Divorce is a time when emotions run high—to put it mildly. Whether or not you chose the divorce, you can expect to feel everything from sorrow, rage, and anxiety to relief and even hope. Managing your own emotions is a challenge. Dealing with your spouse’s emotions, especially anger, may be an even greater one.
It’s easy to respond to your spouse’s anger in a way that makes things worse for both of you. That said, it’s not your responsibility to “manage” your spouse’s feelings or appease their anger. Particularly if you were in an abusive relationship or one that involved substance abuse, you may be used to tiptoeing around a volatile spouse to avoid setting them off. That’s not what we’re talking about when we refer to dealing with an angry spouse.
Instead, it can be helpful to understand where your spouse’s emotions are coming from in your divorce. When your first impulse is to understand rather than respond, you end up making more thoughtful and productive choices that can help to defuse the anger and make you both feel better.
Anger may come from a lot of different places during a divorce. Effectively handling a spouse’s rage hinges on understanding its source. One person may be angry because they have been blindsided by their spouse’s sudden request for a divorce so that they could marry an affair partner. Another person may be filled with rage because they are accustomed to controlling their spouse, who is discovering independence and other sources of support in the divorce process. A third person might be angry because they feel their spouse is making unfair demands in the divorce that the angry spouse had asked for.
In the first case, the angry spouse’s anger may stem from shock, sorrow and a feeling of betrayal. The second angry spouse’s anger might actually mask fear of being alone or powerless. In the third situation, what looks like anger at the other spouse might really be a feeling of guilt, and anger at themselves for causing the end of the marriage.
In other words, what looks like anger isn’t always anger, or isn’t always just anger. Knowing that is important, because it can help you more effectively address and move past it. One important thing to do is to understand your own feelings about the divorce, because you are seeing and responding to your spouse’s anger through that lens.
For example, if you asked for or initiated the divorce, you may feel guilty for hurting your spouse, and their anger may feel like a painful reproach. Rather than process those uncomfortable feelings—their pain, your guilt—it feels easier to be angry at each other. This is why we recommend divorce clients work with a therapist experienced in divorce issues. A counselor can help you achieve insight and perspective that makes it easier to deal with your own emotions and those of your spouse.
If your spouse was abusive or controlling, the divorce is a major shift in the power dynamic between you. This type of angry spouse in divorce is like a wounded animal: in pain, fearful, and prone to lash out. Even if the divorce was something you very much wanted, an abusive or controlling spouse might accuse your attorney of “putting ideas in your head.”
Also like a wounded animal, an abusive spouse can be especially dangerous. Accustomed to being in control, they may feel their power over you slipping away as the pattern of your relationship is disrupted. This can cause their behavior to become more unpredictable. Anger as part of the dynamic of abuse needs to be dealt with differently than other types of anger.
The period of time after leaving an abusive spouse can be especially dangerous for a victim of domestic abuse. Be sure to speak with your family law attorney about putting protections in place for you, your children, and your pets.
If you are familiar with the five stages of grief first identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, you know that anger is one of them. The others are denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance. While these stages were originally identified as part of death and dying, they also apply to divorce.
Viewing anger as a natural part of the process, as a stage, can help you to deal with it. Once the reality that the divorce is actually happening sinks in, anger is to be expected. During this phase, an angry spouse may lash out verbally and make threats like, “I’ll make sure you don’t get custody of the kids,” or “I’ll take you for everything you’re worth!”
It’s important not to panic or respond in kind to these angry outbursts. Realize that just because your spouse is angry enough to make threats doesn’t mean they can carry them out. Speak to your family law attorney about likely legal outcomes. Understand that the Courts expect parties to engage in good faith family mediation to resolve some or all of the disputed issues in your divorce. Mediation allows you to acknowledge your anger and other emotions, and work toward “win-win” solutions.
Understanding that grief is natural during divorce, and that anger is a natural part of grief, can help you deal with your own inevitable anger during the process. Your anger may be justified, but you do not need to let it control you or the divorce process. Doing so will harm you emotionally, damage your future co-parenting relationship, and probably make your divorce more costly by prolonging fighting.
We encourage you to work with a counselor who can help you to understand where your own anger is coming from, any deeper emotions it may be masking, and how to address it productively. While your divorce attorney has a lot of experience dealing with anger in divorce, a professional counselor’s office is a more helpful (and less expensive) venue to deal with this issue—and can make your time with your attorney more effective and efficient.
If you have more questions about how to deal with a difficult spouse during divorce, please contact Mundahl Law.