When Divorce or Separation Turns Ugly

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

83 Comments

Canadian Iceman

I was in a toxic relationship with a grown up child. She acted 5 years old. We were in our early 30’s. She would verbally say she never wanted her 3 kids, they were accidents and they wouldn’t stop her from doing what she wants. I was raising them by myself. She would lay in bed all day,. everyday. She would cause dissention between me and the kids. She would hit the kids and me. Being hit by her constantly was demasculating. And embarrassing. I was too embarrassed to tell people. She was the queen of manipulation. She would tell me she was perfectly fine, but I needed councilling and I needed to change. I can tell you , first hand, that people tend to dismiss the chances that a woman beats a man. A woman says it, without any proof, and people tend to lean towards the woman. When a man says it, they get the look. “Righhhhht” . She would get vengeance on people if they crossed her. She blamed her emotions on the devil. Would goto church and use church as a crutch for her phoney personality away from home. She would loose friends with no explanation. Now you’re wondering why didn’t you run. I did eventually get away. I took sick for a week , after a hospital stay, and she said she would not take care of me or support me. Quickly found another guy and changed the locks on me and kept everything I own. A few days before I finally got her into court… She packed up the house and drove across the border. Lots of years have past. I’m completely indifferent to her. I highly doubt she got help cause she refused to believe she had issues. I feel sorry for the next guy. I made it out alive, and I can talk about it. But yes, you are right, people have issues, some more than others and some less than others. But she was scary when angry and frightening when sad. I was the victim, but I survived. Because of that, I actually grew from it. Never again will I allow myself to be abused. Nobody deserves to be treated horribly.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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