Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

When Divorce or Separation Turns Ugly

89,785 views

When Divorce or Separation Gets Ugly

Ending a long term relationship is always hard but sometimes it gets ugly – really ugly – despite the most courageous efforts for it to be otherwise.

It doesn’t always take two to tango – unless you count one to set the pace and one to get dragged along in a savage tailwind. Of course, when there are two people acting to maim, the ugliness will be all the uglier, but it only takes one person being nasty, unreasonable and manipulative to turn a relationship malignant.

Ending a bad relationship doesn’t make the toxicity immediately wash away. Sometimes it will get worse before it gets better but always, if the relationship was a bad one, it will be worth it. Walking away takes self-respect, self-love and courage and is the only way to position yourself (and your kids if you have them) for the life you deserve.

You can’t change other people, but you would know that by now – it’s probably this wisdom that walked you out the door. If your divorce has turned into a slugfight, there are ways to look after yourself (and your kids) until you reach solid ground – which you will. 

  1. Be honest. And don’t let them change you.

    This is important. It’s also really hard. Ask yourself, with an open heart, if you’re doing everything you can to be reasonable. None of us are perfect and a divorce can make the best of us act … how to put it without losing you … in ways that we might not be proud of.

    If I’m being honest (and this is the time for it) I’m not divorced but I can tell you that I’ve had fights with my husband where I’ve been a bit of an arse for a day or so following – not because he’s deserved it, but because I’ve felt so jaded. It may have happened more than once. But definitely probably less than 10 50. I’m sure it will happen again. High emotion, shame and heartache can steal you – I know – but don’t hand over your dignity by acting in ways that are beneath you. Sometimes it’s the only thing they can’t touch. Be honest, brave and always self-respectful. If you’re acting like someone you wouldn’t want to go camping with, stop.

  2. A divorce is many things. Failure is not one of them. 

    The end of a relationship doesn’t mean your decision to be with your ex-partner in the first place was flawed. The success of a relationship isn’t determined by how long it lasts. The investment of love and energy in a relationship will always be worth it, but it won’t necessarily guarantee forever. The past is the past and sometimes love, time, commitment and desire don’t stretch as far ahead in years as we’d like them to – and that’s okay. 

    People change. Circumstances change. Relationships change. In a Harvard study, psychology researcher Daniel Gilbert and colleagues found that people underestimate how much they will change in the future. We change a lot. Sometimes it’s in the same direction as the person we love and sometimes we veer sharply in a different one. Sometimes we wake up next to each other and realise we couldn’t be further apart. It happens. It’s part of being human.  

  3. You don’t have to do it all. You just have to do enough.

    Life changes sharply when a relationship breaks down. You don’t have to do everything the way you used to. You don’t have to do everything, fullstop. You just have to do enough. Figure out what that looks like and go with it. You deserve the freedom that comes from that.

  4. See the response of your ex-partner for what it is.

    When a marriage or relationship breaks down it will likely bring shame, and breathe life into every fear of not being good enough, normal enough, successful enough and perhaps most heartbreakingly, loveable enough. People have all sorts of responses to shame, some of which are completely unfathomable to those of us looking in from the outside. When shame is involved, people will do anything to protect themselves. Here are a few. You might also recognise some in yourself from time to time.The more awareness you have around what you’re doing, the more capacity you’ll have to stop it:

    ♦    They might be cruel. 

    If you were the one to leave, there’s probably been a shift in power from your ex-partner to you. It’s likely he or she will be feeling disempowered, ineffective and small. Cruelty is an attempt to reverse this by shrinking you. You can’t stop them trying. But you can stop it working.

    ♦    They might criticise your choices and accuse you of being out of control.

    You’re not out of control – just out of their control. Any choice you make in independence will send a message like a slap that yor’re no longer under their influence. As with anything, when what people have always done (control, disrespect, manipulate) stops working, they will do it even more before they stop. It’s human nature. Hold tight and keep going.

    ♦    They might manipulate.

    Manipulation is a way for people to get what they want without being rejected, by taking away the option to say, ‘no’. For people who manipulate, ‘no’ doesn’t feel like a rejection of a request, it feels like a rejection of them. As a result, they’ll do whatever is necessary to get their needs met without putting themselves in the position of being rejected. You might not be together any more, but you’ll still have things that they want – the kids, attention, co-operation, your happiness, your power. Sadly for some people your disrespect will be easier to handle than your ‘no’.

    ♦    They might get angry.

    Anger always exists to protect more vulnerable feelings such grief, fear or inadequacy from pushing to the surface. When a relationship ends, there will be feelings of deep loss, sadness and disconnection that can feel frighteningly bottomless. It’s much easier to attach these intense feelings to a target (you) than to acknowledge them..

    ♦    They might try to control you.

    All control is an attempt to relieve anxiety – around uncertainty, around not getting what they want, about things not going to (their) plan, about losing you. It’s not the best way to go about it and there are plenty of people who deal with their anxiety without needing to control people, but some people don’t know how to do it any other way.

  5. Just because it feels bad to stay, doesn’t mean it will feel good to leave.

    Even if it’s a change that’s going to be good for you, there will still be huge life adjustments that need to be made. Don’t take bad feelings as a stop sign. You’re acting with courage and positioning yourself for what you deserve – a life filled with love, happiness and security. Keep going. Take the discomfort as evidence of the gap between the life you’ve been living and the life you’re about to. That’s a good thing. You deserve more than you’ve had.

  6. Kids: The opportunity to teach them.

    If you have kids, know that you’re teaching important lessons, no matter what. Even if your ex partner is being a toxic, nasty, manipulative [insert your own word here], the way you deal with that will model important life lessons for your kids. If everything is always honey and roses, kids won’t have as many opportunities to learn about the challenges that come with living life. Here are some of the lessons you’ll be teaching:

    They’ll see: A relationship gone bad.
    Teach them: ‘The good ones are worth the greatest risk. The bad ones always have something to teach. It’s always okay to walk away.’

    They’ll see: Their other parent is good to them and awful to you. 
    Teach them: ‘You won’t get on with everyone – and that’s okay. You don’t have. It doesn’t mean the other person is bad, sometimes they can be wonderful. It just means the combination of the two of you doesn’t work.’

    They’ll see:  The people they love and depend on get sad. 
    Teach them: ‘Even grown-ups get sad sometimes but that doesn’t stop them from being happy most of the time. I’ll be okay and so will you. People feel better after crying because it’s the body’s way of feeling better.’ (According to biochemist William Frey, sad tears contain stress hormones and toxins that accumulate in the body during stress. Crying is the body’s way of cleansing itself.)

    They’ll see: People aren’t always nice to each other and sometimes, they’ll try to turn you against people you care about.

    Teach them: ‘When people say mean things it’s always because they’re trying to make someone feel as bad as they do. Just because someone says things, doesn’t mean those things true. People have all sorts of reasons for saying mean things and sometimes the truth isn’t one of them.

    They’ll see: Sometimes life gets hard.
    Teach them: ‘The greatest lessons come from the hardest things. Whenever you go through anything difficult you’ll always – always – come through wiser, stronger and braver than you were before. Wherever there’s a dip a rise will always follow.’

  7.  Have self compassion.

    It doesn’t work when other people are cruel to you (because you have too much self-respect for that, right) and it doesn’t work when you’re mean to yourself. Self-critism, self-blame and your inner self critic will fall you if you let it. There is a part in all of us that’s vulnerable, receptive and open to love, approval and being noticed. Speak to yourself as though that part is always listening, because it is. Make sure the things you say to yourself are kind, loving and compassionate. If it’s not your way to be kind to yourself, try it – and watch things change for you. 

  8. Accept that it’s going to get unacceptable.

    Unhappiness comes from the divide between what we expect and what we have. Let go of thinking that this whole situation might feel okay soon. You’ll find a freedom in that. If the situation is bad enough, it might not feel okay until the kids are grown and left home and there’s no need for you to talk to each other any more.

    If your ex is truly awful, their attempt to win at any cost may be relentless. They’ll decide on the issue and the fight will be on – money, custody, how awful you are, whose turn it is to have the kids for Christmas, whether you should be breathing in first or out first.

    More than likely, the topic will be irrelevant. The issue will be one of control, probably born from losing you. Keep your perspective and remember what’s important. Being good for your kids will always be more important than winning the fight. Let them see you modeling resilience, strength, compassion and emotional muscle. You’ve got it in you. It might take all you’ve got, but it‘s in you. There will be things said and things done that you just can’t control. Fight the important ones, let the others go. Be who you are and let the truth fight it out for you.

We all have within us the courage, strength and wisdom to deal with the challenges that life sends our way. Trust this and reach for it. It’s there. Nothing we go through is ever wasted and it’s important to be open to the learnings. Rather than, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ try, ‘What can I learn from this?’ 

You might lay awake at night, cry in the shower, scream in the car and fall apart in front of your closest friends. You might wonder how it got to this and when it will end. Just hold steady and keep moving moving forward. When you put yourself on the right path, good things will always come.

You might also like TOXIC PEOPLE: 12 THINGS THEY DO AND HOW TO DEAL WITH THEM.

See here to understand why a breakup feels like it does: YOUR BODY DURING A BREAKUP: THE SCIENCE OF A BROKEN HEART

Like this article?

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly round up of our best articles

65 Comments

Jorge

My wife had been diagnosed with PMDD over five years and had been on meds. This past December she became psychotic and violent in front of our kids. This was the third major episode she has had but first since she was diagnosed. Had to call police, possible hospitalization, but I didn’t have heart. Told cops to let her go with some friends, a married couple, friends of hers, not mine. The next day they initiated the silent treatment. I found out she was off her meds and drinking alcohol. The couple have interfered with my attempts to speak with her. Only one opportunity to speak with her in person, the wife called the police to interrupt the conversation.
So I’m in divorce proceedings since a week after her breakdown, and my wife is not on her meds, my children are suffering, and I haven’t spoken to her in six months. It’s ugly. we were very much in love before this happened. I’m still in shock.

Reply
Karen Young

Jorge I’m sorry this has happened to you and your family. PMDD can be an awful intrusion, but it can be managed with meds and lifestyle changes. I wish you could love somebody into healing, but none of us can do that. You sound clear about your decision, as heartbreaking as it is for you and your kids. Hold them close – they’re going to need you, and you them.

Reply
MT

This article helped me so much. I am going threw a divorce now, and its every bit of what I just read. I was beginning to doubt myself. Wondering if I made the right choice. The truth is I did make the right choice. The way my children and I were living was not a healthy life. This article helped me. My divorce is turning very ugly, and I did not know how to sheild my children from all the negativity coming from the other party. After reading this I am reassured that I am taking the right steps to getting my children and myself threw this hard time. Thank you.

Reply
Julie

I want to thank you for your words of support and strength. I am going through a divorce and reading your article hits every reason why I am divorcing and what I am going through. I have saved this article on my phone so that I can read this for strength and encouragement during my process. Very well written and insightful.

Reply
Jessie

Oh Julie, this article affected me the same way ! It’s just what I needed to read. I am going thru a Divorce also. And I plan to print this out so I can read it over and over again when I need reminding. Thank You Karen Young for writing this !

Reply
Bryan

I almost stopped reading after you stated that you were still married. I am still sceptical about taking advice about divorce from someone whom has not experienced it.

Reply
Karen Young

Bryan of course you are very welcome to stop reading whenever you want to, but just to let you know … I experienced my parents’ divorce, I have counselled children of divorce (as children and adults), couples on the verge of divorce, people who have been through a divorce, and I have walked step by step beside people I love as they move through messy divorces.

Reply
Katerina

I truly appreciate your article. I have been married for 23 years. I’m 57 and learned my husband, 65, has had a now 73 year old lover for years. I left, realizing he’s been gaslighting me for such a long time. He’s putting me through hell with this divorce since I filed. Your words of courage, self-love and self-respect to get to the life I deserve have given me the light I need. Mant thanks!

Reply
Keesha

Thank you, I can relate and I appreciate this article so much. Thank you for your expertise in this area as I suffer through my divorce.

Reply
Shelly

Thank you for publishing this article. It has given me a lot to think about. My soon to be ex-husband has been very difficult to deal with! I read # 4 and saw parts of him (cruel, criticizing, and anger) and perhaps even a some things about myself (manipulation and control)?

I don’t know if I really am being manipulative or controlling or not…I do acknowledge that I don’t handle situations well where I have no control over my own life…and divorce and the legal system give a person a REAL dose of those things. When I try to talk to him about coming up with reasonable solutions…he is stone cold heartless. We originally promised that we’d walk away from it as friends…I still want that…but maybe now that he has a new girlfriend he doesn’t??? He won’t even talk to me. He won’t give me the documents that I am requesting and is making this so much harder than it has to be. Then I wondered if that is HIS WAY of controlling? Of manipulating? If he has all the ‘carrots’ (paperwork, house, assets, money) and I have to keep coming around groveling…and he gets to just go “NO”…then maybe that’s his way of exerting control? I never thought of him as a controlling person…although most everything in our life revolved around him, his family, etc. He’s just become so detached and unavailable in every way. That is what makes me wonder if I am somehow being manipulative by proposing solutions and controlling by being upset all the time that things aren’t going according to plan, etc.

So, generally speaking…I feel like I’m getting “mind f*ck*d” or “gaslighted.” I don’t want to be a bad person. I want to walk away from all of this with my integrity in tact…having been fair…and that I didn’t let the marriage and divorce break me. But is is SO hard. It’s been going on a year now…with no end in sight.

I do think that your article makes sense though…and I will examine my heart on all points and decide where to go from here. I may just have to completely let go of the hope that we’ll ever be friends. Twelve years was a long time to be with him though…and I did so love him…but ultimately maybe that’s not enough. 🙁

Reply
Anon

I am going through a divorce with an incredibly unreasonable ex. He has held up the divorce at every opportunity, denied receiving divorce papers, will not fully disclose, I dont know where he lives now, refused mediation. Continually sends me demeaning texts when I try to negotiate reasonably. It is totally soul destroying. It was a very controlling, emotionally abusive marriage & I left when it got physical after 30 years together, 21 married. It is so true that the attempt to control/abuse does not stop after you leave. So hard to watch your children (14 & 17) spend time with a man who continues to treat you so badly and is incapable of being reasonable. We are going to Court now. I have no doubt he will try to drag this process also, costing us thousands in the process. But I will get my divorce & hopefully the monies Im entitled to eventually. Like the article said I dont think things will evet get truly better for me until the kids have grown as I cannot cut the ties completely and all I really want is never to hear from the man again so I can live in peace.

Reply
John

This is a great article. Particularly the bit about kids. I have two, and have just separated from my wife (my choice – it had just gone bad). and I have not acted in a way I’m proud of but things are getting better because I realised that I love my wife, even if I know 100% I can’t be in a relationship with her. Since then I’ve started to feel empathy for her and try my best to act in a way I’m happy for my kids to see.

Reply
Debra

My younger brother just went through 2 years of divorce court. The lawyers got $80,000 between them. My brother had to pay for a portion of hers…even though she filed. He got served on Christmas Eve. Never expecting it. It hurt my heart as much as his to see him have to go through it. It was so dirty. It’s over now and he can move on. Sometimes you just have to hit bottom before you can move forward. I tell him that he is so lucky that at 56 yrs. he now has a clean slate to write whatever he wants; U-turns are allowed and he has the power to make choices to be happy/or not. It was a 30 yr. marriage and he will pay alimony for the rest of his life. I’m sure there are many people that wish they could divorce each other but it’s expensive & families get fractured. I divorced at 23 in 1973 after only one year being married. Marriage just wasn’t for me. I felt like a caged rabbit.
We remained friends and stay in touch. I’ve dated through the years but I know marriage isn’t for me. I love being free.
Good luck to those that make the decision to make a change in their life. It takes courage…..and careful budgeting!

Reply
Bruce

I am ADHD, I suffer from major depression, I’m bipolar and very sensitive to what I perceive to be negative criticism.
I am on anti-depression meds, mood stabilisers (and the whole kitchen sink) which I use very diligently, knowing that I have a problem and that without them I would be even worse off than what I am. For the past 15 years I am and have been seeing a psychiatrist and a psychologist who have helped tremendously, teaching me who I am and how to deal with me but problem is “talk is cheap” and to practice what they preach is just something I battle to do making me hate the me who I am even more after I have had yet another outburst knowing full well that that what I did was wrong and hurtful but revenge is my weapon and unfortunately for me a very evil weapon that I wish I could throw away as far as the east is to the west.
We all know the saying that goes, “it’s never me that is at fault, it’s always the other person” Well I fit the profile of never being wrong to a T and all I do is pick fights, or so I’m told.
My current wife (number three) has not only been my wife and partner for six years but also my best friend, and me hers in spite of all the fighting…………… until now. Finally she has put her foot down and called it a day which has broken me to the bone giving me butterflies in my stomach just thinking of what tomorrow might bring. I also know that what I am doing at the moment is probably the worst thing I can possibly do but I’m spend as much time with her as possible begging for a second chance making all sorts of promises which a few hours later frustrated out of my mind say things which drive the dagger in yet deeper.
I know all the answers to the questions and advice you are going to give me which I welcome but just knowing that you guys have taken the time to read my sob story makes me feel not alone. Thanks for that

Reply
Tony

My wife left me after nearly two years of marriage and my daughter has just turned 5 months old. I’m devastated as I’ve been married before, my wife says I’ve been untrustworthy and all agreements are about my ex or I’ve been accused of having affairs which is not true. Anyhow she’s moved out and I’ve given her space only to text or call to see if my daughter is okay, a 5 month can’t call me. I keep the calls brief for a few minutes every 2 days. I love my dearly and my daughter and have put some much effort into this marriage that I feel numb. I’ve beg her not to divorce me me but she wants to move on and brings up every argument we have ever had, I just can’t reason with her. We recently meet up 10 days ago and I thought everything was fine, we even went to the zoo together as I had to stay in a hotel when I visit my daughter, my wife comes along too as she is breastfeeding and we seem to get on fine. When I go back which 6 hours away it seems normal, but now she has cancelled my visit because she wants to visit her friend. This was already agree, during the conversation she again brought up old arguments and still thinks I had an affair. I’ve asked to be reasonable and allow me to keep the date set. She now so horrible and I don’t know if she is have postnatal depression but this is not the woman I feel in love or married. Yes we do have our ups and downs but now she’s completely a different person since our daughter was born. She left me before Christmas and refused to allow me to be with her and my daughter. I feel so low at the moment and I don’t want to lose her. Can I ask for some help please as I’m so alone.

Reply
Fabian

I’m going through hell with my ex after I decided to call it quits when she physically hit me. Then she and her father stole my furniture and art, and has now been trying to sue me for all the expenses she’s had to pay for in the last 4,5 years. Luckily I have proof that the items belong to me and a prenup. But I realise now that her intention is to destroy me and cripple me financially and personally as she’s tried to turn all our friends against me. She’s also blocking the divorce from going through because she’s on a spousal visa and is now claiming that I’m the one who’s been gas lighting and abusing her. Throughout our marriage, I’ve been manipulated to no end. Bullied into agreeing to amend our prenup, which I luckily didn’t get around to do. And now after almost seven months of separation and fighting to be free of her, I’m realising that things will get worse before they get better. Reading this article, even though you’re not going through a divorce, really helps. And though my legal team is all over this, it’s my heart that needs protection as I feel a deep loss of trust towards people. And a deep loss in confidence in trusting my own judgement of people.

Reply
Lorraine

We were married 30 years, he had been having an affair for the last 9 years. We tried, no I tried to stay together but it turns out they never really ended. They keep in contact and see each other. This kills me, him choosing her, the rejection is more than I’ve been able to bare. We have 3 grown kids and we all feel a major betrayal from him.
Unfortunately I’m seeing myself in a lot of the negative portion of your article. I fight with him about everything, I want him to hurt like he hurt me. Every time I hear that he has seen his girlfriend or talked with her, I lose it. I do whatever I can to make him miserable. I’m glad I read your article, I don’t want to be that person, I need to get back my self respect and be done with his cheating sorry ass. From this moment on I will be trying my hardest to move on, let go and forget about him!

Reply

Leave a Reply

We’d love to hear what you’re thinking ...

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

















Hey Warrior - A book about anxiety in children.