Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Leo Averbach: Diagnosing Malignant Divorce

The discussion continues with Leo Averbach's words on the malignant divorce

The Intelligent Divorce book series, online course , newsletter and radio show is a step by step program to handling divorce with sanity - from raising healthy kids to dealing with an impossible ex.


Leo Averbach is a South African writer, potter, translator, teacher, and divorcee based in Israel. He is our guest blogger today and has contributed a response piece to our discussion on the Malignant Divorce. His narrative provides us a first-hand experience of what an emotional situation this can truly be:

The chief hallmarks of a malignant divorce are: one, the speed at which it occurs, and two, its ferocity.

It is astounding how quickly relative amity turns into outright enmity when divorce is in the air. One minute you are functioning as an ordinary couple; the next you are at one another's throats. All resentments and past accounts are called in, with no holding back. Even the one diaper change you failed to make seventeen years ago is not forgotten.

The shift from knowing the marriage is holding to sensing its breakup is explosive. All the emotions and forces that were contained or constrained by the marital framework are released when the marriage disintegrates, like a dam bursting. The pent up anger accumulated over years comes gushing out. In the blink of an eye, now rampant feelings turn into their dark shadow, their antithesis: love becomes hate; security becomes insecurity; what was recently sexually attractive becomes repulsive.

A question arises: were these feelings always there just waiting to come out or are they the product of the breakup? Agonizingly for the 'victims', answers are not immediately apparent.

One of most destructive traits of a malignant divorce is the tendency to renounce everything you had and cherished before. Somehow the years of being together, what you built up, the family you nurtured are all swept away in one fell swoop. They are not, of course, but that is the feeling you are left with when your spouse announces, "It's over." It is akin to wiping out the last ten or twenty years of your life. And in the event of betrayal, questions are asked of the most precious commodity of all, love. Does his/her infidelity invalidate the love we once had?

In the best cases, the two members of the couple recognize that the relationship has ended, value their achievements and mourn the loss. But a malignant divorce turns everything sour and you just want to be shot of the whole lot and have nothing to do with anything that he/she was part of, especially the intimacy. It all feels horribly contaminated so both parties try to distance themselves from anything they had in common, sometimes even their kids. They now count everything they had, personal, material and emotional, as 'loss', loss on a grand scale.

Divorce is heavily weighted in favor of malignancy because it involves fundamental, powerful emotions and drives: love, sex, jealousy, betrayal, anger, protection of children, physical and financial security. Once the emotions are threatened by the dissolution of the relationship they erupt with a vengeance. Hence the ferocity.

Because these deep emotions are fundamental to our being, our response to a threat to them is equally fundamental, equally primitive - primordial. And without trust, the adhesive of all normal relationships, which has inevitably broken down, the floodgates are open, breakup follows and things rapidly descend into acrimony, hostility and chaos.

Daggers are drawn, both figuratively and literally. A frenzied few are willing to kill for what is close to their hearts and their deeds are recognized as "crimes of passion." More often both parties make do with being thoroughly nasty and screaming at each other; neither is listening. Dialogue has gone out of the window. Accusations, blame and threats become the sole mode of communication.

Issues arise one by one: the house, the kids, assets, friends. In fact, everything becomes an issue, a source of conflict, whether it's an important matter like child-care arrangements or a trivial question like who is going to get which photo album. These 'issues' cannot be dealt with because each party is adamant, there is nil room for compromise and the wretched couple is dragged deeper into the mess of their own making.

To top it all, the sad irony of divorce is that the anger expressed, the extent of the malignancy, exists in direct proportion to the difficulty of breaking the bonds. In other words, the force needed to blow apart a closely-knit family unit with kids is tremendous. Consequently, reasonably decent, long marriages can easily end in toxic divorces.