Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Are Divorcing People Often Jerks?

It truly is human nature

As I was chatting with two divorced friends one day, they both agreed whole-heartedly that they hated who they had become during their divorce. To say it didn't bring out the best in them was an understatement.

But does divorce bring out the best in anyone? Is the concept of people being at their best and divorce oxymoronic?

I've yet to see someone get through their marital dissolution with grace so I began to try to get to the bottom of why this was so - other than the obvious fact that people's families were coming apart! Here are my thoughts on the matter:

20th Century psychologist, Abraham Maslow, developed a chronology of human needs as a result of studying the behavior of chimpanzees. He observed that there were five distinct levels of needs these chimps had - survival, safety, love, esteem and actualization.

Maslow discovered that when the chimps had their lowest needs (survival and safety) met, they acted differently than the chimps that were worried about where their next meal was coming from or whether they would be able to feed their young.

Operating from scarcity, the chimpanzees were aggressive, angry and selfish. When cared for, the chimps were much more cooperative, giving and inter-relational.

This phenomenon is true for humans as well.

When we humans have enough to eat and drink and when we feel safe, we can then focus on surrounding ourselves with loving people. Once we feel loved, we can concentrate on giving and receiving esteem. Ultimately, when we have all of our lower needs met, we become actualized and can then give back in greater ways to our communities.

Marriage was designed to help us get all of our lower needs met and, ideally, to help us become self-actualized. For most people in the Western world, it does just that.

As much as marriage helps us meet many of our needs, divorce endangers our welfare with these needs. That is one of the reasons marital dissolution is such a challenging transition and why people become "a completely different person than the one you married."

Whether real or imagined, all five levels of needs each person has are threatened. Most people facing a divorce will undergo drastic changes in financial, social, physical and familial well-being.

Survival Needs: Transitioning from a one or two income household with a set amount of expenses to then having two households with double the amount of expenses threatens each person's level of survival. Lack of financial welfare (or fear of not having enough) doesn't bring out the best in anyone.

Safety Needs: Being a single person in the world often makes people feel more vulnerable and triggers the safety needs.

Love Needs: The loss of the person or even of the dream of "happily ever after" affects people's sense of lovability and takes away their love object.

Esteem Needs: This phenomenon goes beyond the couple's relationship into the realm of friends and extended family as well. Because we live in a culture that reveres marriage, those who divorce say they often feel marginalized and even ostracized by others, even family and friends.

Actualization Needs: Finally, because divorcing people are focused on the change in their wellbeing, their role and their status, they rarely are able to give to others the way they normally might. It can often take years to get back to a place of actualization following divorce.

Add to the loss of your marriage, having to deal with the ominous court system, having to shell out thousands of dollars, having to move, go back to work or the tremendous task of having to co-parent, and it's a recipe for mental and emotional agitation, to say the least.

It makes sense, then, that divorce would bring out the worst in people and this partly explains why the process is often so contentious.

What can be of tremendous help to clients is knowing why they are feeling these extreme emotions, knowing that it's normal (and even expected), and knowing that it will eventually pass.

Life will eventually find a new normal and they will get back to operating from higher need levels again. It just takes time.

No part of this publication may be reproduced without the express written permission of the author. Failure to comply with these terms may expose you to legal action and damages for copyright infringement.

More from Psychology Today

More from Susan Pease Gadoua L.C.S.W.

More from Psychology Today