Moving Past Anger in Divorce
Breaking free of resentment helps you soar.
Posted April 28, 2015
Getting divorced is not a license to hate, a free pass to let loose your lowest impulses. Divorce is not the emotional equivalent of, say, being pregnant and breaking your diet to gorge on pasta in cream sauce for nine months straight (as I did while pregnant). It's not a year-long break from your efforts at kindness and compassion, an opportunity to express, unfettered, your darkest, angriest, most critical, or self-critical thoughts.
When I suggest this idea to people, most agree. Sure, they were angry for a while, but now they view their divorce as a sad reality, and are turning toward breaking free from the confines of a bad marriage, recreating a life they love, not stewing in anger at the wrongs of their once-spouse.
But some people are so steeped in anger, they do not want to let it go. Such was the case of the tall, striking woman I met at a party on Friday. “I just have a different idea of marriage,” she said. “It’s for life. It can be hard, but you still work at it. My parents have been married for 50 years. I just have a different idea of marriage than most.”
“No you don’t,” I said. “Most divorced people I’ve met planned to be married for life.”
She took a step back. “Everyone I know who is divorced said it was the worst, most devastating thing they’ve ever gone through. Everyone I know who is divorced says it would be better if he’d died.”
“You should make some new friends,” I said. “Broaden your circle to include people who are doing well after divorce.”
Now she was angry not only at her ex, but also now at me. Clearly I should work on my social skills, such as not telling people things they don’t want to hear. But I gazed up at this beautiful woman in her stylish dress and could see that while she looked strong, her anger was holding her back. She was trapped in a view of some “right” kind of life—and it was not the life she was leading. As long as she held that view, she was stuck.
I understood that she was upset. She was reeling. It can be unbelievably difficult to pull through divorce. More so than we’d guess. But moving past hate may be the most important step toward recovery.
Anger is a backward-looking emotion. It can keep you trapped in the past you no longer have. Any number of people I’ve met told me they could feel that their anger was making them sick. Or it was hurting their children. For these people, desire to protect their own health or the well-being of their children motivated them to move past anger.
Focusing on the negative magnifies it. Highlighting the negatives while ignoring the positives of your marriage is a type of “distorted thinking,” as cognitive behavioral psychologists call it. This “all or nothing” thinking can increase hostility and aggressive behavior, and has been strongly linked to depression and relapse into clinical depression.
As the Buddha said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
Everyone is angry at some point in a divorce. We’re angry at our spouse, ourselves, life in general. Anger can be useful, in small doses. A burst of intentional, managed anger can shift the power dynamic, put a bullying spouse on notice that the terms of this relationship will now change. Anger can sheild against amnesiac second-guessing, or longing for a marriage that made you deeply miserable. My own mother encouraged me to “be more angry!” at one point in my separation, thinking fury would bounce me out of sadness.
Anger does create an adrenaline rush. That rush has real value out on the savannah if you’re being chased by a tiger, or in the modern world, if a real physical threat looms over your child. “That’s the real purpose of anger,” said Steven Stosny, an anger expert in Maryland who has treated more than six-thousand clients for resentment, anger, abuse, and violence. “We’ve recycled it to protect fragile egos.” Anger may give a short-term boost, but it’s generally followed by a crash, and if prolonged, destroys relationships, happiness and health.
(Psychology Today did a great piece several years ago on Stosny’s work helping those incarcerated for violence come to terms with the hurt that underlies anger.)
Moving past anger can take time. Remembering all you do have—a gratitude practice—can help speed the process. I found that using my new freedom to pursue the life I actually wanted helped diminish anger, as did actively creating a new, positive relationship with my once-spouse. I also was able to gain empathy for his unhappiness in the marriage, and its end, with some distance.
Or, you could try that age-old standby of so many religions—forgiveness. A study led by the University of Dayton’s Mark Rye, published in the , showed that forgiveness was strongly correlated to positive divorce recovery. The divorced adults who reported that they’d forgiven an ex-spouse for wrong-doing showed greater existential wellbeing than those who harbored anger, and less depression.
I wish I'd had that study to hand out at the party last weekend.
For help moving on, check out Steven Stosny’s site, books and his HEALS program at compassionpower.com. Or subscribe to my first-ever newsletter, coming out this Friday! Read my suggestions for harnessing compassion and altruism to deal with difficult emotions that holidays (such as Mother's Day next month) can arouse in early separation or divorce. Subscribe at wendyparis.com.