Any divorce is difficult, even when the split is amicable. After all, divorce is a major transition, and change is tough. When your divorce is contentious, not surprisingly, things are harder. A lot harder.
“People are often caught off guard by the enormity of the divorce experience,” said Krysta Dancy, MA, MFT, a therapist who specializes in working with couples and families in Roseville, Calif.
If your marriage was contentious, you probably see your divorce as a relief, so you might feel blindsided when your stress skyrockets. You might feel utterly exhausted, anxious, depressed and unfocused, Dancy said.
You might start second guessing yourself. You might question your ability to make good decisions for you and your family, said Amy Broz, a marriage and family therapist intern who works with high-conflict couples. This may stem from being in an abusive marriage. “Often, the reason my clients are going through a contentious divorce to begin with is because they have been [physically, verbally or emotionally] abused in some form or another.”
You might not even feel like yourself, Dancy said. You might feel out of control, Broz said. You might be “worried and afraid, uncertain of what the future holds.”
Create a “divorce-free zone.”
You might feel like you need to be available around the clock to deal with your divorce. Or you might feel like you need to be perpetually prepared for the latest battle. “Often, people are afraid to leave arguments unanswered because they fear their ex will score some big moral victory,” Dancy said.
Plus, thanks to technology, you’re probably bombarded with texts and emails throughout the day (and night). Many of Dancy’s clients get emails or texts first thing in the morning, during their work day and when they’re out with friends.
Constant communication means you’re constantly on high alert. Which “allows the divorce to consume your life,” Dancy said. No wonder you’re stressed out and anxious.
This is where good boundaries come in. Because as Dancy said, “You are getting divorced to have less of this person’s influence in your life, remember? [T]he more involved you are in the conflict, the more you are still in a relationship with your ex.”
She shared these examples: A “divorce-free zone” might mean setting specific hours for dealing with your divorce—a time when you’re mentally and emotionally ready to tackle the necessary tasks. It also might mean turning off your phone and muting notifications.
Identify your goals—and use them to guide your actions.
What are your goals for your divorce? What are your desired outcomes? Dancy suggested creating a list of goals and priorities—and disregarding any irrelevant drama. For instance, your priorities or desired outcomes might be: “a workable pickup/drop-off schedule for a child, a desire to see the divorce end quickly and inexpensively, or [her favorite] an emphasis on restoring peace and boundaries in your life.”
The next time a conflict arises, ask yourself: Does it “increase or decrease my chances of achieving my ultimate goal?” This way, you: a) don’t get dragged into a trivial fight (and surround yourself with more chaos); and b) save your energy for what’s really important.
Asking the above question helps you “see outside of the anger or contention of the immediate, and make sure you are still heading in the direction you most want.”
Find moments of calm.
Find practices that help you calm down and unwind anytime, anywhere. For instance, Broz’s clients like the progressive muscle relaxation exercises from the Calm app for reducing anxiety and depression. You might search for meditation videos on YouTube, which you can watch before bed. You might listen to these self-compassionate guided meditations. Or you might start attending a weekly yoga class.
Figure out which type of communication you prefer.
How you communicate is another vital boundary you can set. For instance, you might “move communication to email so that you can be mentally prepared before approaching it, and…have the chance to proofread before sending,” Dancy said.
You also might stop texting with your ex. “It is often a source of conflict and contentious communication, running through late nights and ruining beautiful moments.”
Treat your ex like a challenging colleague.
With a challenging colleague, “you have to work together, but you don’t have to get personal,” Dancy said. Which means you respond to requests and concerns in a clear, professional manner, and disregard the rest, she said.
What does this look like? For instance, along with their text about picking up the kids, your ex includes a dig or two. Instead of getting sucked into yet another argument, you only respond to the part about pick-up arrangements, Dancy said.
And remember that it’s OK to seek support, which all of us need from time to time, whatever we’re going through. Especially a difficult divorce. “It can be highly beneficial for individuals to seek out a qualified therapist to help them navigate the murky, uncharted territory of a contentious divorce,” Broz said. Because your well-being is important. And whether you believe it or not right now, you deserve to prioritize your health.
Stay tuned for part two, where Dancy and Broz share five more tips for being well during this tumultuous time.