relationship with your ex (it does happen!). Some people decide to give the marriage another try—and sometimes it works. But, in the Malignant Divorce, a manipulative ex may see this as a weakness to be exploited. After all, they no longer care about anything but winning, and at your expense. This is a tender moment in psychotherapy, because it represents the end of hoping for something that will never be.
  • Anger is very productive in divorce because it often mobilizes people out of their denial and into action. Some ex's are quite capable at triggering your anger—at them or at the kids. And, the truly malignant ones will find a way to use your anger against you. They can provoke you directly or be passive aggressive; both are effective triggers. Therapy is important because you are entitled to your anger, but you must find ways to handle it and not take it out on the children, your ex or act out to your own detriment.
  • Depression is understandable because dealing with the loss of a marriage plus an ex who just wants to win—and at your expense—is a lot to bear. If you require treatment including medicine, take advantage of it. Judges tend to respect parents who get the treatment that they require. It will be much worse for you to remain untreated and therefore less able to parent well or have the soundness of mind to deal intelligently with your ex.
  • Acceptance is the final resting stop of grief, and that is good. You will have to accept a lot. First, you are going to have to deal with the fact that your ex is not quite the person that you married. He or she may really be out to hurt you. You also must accept that you made mistakes along the way, and stop beating yourself up for it. Acceptance will give you psychological grounding and the power to deal with your ex, not from anger or fear, but with a firm sense of realism.

Finding Your Power

Having an alliance with a good therapist can help you grieve, but you'll also gain deeper insight into your situation that can help you make intelligent decisions despite a crazy situation. When practiced well, psychotherapy can help you rediscover your sense of power by addressing the following:

  • It's useful to uncover how your family of origin affected your choice of mate, and how you may repeat that same mistake if you're not careful. For instance, if you understand that fearing your father's harsh judgment in the past conditioned you to be passive to your husband's bullying today; then you are taking the first steps towards freedom. You realize that you are no longer that child and have adult matters that need an adult mind.
  • It's important to have a professional help you see your contributions to a failed marriage. Perhaps the power struggle that you are in originated with something that you did? Or, like the above example, your passivity enabled a bully to run wild. You have to honestly assess yourself, even if it hurts. Is it possible that you have a controlling or paranoid streak yourself, believing that he can never adequately raise your son? Well, you are no longer married and will have to let that go (as long as it is not dangerous to your son). If not, don't be shocked if he tries to claim that you're the problem.
  • I have seen so many people dismayed over the lack of justice in the world of divorce. For instance: "It's not fair that he is happy with his new girlfriend and I'm alone." Or, "It's not fair that the judge gave her money that she never earned." You can fight for your rights, but it rarely turns out exactly the way that you would have wanted. A therapist can help you to let go. This is a freedom that truly opens you up to a better future. Life is not fair. But why should it be?
  • If you are dealing with a severe Personality Disorder or a Character Trap, as outlined in our last piece, you must wake up to the relentlessness of your ex—and how long this divorce may linger. They don't want to move on without having the last word, sometimes with horrifying results. They choose the issue to fight over. A sick power struggle can erupt about money, an unnecessary custody battle (in order to pay less child support or to spite you), parental alienation (from mild to severe), character defamation, or things can get really dangerous as in domestic violence, kidnapping and worse. In a truly Malignant Divorce, your ex wants to win and won't let go for a long time. It is all about a bizarre sense of control. A therapist can help you to keep your eye on the ball, and not lose focus on what's important. You are going to have to maintain your good spirits (after all, your children need you), co parent if required, but come to terms with the sad fact that he or she will have trouble letting you go.
  • Once you have perspective, it's possible to utilize the resources that are available for your protection and for the well being of your kids. You are not alone, although it may feel that way. Support is a must. Try to identify good friends, helpful family members, support groups, clergy and probably a therapist for your children. Developing an action plan to deal with the threat posed by a Malignant Divorce includes using attorneys, law enforcement and the courts intelligently, and to your advantage. The therapeutic issue here is to be proactive and protective in a wise, but not vindictive way. Otherwise, you are part of the problem.
  • Finally, have a therapist carefully assess if you have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, like panic attacks, depression, chemical dependency or PTSD. As we said above, most judges will not penalize you for getting good treatment. And you are in no position to deal with a Control Freak or a Narcissist if you are preoccupied with a debilitating disorder. Get the treatment, and then, deal with your ex from a position of clarity.

Dealing with a Malignant Divorce requires that you have your head on your shoulders. The Character Traps described in the last blog are so manipulative and vengeful, that it's hard to believe. You are going to have to be highly skilled. At times you will be friendly. At others, you will set firm limits. Sometimes you will be able to use active listening techniques to engage him or her. Other times you will have to call the police to reinforce that you feel endangered.

It all comes down to being psychologically healthy. Spend time with friends. Get treatment if you need it.  And come up with a pragmatic action plan to deal with your difficult ex.

It is all worth the effort.

Mark Banschick, M.D., is a psychiatrist and author of The Intelligent Divorce book series.

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