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The 3 Worst Mistakes Men Make in Divorce

Common ways of derailing a divorce that can be avoided in most cases.

Key points

  • Men and women view divorce differently.
  • Men often make these same three mistakes without regard for the ramifications on others.
  • All three behaviors can be corrected if the man is open to making changes.

It’s never fair to make broad generalizations about any group of people, but, in my work with divorcing people for more than two decades, I’ve seen certain undeniable patterns show up over and over.

In this article, I’ll focus on some of the behaviors I’ve seen men use in their marital dissolution that can be mean-spirited, hurtful, and very short-sighted. While some of the behaviors can partially be attributed to biology (men and women have different brains, and we are wired for different tasks [e.g., men hunt, women nest]), I believe there are also reasons for this conduct that stem from how men are socialized.

Boys are taught to be tough and to own their power. Boys who cry are teased and bullied. Boys who show vulnerability are looked upon as weak. So, to be accepted culturally, men learn early that they need to toughen up, hide fear and sadness, and show up confidently in the world. Feeling sad, son? Cover it by acting tough. Males learn to disown certain emotions to maintain a “masculine” persona. Some of these boys will naturally grow into the kind of men who continue to see the world from this tough-guy perspective.

If you look through the lens of men’s tough, “I-can-handle-anything" upbringing, their mistakes make perfect sense.

These behaviors can work well in some settings such as career building, sales, and making difficult business decisions. The desire to remove oneself from fear and vulnerability may even work well in the courting stage of relationships because it entails opening oneself up for rejection and hoping to win the affections of another.

Yet, these same traits can be extremely destructive later on in relationships because being disconnected from your emotions and maintaining bravado don’t make for healthy dynamics in partnerships. They become even less healthy when those relationships end and it’s time to split assets, decide on custody arrangements, and cut ties. Let’s examine three common mistakes:

Mistake #1: Being All Business in the Divorce

Men are masters of compartmentalization, particularly if they use intellectualization as a coping skill. One woman said incredulously about her husband’s ability to compartmentalize, “If it’s not in front of my husband’s face, he doesn’t even think about it.”

In some ways, this is a good quality to have and one that I encourage women to develop more. When you compartmentalize, you are better at setting boundaries and not taking on the problems or feelings of others so personally.

In a divorce, however, it can be devastating for the woman on the receiving end of this trait. Soon-to-be-ex-wives who experience this wonder what happened. They still see these men as someone they used to love deeply, the father of their children, and someone they may still genuinely care about. Yet, the soon-to-be ex-husbands go from seeing the women they married as women who once held a special place in their hearts and the mothers of their children to, when papers are filed, seeing them strictly as their opponents.

Men may focus solely on the financial and business aspects of the settlement at the expense of the welfare of their kids or ex-wife.

An example of this happened recently when a client’s husband got his parents to write a letter stating that the house had been gifted to him alone. My client remembers the wedding card that clearly stated it was meant for both of them, but she hadn’t saved the card, so she had no proof, and he did (even if it was his parents going back on their original promise).

He was deemed by the judge to be the sole owner, so he got to stay in the 3,200-square-foot house with a big yard. Their two kids, ages 12 and 15, preferred to live most of the time with my client and only spend two nights a week with him. This meant that three people got displaced instead of just one, the kids lost their childhood home and their stability, and they had to live in cramped quarters (they moved to a 1,200-square-foot condo with no yard). Not the worst problem in the world to have, but certainly not the best outcome for the kids.

He could have kept the house as his separate property and let them all live there, but he saw that as a losing proposition, so, when it was proposed by a neutral financial professional, he shot it down.

Mistake #2: Being a Bully

This second mistake is not unrelated to the first one. After all, you can’t bully someone unless you objectify them. This entails removing yourself emotionally from the other person. Road rage is a great example of this. But bullying adds a component of malice that being all business does not.

Bullies purposely cause harm to others through humiliation, fear, or other tactics such as social isolation to dominate and control. Because the courts are set up to be adversarial, litigation is a bully’s playpen. In a divorce, which, at its worst, is about winners and losers, the bully can thrive. And, if the bully has money, proceedings can be dragged out for months, if not years. Bullies enjoy the fight, sometimes at a tremendous expense.

Seeing your soon-to-be-ex as the opposition allows you to go in for the kill and not focus on the damage being done in the process. One woman ended up so flattened by her husband’s behavior that she withdrew her dissolution petition and resigned herself to stay in the loveless, lifeless marriage just to avoid his wrath. He had warned her at about $100,000 that he would “crush” her, and he was true to his word. At every turn, she was out-maneuvered and out-spent; he had no compunction about lying and cheating to get what he wanted. Being a caring, soft-hearted woman, she was no match, and, so, she submitted.

For those who do push through, there is a heavy price to pay. Often these women end up asking for less just to get the divorce over with. The bully is rewarded by what he sees as “winning,” but he is blind to the wreckage he has caused, not only to her but to the kids as well. Sometimes extended family and friends get dragged into the mix.

Another woman thought trying to be “nice” would be the right strategy. She told me she wanted to have a collaborative divorce so her husband would have to be kind to her. She hoped that if she showed him she didn’t want to be aggressive, he would follow suit. It was a lovely thought; however, it was clear early on that he was a bully who wasn’t going to cooperate. She ended up having to hire a bulldog attorney who wasn’t intimidated by her husband to get her through the ordeal.

Mistake #3: Moving on too Soon

Divorce is a hard and often isolating experience. It can put people in touch with core attachment wounds like no other process anyone will go through in their adult lives. It is for this reason that someone who doesn’t want to feel sadness, loss, or fear of being alone would understandably seek out something such as a new partner to take their mind off the pain.

However, when you’re at your worst and most distressed, you are not likely to pick a top-notch partner. Instead of an “I-do” partner, it might be more like a “You’ll-do” one—someone, for now, to get you through those lonely nights and weekends.

Like any mood-altering substance, this new woman in your life may take the edge off, but she doesn’t really solve your existential loneliness. It’s no more effective than putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound.

Yet, time and time again, we see men smack dab in the middle of another relationship before their divorce is anywhere near final. Once again, compartmentalizing may be the reason: Men can separate the emotions they feel about their marriage from emotions they experience in a new relationship. They can also forget about their exes even when simultaneously divorcing them.

Generally, men can also have relationships that are purely sexual without the emotional entanglements while women have a harder time doing the same.

All three of these errant behaviors can be corrected if there is a desire to make changes. If there is an underlying personality disorder such as narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder, or simply emotional immaturity, these mistakes can be much more challenging to rectify. In my next article, I will share more about the problems these behaviors cause as well as some strategies for solving them.

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