Getting divorced is not a license to hate, nor a free pass to let loose your lowest impulses, or give in to your darkest, angriest or even most self-critical thoughts. When I suggest this idea to people, most agree. Sure, they were angry for a while. But now they view their divorce as a sad reality, and are turning their focus toward recreating a life they love, not stewing in anger at the wrongs of their once-spouse.
But not everyone. Some people are so steeped in anger that they do not want to let it go. Such was the case of the tall, striking woman I met at a party on Friday. “I just have a different idea of marriage,” she said. “It’s for life. It can be hard, but you still work at it. My parents have been married for 50 years. I just have a different idea of marriage than most.”
“No you don't,” I said. “Most divorced people I’ve met planned to be married for life.”
She took a step back. “Everyone I know who is divorced said it was the worst, most devastating thing they’ve ever gone through. Everyone I know who is divorced says it would be better if he’d died.”
“You should make some new friends," I said. "Broaden your circle to include people who are doing well after divorce.” I looked up at this beautiful woman in her stylish dress. She looked strong on the outside. Inside, her anger was holding her back.
Now she was angry not only at her ex, but also at me. Clearly I should work at my social skills, such as not telling people things they don’t want to hear. But she was locked into a view of some “right” kind of life—that was not the life she was leading. As long as she held that view, she was stuck.
I understood that she was upset. She was reeling. This was not the life she'd planned to live. It can be unbelievably difficult to pull through divorce. More so than we’d guess. But moving past hate may be the most important step toward recovery.
Anger is a backward-looking emotion, and it can keep you trapped in the past you no longer have. Any number of people I’ve met told me they could feel that their anger was making them sick. Or it was hurting their children, but not their ex. These facts compelled them to move past it.
Focusing on the negative magnifies it. Highlighting the negatives while ignoring the positives of your marriage is a type of “distorted thinking,” as cognitive behavioral psychologists term it. This “all or nothing” thinking can increase hostility and aggressive behavior, and has been strongly linked to depression and relapse into clinical depression.
In her article "5 Voices of Divorce," divorce blogger Lisa Arends put it like this, "Anger and gratitude are mutually exclusive. When your ire is up, counteract it with thankfulness. At first, it will feel forced and foreign. But keep practicing, and it will become second nature."
I agree with Arends. Moving past anger can take time. Focusing on all that you do have can help speed the process.
For a great book about conquering your own negative thoughts, check out Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by David Burns, M.D.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.