6 Reasons Some Divorced Couples Don't Act Divorced

Talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

Posted Jun 27, 2019

Roman Motizov/Shutterstock
Source: Roman Motizov/Shutterstock

A couple came into my office, sat down with a sense of urgency, and began to scream at one another. They cursed, criticized, and appeared ready to have a fistfight. They seemed to have disagreements over the usual suspects: money, in-laws, and childrearing.

A typical day at the office for me, but with one exception: Usually when a couple presents this level of relational tension, their sex life is raised as a specific point of contention. But it wasn’t. When I inquired about sex, they looked horrified: “No, we don’t have sex anymore,” they answered simultaneously.

Continuing my evaluation, I asked the couple how long they have been together. They answered 16 years. Then I asked whether they were married, and the woman answered, "We were married at one time, but we have been divorced for eight years."

This couple was divorced, at least on paper—but by other standards, they were behaving as if they were a troubled married couple. And while it's not so rare for a family therapist to be approached by a divorced couple seeking extra help ironing out childcare issues, for example, a marital therapist rarely experiences such a dynamic.

This begs the question: Why do some couples continue to behave post-divorce the way they did when they were engaged in a troubled marriage?

The following six reasons may underlie this type of couple’s curious behavior:

1. Competitiveness.

Unfortunately, the divorce process is an adversarial one, and some people do not like to lose. The more competitive the partners, the less likely they will be satisfied with a legal process that demands compromise. I have rarely met a competitive individual who was satisfied with the outcome of their divorce process.

No matter how fair the process might have been, highly competitive spouses tend to feel taken advantage of. This type of couple is more likely to continue to fight the good fight in order to proclaim themselves the winner. But as we know, the only winners in such a battle may be the lawyers.

2. Rage.

Some partners take advantage of the legal process by continuously filing petty motions against an ex-spouse long after a divorce has been granted. This appears to be a form of harassment that the legal system seems to have trouble guarding against.

A former client told me that her ex-husband filed a new complaint against her every year. A judge finally warned her ex to stop filing but refused to order him to cover her legal fees. While competitiveness can underlie this behavior, I have found it to be born out of the non-initiating spouse’s narcissistic rage: “How dare you leave me?”

3. Loss.

Some people cannot tolerate the pain that often accompanies loss and consequently have a great deal of difficulty “letting go.” These individuals may have suffered significant losses or experienced abandonment earlier in their lives. Continuing to fight with an ex-spouse may paradoxically serve as a valued connection.

4. Guilt.

Some ex-spouses feel bad about having initiated a divorce and may have the need to do penance by allowing their ex-partner to hang on longer than is appropriate. However, they may simultaneously feel angry and trapped by their obligation.

A female client said: “My ex-husband was devastated when I left. I feel so guilty that I try and make up for leaving by remaining connected to him. But I also find myself angry at him for not being stronger. I think I am trapped by my guilt.”

5. Love.

Some ex-spouses are still in love after a divorce. Because they cannot seem to tolerate their differences when together, or know how to show their love appropriately, they may stay connected by disagreeing or fighting.

There was a hit song in the 1970s by Jim Stafford called "Spiders and Snakes." I remember Stafford explaining that the song was about a boy who had a crush on a girl, but the only way he knew how to show it was to offer her spiders, snakes, and such. This did not work too well then, and it still doesn’t.

6. Boundaries.

People who grew up in families that had diffuse boundaries may have difficulty maintaining clear and healthy boundaries following a divorce. For example, it is not unusual for one or both spouses to continue to pay more attention, positive or negative, to their ex-spouses than their current partners. It is as if they never re-married in the first place.

I know that there are other reasons that couples continue to maintain post-divorce dynamics that reflect their marital interactions, and some are of a practical nature (e.g., economic reasons). In this post, I have attempted to present some of the underlying psychological reasons to explain this concept. Regardless of the potential validity of these reasons, there is something inherently sad about each one. 

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