Imagine what would happen if your physical appearance changed to reflect your moods, attitudes, and emotional responses to your spouse (or ex) during your divorce.
Imagine yourself as a cartoon character with steam blowing out your ears, your teeth clenched, and the top of your head exploding. It may sound silly, but bear with me for a moment.
A client of mine, Edward, recently shared with me that his ex-wife is constantly angry. “Sarah’s been angry for years,” he said. “Now that our divorce is finalized, the anger has not subsided at all. If anything, it’s worse.”
Sarah disagrees with Edward about everything. She excludes him from kid-related celebrations and get-togethers. Every bit of communication that comes from her is nasty.
Edward admits that he gets mad, too. He’s frustrated because he gets drawn into arguments and things seem to escalate quickly, with little or no resolution. Right now, he’s looking for strategies to help him avoid this pattern and, as much as possible, minimize the hostility between himself and his ex-wife.
“I can’t relate to her when she’s so angry,” Edward said. “She looks so much… older.”
As he spoke, I began to visualize Sarah as a cartoon villainess, like Cruella deVil or the evil queen in Snow White. We talked about how the anger is taking a toll on Sarah externally, as well as internally. Who is Sarah really punishing?
After a while, Edward was able to see how Sarah’s anger is her own cross to bear. He doesn’t have to let her issues become his issues. He has a choice about how to deal with this.
How to manage the physical effects of anger
Rest assured, I’ve seen the physical results of anger myself. There have been nights I headed to bed so full of anger that I didn’t even want to look in the mirror. By morning, the problem that had seemed so infuriating had lost its momentum, but the mirror still reflected its emotional toll. I had to find a way to manage these moments better.
As Mark Twain said: “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
It’s a fact: anger is going to show up sometime during your divorce. How can it not? You’re being forced to communicate with the last person you may want to see during an extremely emotional, vulnerable time.
Here are four ways to deal with anger – both your own and that of your ex – and minimize the damage it will cause, both inside and out.
- STOP! Take a moment to breathe. That’s what the coach of a sports team does when a game isn’t heading in the right direction: call a time out. Re-evaluate and strategize.
- Ask yourself: Is this really a battle I’m willing to fight and die in? Is this confrontation really worth the anger that’s building up in my body and causing these unpleasant physical effects?
If the answer is no, share this with your spouse. Say, “You know something, this isn’t a fight I want to have. You seem to feel strongly about this, so let’s discuss our options.”
If it is, in fact, a matter you feel strongly about, try and defuse the anger anyway. Can you find common ground?
Are you even fighting about the same thing? What are the assumptions you each have? What are the facts?
- Identify what each of you needs. Calmly explain what you need from your (ex-) spouse, and find out what your (ex-) spouse would like to see from you. If you haven’t tried this exercise before, you may be surprised how quickly it can change the tone of a conversation. The key is to be willing to listen and understand what each person is looking for. No judgments. No defensive reactions.
- If your spouse is still angry: If your overtures are falling on deaf ears, you may still be able to manage your spouse’s anger so that you don’t fall into their circle of doom.
When the other person is ready to fight at every encounter, you’ll need extreme coping strategies. Many of the same tactics you’d use with a tantruming child will work (although sharing this with your ex might not be the best idea).
Anticipate: Draw on past experience to recognize his/her patterns and prepare for what’s headed your way.
Disengage: Remember when you were a kid and your sibling was egging you on and your mother told you not to respond? Stop the fight before its energy builds. Walk away or get off the phone. Acknowledge that you are doing so. “We aren’t getting anywhere with this, so let’s hang up for now and connect again later.”
Set boundaries: Decide what you absolutely will not tolerate. Remember: pick your battles. Not everything is worth fighting for.
Be consistent: Follow through with your plans. Don’t succumb to the emotions of the moment.
Maintain your standards: Challenge yourself to take the high road. Don’t become that angry cartoon character.
None of this is easy to do. It wasn’t even easy to write about. It may seem unfair that you’re the one who has to be the adult in this situation, the one whose role it is to manage conflict time and time again.
When it gets to be too much, find a sympathetic partner to vent to. Failing that, a mirror is often around. Step in front of one (or even imagine one) and what do you see? My hope for you is that it’s a reflection of a calm, in-control face that may even be smiling with pride.
Pretend a character artist is drawing your face to reflect how you’re handling your emotions during this difficult time. What do you see?