Critical Keys to Surviving the Fog of Divorce

There is one consistent element among every divorce I've heard of or witnessed and every man (or woman) going into, through or coming out of a divorce, and that consistent element is STRONG EMOTION.

Much (if not most) of my 10+ years of private individual coaching is built on a foundation of neuroscience research and how our brain impacts our thinking, feelings and behaviors. One critical brain bit that I find significantly relates to the divorce puzzle is the "inverse relationship" between our executive brain (the prefrontal cortex) and the brain's emotional center (the limbic system). The brain has evolved over millions of years and has developed an extremely powerful and automatic threat detection system.

It seems that when we perceive a "danger" in our environment, our limbic system lights up and quickly pulls physiological (blood glucose) resources from our executive brain in order to orchestrate the fight or flight response. The critical notion here is that as resources are drained from the executive brain, we cannot access and leverage our higher cognitive functions and instead default to a more unconscious and automatic response that allows us to survive the immediate situation and "live to fight another day."

"Why is this so devastating in a divorce?"

In addition to being a highly emotional experience, divorce also presents a variety of very significant, impactful and long-term decisions*. Things like:

  • how to allocate fixed assets
  • how to allocate liquid assets
  • how to allocate retirement assets
  • who gets what in terms of possessions
  • who lives where
  • who gets custody (if children are involved)
  • visitation (if children are involved)
  • alimony
  • palimony

Each of these decisions can cast a long shadow.

Making a decision in an emotional state usually means the decision was guided by our most primitive brain regions--not our most evolved brain--and is most likely not a very thoughtful/rational/logical decision. At best, it is sub-optimal. And often, it is permanent.

So what am I to do?

As often with the brain, there is a silver lining. Two of the capacities our more evolved brain offers us are the abilities to be self-aware AND to self-regulate. And these are capacities we can strengthen, just like muscles.

It starts with being more self-aware. This means being able to notice the shift into a more emotional state. There are telltale signs that emotions are creeping in and trying to take over: shortness or shallowness of breath, quickening of pulse, tunnel vision, sweating, tightness in the stomach, dry mouth. Noticing them more quickly allows us to "put on the brakes" more swiftly.

Putting on the brakes in the brain is the act of self-regulation or self-control.

These are two of the things I focus on helping my clients build. Without these abilities, divorce can be a far more dangerous and damaging experience. With them, divorce is still painful but we can create a better future for ourselves.

*State laws may impact or govern certain issues and decisions in a divorce

Ten Reasons Your Life Isn't Over When Your Marriage Is

For most of us, the loss of a loved one creates an emotional landscape fraught with uncertainty, anger, confusion, and anxiety. As humans, our brain is wired in such a way that when we are triggered by a threat event, we disconnect from our Pre-Frontal Cortex (thinking/logical brain) and engage our Limbic system (the Limbic system is more commonly associated with the “fight or flight” response).

The problem is, when we’re “limbic,” our decision-making is affected by our emotional state and is usually over-generalized and exaggerated. For some, the loss of a spouse and the end of a marriage can feel like the end of their life. This is an extreme but common emotional reaction/thought. While the loss and the hurt are real and painful, we are in fact still alive.

This reaction can also be related to the meaning we apply to our spouse in our life. In Stephen Covey’s book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People,” he writes about the idea of being centered. This has to do with what we identify as central to our being, our guidepost, our foundation. People can be centered on a variety of “things.” They can be family-centered, status-centered, money-centered, enemy-centered (that one confused me for a while), child-centered, job-centered, spouse-centered. You get the idea. The challenge is, if we are centered on something that is transitory, meaning it can be taken away from us, when that ultimately happens, which it will (people lose jobs, spouses, children, money…), we lose our center. This can be destabilizing. When we make our spouse the primary center of our life and they leave us, it can be extremely destabilizing. It can in fact feel like our life has indeed ended. I’ll add here, our life (or more accurately, our future) as we imagined it with our spouse has indeed ended. Our life, however, has not.

There are tools I will share later that can help us regulate the emotional minefield that is divorce. For now, I’ll offer ten reasons (in no particular order) why your life is not over even though your marriage is.


Read more: Ten Reasons Your Life Isn't Over When Your Marriage Is

More than one way to skin a cat - Part 4

This is the fourth Change Model I am presenting in order to give you as many ways to move through the Fog of Divorce™ as possible. Options empower you and help you to focus and engage a powerful region of your brain called the pre-frontal cortex. This is where awareness, insight, and action originate.

This model was developed by John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor and a well-known expert on change. Kotter introduced this 8-step process in his book, "Leading Change." Since YOU are the change agent in your divorce (whether you want to admit it or not), you may find his approach applicable to your situation (the steps listed below are his; the notes for each step are mine).

Step 1 - Create Urgency

If your spouse has already introduced the "D" word to your marital woes, chances are a sense of urgency has been created for you. Sometimes, particularly for men, we think things are just heating up when, in fact, things are actually worse than they appear.

Not acting out of a sense of urgency can cause things to drag on and can annoy your spouse, which can bounce back and bite you in the butt, and only cause you more grief.

Read more: More than one way to skin a cat - Part 4

divorce crack in ice
Paul McGinniss
Divorce Coaching for Men
Survive the fog of divorce