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Don’t Let Your Divorce Become Your Identity

Posted on August 3, 2023 by Will Reingold

Stress and anxiety are unfortunate byproducts of divorce. For some, every aspect of one’s life may be negatively impacted by divorce: productivity at your job may plummet; concern about finances might keep you up at night; social interactions may be more difficult as you try to stoically act as if everything is alright; and, if there are children involved, the ability to co-parent may feel hopelessly upended.  If that were not enough, myriad health consequences may manifest as well. Depression, fatigue, stomach issues, and other ailments may make an unceremonious appearance. An oft-cited study found divorce to be the second highest stressor one can experience, behind only the death of a spouse. See Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory, https://www.stress.org/holmes-rahe-stress-inventory. There are a tremendous number of pressures that might push and pull a divorcing spouse in seemingly every direction, and a large amount of these pressures are outside of one’s control. You should not feel bad for experiencing such malaise.

Yet there is one dilemma you can consciously avoid: allowing the divorce to become your identity. I am not referring to the fact that your identity was previously that of being married (or that of being a devoted husband or wife), whereas now your identity is that of a divorcee. Rather, it can be problematic and unhealthy when the person who, in the midst of the divorce, makes it his or her mission to involve the divorce in as many facets of their life as possible. The kind of person I am addressing talks to their friends, family, therapists, and anyone else who will listen to them about the divorce. They do so regularly, dominating the conversation with how their soon-to-be ex is a bad person or a bad parent and focuses solely on what is happening with their case. Perhaps this person takes an extremely hands-on approach to litigation strategies and wants to be part of every decision on a granular level. Perhaps this person is, without even being aware of it, prone to high conflict in his or her relationship. Whatever the underlying attributes, the divorce is more than a shadow lingering behind these people; it can be an all-encompassing stressor and hardship.

These people are, of course, struggling in their own right and are coping with the divorce as best they can. Like the boiling frog parable, people going through a divorce can slip into this state so gradually that they don’t realize it. In an article from The Atlantic, a friend of someone going through a difficult divorce admitted to being “disappointed and even a bit angry at her for carrying on like this,” noting “that she may have no energy to give me but obviously makes space for unhealthy activities in her life.”  Lori Gottlieb, Dear Therapist: I Don’t Know How to Help My Best Friend Through her Divorce, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2022/08/best-friend-divorce-healthy-boundaries-advice/671261/. With that all being said, everyone going through a divorce could benefit from keeping the following considerations in mind:

1.  It’s Not Good for the Children

Roughly 25% of adults between the age of 18 and 35 are grown children of divorce. No parent desires to hurt their children or adversely shape their children as a result of splitting up. As one reputable co-parenting coach opines, “rarely do parents disagree on wanting what’s best for your children.”  Karen Bonnell, The Co-Parenting Handbook 31 (2017). The fact of the matter is that the children will in all likelihood turn out perfectly fine, divorce notwithstanding. Yet an equally true reality is this: lengthy, intensive litigation is not good for the children, no matter how hard you work to shield them from it. Justice Anthony Kennedy recognized as much on the United States Supreme Court when he wrote that litigation, in which children are caught in its throes, “can itself be so disruptive that constitutional protection may be required.”  Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 101 (2000) (Kennedy, J., dissenting). Additionally, ever-evolving social sciences support these seemingly self-evident positions; short-term problems for children include increased loneliness and worry and trouble in school, whereas long-term problems (which are harder to quantify and subject to more debate) can include depression and lowered self-esteem. See Janet A. Flaccus, Children and Divorce: A Bad Combination and How to Make it Better, 2003 Ark. L. Notes 13 (2003).

There is literature on how children absorb and pick up on their parents’ stress. In turn, the parents’ behaviors influence the children. “[E]ven if you think you’re doing a good job of keeping your problems to yourself, kid radar can spot you.”  Kids Who “Act Up” Pick up on Parents’ Moods, https://www.mcall.com/2002/12/30/kids-who-act-up-pick-up-on-parents-moods/. So, for the children whose parents are embroiled in a contentious custody battle, do not be surprised if the nature of the proceedings rubs off on them in unforeseen ways. If, for example, they intuit that their father has particularly harsh feelings toward their mother, it’s possible the kids will either reciprocate those feelings toward the mother, or they may become more protective of their mother and act harshly toward their father, or vice versa. (We all unfortunately know of stories where one child “chooses” one parent over the other in a divorce.)  All this is to say that the parent who makes the divorce a part of their identity cannot compartmentalize this side of them when they are with the children; to do so would be akin to suddenly setting aside deeply held political or religious beliefs you might naturally want to pass on to your children. Careful attention should be paid to how you, as the person undergoing the divorce, let your divorce affect your relationships with others—especially your children.

2.  There is a Finality to Divorce: Do Not Avert your Focus

The all-encompassing stress and intensity (and sometimes drama) of the divorce can cause some people to lose sight of the big picture: absent an unexpected reconciliation between you and your spouse, the divorce is happening. You will be a divorcee in the relatively near future, and ensnaring yourself in the divorce makes it harder to begin life anew without your spouse. By extension, you’re letting the divorce define your feelings toward not only your spouse but also how you handle emotional situations in the future. People fear the unknown, and life post-divorce presents numerous unknowns; it’s easy to forestall thinking about these things and instead focus on the divorce. But the research shows that “the level of life satisfaction following divorce [is] directly related to the perceived quality of the marriage itself.”  Romeo Vltell, Life After Divorce, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/media-spotlight/201507/life-after-divorce#:~:text=People%20who%20undergo%20divorce%20face,to%20those%20who%20remain%20married.  Those who report to have poor marriage tend to do much better following a divorce, particularly women. “[W]hen the marriage and the divorce are finally done, it takes time for people to rebound,” Daisy Melamed Sanders, The Psychology of Divorce and the Pursuit of Happiness, https://www.psycom.net/divorce, and that rebound time will necessarily be linked to the way the divorce is handled by everyone involved.

This is not meant to be a kumbaya-type lecture on tirelessly working to resolve every aspect of the divorce amicably or collaboratively. That’s not realistic. And different people process the divorce at different paces: “Women suffer from the impending end of a marriage already in predivorce years, whereas this process is delayed—and possibly more devastating—for men.”  Thomas Leopold, Gender Differences in the Consequences of Divorce: A Study of Multiple Outcomes, 55 Demography 769, 773 (2018). This is meant as a reminder that the divorce process is a vehicle for getting you to a new chapter in your life. How you start this new chapter depends on numerous aspects of how your litigation progresses, and there are some things that are simply out of your control over the course of a case. But there are some things in your control. Keeping track of the big picture—whether that is doing what is best for yourself, including taking care of both your mental and physical health, or ensuring that your children are shielded from parental conflict—should always be at the fore of your mind.

3.  “Pathologically Litigious” is not a Good Reputation to Hold

Similar to the prior point, those people enmeshed with litigation may become obsessed with it; so much so, that it may be hard for them let go of courtroom battles once the divorce ends. Some lawyers refer to these people as “vexatious litigants,” those who repeatedly drag his or her ex-spouse into court just to humiliate him or her or cause them to incur as much in attorney’s fees as possible. (My personal term is “pathologically litigious.”)  And even where the vexatious litigant does not haul their ex-spouse into court, they may be quick to call their attorney or threaten legal consequences if their ex-spouse isn’t acting like a pristine, perfect angel. Judges tend not to look favorably on people who play tit-for-tat games through the court system in order to punish their exes’ excessive and frivolous litigation overwhelms the judicial system’s capacity to administer speedy and efficient justice, leads to higher costs for litigants and society at large, and even hinders America’s competitive position in the global economy.” Arthur R. Miller, The Pretrial Rush to Judgment: Are the “Litigation Explosion,” “Liability Crisis,” and Efficiency Clichés Eroding Our Day in Court and Jury Trial Commitments?, 78 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 982, 984 (2003). The rub is this: you do not want to get to the point where you come to enjoy the litigation. Your divorce is not a game and wanting to “win” is not a healthy state of mind. As regrettable and difficult as divorce is for most people, a good divorce attorney’s objective is to help you exit the marriage and land on your feet; those who want to continue litigating beyond that point inadvertently undercut this objective.

If you have questions about how your divorce may unfold or if you would like support, contact one of the family law attorneys at Lasher Holzapfel Sperry & Ebberson PLLC for assistance.