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Divorce Island

How people change when getting divorced

Source: Photo: iStock
  • Your Your ex-wife’s different now, and dismisses what you have to say about the kids or undermines you as a parent.
  • Your can't get money from your ex-husband, something he never did in the past.
  • Your seven-year-old is wetting her bed again.
  • You discover that your eleven-year-old is sucking his thumb.
  • Your angry adolescent has become a goody two-shoes.
  • Your friends don’t call.
  • And, you are surprised by the people that do call.

What is going on? It’s Divorce Island.

Divorce Island:

Decades ago, there was a gaudy show called Fantasy Island, where strange things happened to regular people. Now, obviously, when going through a divorce, you are not deposited on an island. You are living in your home, or a new apartment. You have the same children. Your ex-husband or wife is the same person, and your neighborhood, family, and friends are the same neighborhood, family, and friends.

  • So, why do things feel so very different?

Your life has been transported to Divorce Island, where strange and often unsettling things happen to normal people.

Divorce Island Is A State of Mind:

When you go through a divorce, it’s like your family has been deposited on an island, where the normal rules of life no longer apply. People are less friendly, you can’t trust people you could depend on, and you aren’t quite yourself. My job has been to help people understand the rules of this island because they will be leaving it one day. And it is my hope that they leave it without making any critical mistakes.

Divorce has a beginning, middle and an end…in most cases.

The Beginning of a Divorce is marked by the deterioration of the marriage for one or both parties. Someone decides to leave. And usually, someone is left. This period is characterized by increasing anxiety, anger and sometimes depression, with the Leave-er usually hoping that the divorce will go smoothly. After all, he or she has been unhappy for a long time and wants a new chance. Or, the leave-er has discovered something that cannot be forgiven – an affair, a financial debacle etc. – and leaves with indignation. The Leave-ee—the one being left—is often in shock. He or she is unprepared for the abandonment that is to come and feels intense grief over with the ending of the marriage.

  • The Middle Period of a Divorce is the process – often taking a year or two - of re-configuring a family from a nuclear family into something else. In the best circumstances, that reconfiguration becomes what Constance Ahrons calls the Bi-Nuclear Family. In the worst cases, the family becomes fractured, and filled with anger, bitterness and destructive behavior for years to come. This middle period is critical because it is when both the Leave-er and the Leave-ee have regressed. Handle it well, and you will have better outcomes for everyone involved. Handle it poorly, and you and your ex may leave lasting scars.

Here is what makes this transitional Middle Period so difficult.

  • It is the period when your friends and family are unsure how to deal with you.
  • It is a period when your children require outstanding parenting and most parents can barely take care of themselves.
  • It is a period when money and custody are all at stake, and yet you have to co-parent for the sake of the kids.
  • It is a period when outside professionals and authorities enter your life, like therapists, lawyers, judges and law enforcement.
  • It is the period where people make the biggest mistakes because feelings are so charged, and the hurts are so deep.
  • It is period when you and your ex are not your best selves.
  • And, it is a period when many feel all alone, fearful, angry, embittered, and worried.

It is a Divorce Island.

  • The End Period of a Divorce does not commence with the legal ending of a marriage. It begins as the couple truly begins to let go and build new lives. It can happen quickly when both parties recognize that the marriage is over and remain committed to working with each other for the sake of the children or better, for the sake of what they had that was good. Or, it can commence years after a legal divorce, because one or both have been holding onto self-righteous rage or bitter resentment, or simply cannot move forward. Whether the End of a Divorce happens quickly or slowly, it marks the complete reconfiguration of the family and offers the children stability and hope.

Divorce Island – A Different Set of Rules:

During the Middle Period of Divorce, regression imposes itself across the board—on you, your ex, your children, and even on friends, family and community. It is critical to understand that you and your ex are not the same people during the divorce as you where beforehand, or when it’s all over. Anxious people become needy. Self-centered people become narcissistic; narcissistic people become more manipulative; sad people may become depressed; angry people may tip into violence, and suspicious people may become paranoid.

Regression is when stress drops us down to a lower level of functioning. It is temporary, but in the case of divorce, temporary can last a few year. And that is why bad mistakes happen.

For instance, a parent may dump on his children, “Don’t you realize what I am going through?” because he’s upset about the divorce. A parent may attempt to get her kids angry with their father because it feels good to the complaining parent. Children should not be put in a position to choose sides. And kids regress as well: some by becoming overly good, while others may deteriorate in school or develop anxiety or depression.

Regression Also Affects Those Around You:

Your best friend might stop calling. It’s too awkward for her, or she is worried that your divorce might somehow unsettle her marriage. Your in-laws cut you off, despite years of good will and love. You may feel like a pariah.

And yet, Divorce Island has its heroes as well. There are wonderful people who step up to help. There’s the brother or sister who remains by your side; a teacher who shows real interest in your child; a lawyer who does an especially good job, or a therapist, rabbi or pastor who gets it. Sometimes, there’s even an ex who comes through in ways that you had not imagined. Some people are able to make big changes because events demand it.

Divorce Island – What You Can Do:

The rules have changed, but when you realize that you are on Divorce Island, you can step up and do something to prevent problems before they happen. This is the premise behind The Intelligent Divorce Book Series and my online Intelligent Divorce Parenting Course.

And it is the premise behind important preventative measures that can make one’s time on Divorce Island less traumatic and more productive.

Consider Mediation or a Collaborative Divorce. These two methods reduce the conflict, manage the regression and tend to have good outcomes. They are not for everyone, but if good will is present and a decent amount of trust, Mediation and Collaborative divorce can make the stay on Divorce Island shorter and less painful.

Consider getting a good therapist. It is wise to have a completely neutral person in your life, to help you assess what is going on objectively. Everyone grieves in divorce, but are you depressed? Some people embrace the freedom of divorce, but are you damaging your children by your newfound involvement with yourself? And when your ex-husband or wife is particularly difficult, it is good to have someone with whom you can strategize.

Pay close attention to your children and THEIR needs. Spend time with them/ Support time with their other parent (obviously in cases of abuse it’s more complicated), and get them assessed if you think that their grief over the divorce is morphing into depression, oppositional behavior or anxiety to name a few common reactions to divorce.

Understand that your ex-husband or wife has changed. And, often for a very long time. Regression is profound on Divorce Island. Be aware that your ex may steal, lie, manipulate, feel sorry for him or herself, or sit arrogantly in self-righteousness. Be aware that nice people can sometimes do bad things. People who have a selfish streak can become outright mean, violent or destructive. Dependent people can become helpless which presents its own set of issues.

Expect the best. Plan for the worse. Good advice, legal and psychological can be of enormous help; and you’ll have to look at your behavior as well. The more you damage each other, the longer the family stays on Divorce Island; it’s sad but true. I often ask patients to get dispassionate about it all. To the best of your ability, prevent your ex-husband or wife from doing bad things, and make sure you are not contributing to the problem. This is the hard work of divorce – and divorce with children.

Find good community. We all need others, and there are people for you. A support group, some old friends, family, or perhaps, your church, synagogue or mosque. Go out with friends…and find the right friends. Loneliness is one of the markers of Divorce Island. Don’t let it dominate your life.

Forgive if you can. Or simply accept the radical lack of fairness in this world and, especially in divorce. Acceptance is the end stage of grief and that is the work of divorce; to grieve the lost years; to grieve the lost hope for a successful marriage. Accept that you have a life ahead and by grabbing it with both hands, you’ll commit yourself to giving your kids your very best. Build a bridge back to normal life.

Divorce Island – Conclusion:

This blog is a brief introduction to a very complex anthropology.

Yes, anthropology.

The Middle Period of a Divorce is unlike any other human experience, except, perhaps the sudden death of a spouse or a child. It throws you out of your comfort zone. And you have to deal with your ex, when he or she has been thrown out of a comfort zone as well.

The important thing to remember is that Divorce Island, for most families, is time limited.

  • It is over one day and everyone comes back to normal.
  • The key is not to make a mistake that you can’t take back.

Watch out for mistakes. Trust me, you will make plenty. But, make fewer mistakes by doing the hard work of divorcing intelligently.

The best mistake, after all, is the one you don’t make.

Get the help you need and keep your eye on the prize (a healthy divorce with healthy children).

Your efforts count.


More on Parenting During Divorce....


The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Kindle)

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Amazon)

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Yourself (Kindle)

The Intelligent Divorce- Taking Care of Yourself (Amazon)

Course - Raising Healthy Kids Despite Divorce: Sign Up


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