Divorcelings: Misunderstood and Maybe Dangerous in Divorce
Are you one of them?
Posted Jun 25, 2020
Recently, I met with Ann Cerney, therapist, and divorce coach, who recently joined my group of Collaborative Divorce professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area. Ann Cerney has worked with divorcing families for many years in Chicago before moving to California. We spoke about her divorce coaching work with some very difficult divorces.
As a divorce coach myself, I enjoy learning about how other professionals dedicate their work to helping parents, children, and families. I was particularly intrigued by Ms. Cerney’s ability to find deep empathy with some very challenging clients. Here is some of our conversation.
Dr. Buscho: Since no-fault divorce is now the rule in all states, why do divorcing people continue to act as if one party is to blame for their divorce?
Ms. Cerney: Perhaps this is due to our black and white views of conflict, of good guys/bad guys, (Cowboys/Indians), right and wrong (cops/robbers) winners and losers (guilty/acquitted). While all conflict is ridden with anxiety, divorce anxiety is driven by fear and vulnerability. Ending an intimate, legal, and spiritual union — a marriage — is experienced as a personal and social demotion.
Compare the joyous occasion of your wedding to your divorce. Divorce is viewed as a failure and considered immoral by some religions. Because of the shame, anger, doubt, and fear, many people project blame on their partner.
I call these people "divorcelings." Divorcelings feel blindsided, ashamed, and traumatized when divorce is put on the table. The divorce may echo an earlier loss or trauma wound which is now re-opened. Whatever the case, Divorcelings are more vulnerable than ever before in their adult lives.
Dr. Buscho: How did you coin the term “divorcelings”? Is it a derogatory label?
Ms. Cerney: "Divorceling" came to me while listening to Sandra Bland speak in Malcolm Gladwell’s audiobook, Talking To Strangers, before her arrest and subsequent death in a Texas jail. Sandra Bland embraced her listeners with tender compassion, calling them “my Kings and Queens," and reminded them that they were worthy of love. Sandra knew about their pain, had walked in their shoes because she had struggled with a mental illness. I use ‘divorceling’ as a term of endearment, to describe people who are raw and hurting. They are learning to live without the security of their marriage. When I view people through this lens, I empathize rather than judge. I was divorced many years ago, so I have also walked in their shoes.
Dr. Buscho: What is it like to provide divorce coaching to divorcelings?
Ms. Cerney: I try to stay focused on the divorce. Divorcelings often cling to denial that offers comfort, false conclusions, and leads to irrational behavior. They may reframe their vindictive anger into noble intentions, such as "keeping the family together."
We work at expressing anger safely and appropriately because their anger draws out divorces and drives up legal bills. Divorcelings frustrate their attorneys — they do not always comply with the rules of divorce. Their behavior can increase or decrease the level of suffering during and after divorce for the entire family. Without help in gaining a broader perspective and personal accountability, they are at risk of becoming emotionally brittle and bitter. When there are children involved, my goal is to help divorcelings preserve and perpetuate the family promise — if possible.
Dr. Buscho: Is it possible to maintain any previously established "family promise" when a divorce is underway, or imminent?
Ms. Cerney: By "family promise," I mean the unique culture created by both parents, who pass down their shared values to their children. It’s a promise to the family that life will continue to be consistent and predictable. The family promise conveys hope to children that life will be as much as possible as it had been before the divorce.
For example, my ex and I had a ritual of reading to each of our children every night at bedtime. We valued learning and spending 1:1 time with each child at the end of the day. And so we made it a point to continue this routine even after separating. Preserving the family promise when separation and divorce occur tells the children “we are still a family, even though we are living in two homes.” When both parents commit to keeping their family promise, children feel more secure, cared for, and hopeful about the future.
Dr. Buscho: Can you share some examples of how divorcelings rationalize their misconduct during a divorce?
Ms. Cerney: Rather than face the emotional pain of divorce, divorcelings in denial refuse to engage in the changes and tasks related to divorce. This keeps them stuck, unable to progress through the stages of grief, as described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. “She’s going to come back, so I am not going to worry about getting my documents together …” Some distractions come into play to distort the reality of divorce, such as hypersexuality, substance abuse, overspending, overworking, and drug addiction. The most damaging tactic is the misuse of the court system to avoid accepting the divorce or to punish their spouse. Divorcelings may use their social networks to create false narratives about their spouse, to alleviate their humiliation about the divorce. Social media is misused as a vehicle to elicit sympathy and allegiance from friends and family. These tactics backfire, leading to the estrangement of the spouse who wants out of the marriage. The emotional damage to the family is difficult to overcome, and co-parenting becomes challenging if not impossible.
Dr. Buscho: Can you give an example of how these tactics affect the family?
Ms. Cerney: One case stands out as an example. Many years ago, I was a divorce coach on a collaborative divorce team working with a 30-ish couple with small children. The wife, “Lynn,” had been unhappy in the marriage for several years, and when she expressed her desire to divorce, her husband, “Dave,” refused to accept it. Though he knew his wife was unhappy, Dave never believed it would come to divorce.
Unable to manage his intense emotions, Dave convinced their pastor and their friends that Lynn was having an extramarital affair, which was untrue. Soon, Lynn’s friends stopped calling and declined playdates for their children, leaving Lynn isolated and confused. When Lynn learned about the false narrative Dave had created, she was devastated. She retreated into a deep depression.
For months, she was unable to care for her children as she had before. She was unable to focus and perform at work and eventually lost her job. Though it took almost a year, Lynn did eventually recover. The losses that this family experienced during and after divorce as a result of Dave’s behavior could have been avoided. The children eventually learned of their father’s duplicitousness as young adults, through friends. Learning this nearly destroyed their relationship with their father, and he continues to have a very tenuous relationship with them.
How Can You Avoid Becoming a Divorceling?
We talked about what would help prevent this type of breakdown, and to help preserve family promises for children whose parents are divorcing.
First, we agreed, the court system, the divorcing parents, and the professionals involved in a divorce need to see divorce in a less adversarial way. This is a personal family matter, not a criminal matter. A judge can never understand all of the contributing factors.
Second, I believe that every divorce can become a growth experience for both people. A trained and experienced divorce coach can help most people get through the legal process, recover emotionally, and create a successful co-parenting relationship. A coach can also help people learn about their contribution to the breakdown of the marriage so that they will be able to have a healthy future relationship.
Third, the stigma of divorce is perpetuated by our current system of divorce in the legal arena. The culture must understand the damage caused by the voyeuristic and savage side-taking peanut gallery.
We all can play a part in bringing change, by disengaging with the intrusive judgments and name-calling. We must start to respect the privacy of divorcing families. Only then will the heat of humiliation and shame lose its force. Let’s bring our empathic highest selves when our friends, family, or co-workers are going through a divorce.
Ann Cerney, LPCC, founder of Cerney Divorce Coach, is a collaborative divorce coach, co-parenting mediator, and marital discernment coach in the Bay Area. She works with individuals at all stages of divorce to create child-focused co-parenting solutions, and a more authentic and fulfilling life. Visit www.cerneydivorcecoach.com for more info.
Copyright © Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2020