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Combat Anger With Empathy in a Good Divorce

Letting go of even warranted anger is a potent survival skill.

Source: Pixabay

Probably everyone is angry at some point in a divorce. We’re angry at our spouse, ourselves, life in general. Anger may be protective, in small doses. A burst of intentional, managed anger can shift the power dynamic, put a bullying spouse on notice that the terms will now change. Anger can inhibit amnesiac second-guessing. My own mother encouraged me to “be angry!” at one point in my separation, thinking fury would bounce me out of sadness.

When I was going through my divorce, and writing a book about it, I created Seven Principles of Parting to help me get through the difficult transition. Principle of Parting #5 is "Combat anger with empathy."

Anger can give you a turbo-boost of energy, but a crash usually follows.  When prolonged, anger destroys relationships and health.  Anger’s adrenaline rush served a critical role out on the savannah, if a tiger attacked, or even in the modern world, when a real physical threat looms over your child.  

“That’s the real purpose of anger.  We’ve recycled it to protect fragile egos,” says Steven Stosny, an anger expert and family violence consultant in Maryland, and author of "Love Without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry, or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One." 

Stosny has spent years helping maximum-security prisoners learn to manage the anger that landed them behind bars, and his Compassionate Parenting course is mandated in some courts.  Anger, he asserts, is basically hurt wearing a mask. Even criminal aggression can stem from feeling wounded, and from a fragile sense of self-worth. Many people mistakenly equate anger with power, which Stosny calls “a tragic substitution of power for value. The urge to devalue other people comes from feeling devalued yourself.”

Stosny focuses on compassion as a way to lessen anger.  He advises clients to identify the pain under the rage, and to reconnect with their values and compassionate, loving acts, such as their efforts to care for their children.

“Compassion and kindness make you feel more humane and valuable. Then you don’t feel as vulnerable, and you don’t need the resentment. It doesn’t justify someone else’s bad behavior. You still need to address the behavior. But you can do it in a compassionate and kind way.”

Many divorced people I met spoke about the healing power of another surprisingly powerful internal shift—forgiveness.  More than one person told me they’d come to forgiveness through Al-Anon, the support group for friends and family of alcoholics. 

Conjuring up kindness, especially for a spouse who has been unfaithful, may feel like “giving in” or giving up well-warranted indignation. But letting go of even warranted anger is a potent survival skill. We often assume that “survival of the fittest” means that those who fought hardest lived and passed on their aggressive genes. But social scientists from various disciplines increasingly highlight the evolutionary value and downright might of pro-social traits such as empathy, cooperation, forgiveness, and compassion. Today, divorced parents often share childcare, basically functioning as a village of two. Encouraging and even contributing to your former spouse’s well-being is in your best interest. 

Or, 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.”

Your ex has the anger problem? You can’t “teach” your ex self-worth, but you could alter your own behavior.  “If you stop the way you’re acting, it will change how the partner reacts to you. Because you’re in an interactive loop, you can improve the interaction to some degree unilaterally,” says Stosny.

I’ve heard again and again how one person transformed a hostile divorce, perhaps by offering appreciation, encouragement, or unexpected praise. “One thing my clients taught me is the power of one,” says Indiana-based social worker MJ Murray Vachon. “It only takes one person to have a pretty good divorce, unless there’s alcoholism or mental illness. Even if you think it doesn’t, it does.” 

Check out "Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well" to hear how others let go of anger and learned empathy for their exes and themselves.