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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.
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.
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:
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.