Divorce hurts. Divorce can hurt in many ways - children, families, society. But in writing those two words, divorce hurts, I am not thinking about broad concerns. I am thinking about the pain of rejection, of longing, and of loneliness. I am thinking about the deep emotional hurt of divorce, emotional pain that often feels like physical pain. You feel like you have been stabbed in the chest, or maybe in the back. You feel horrible emptiness in your stomach or intense pressure on your chest or just like you're going to explode.
Here's an interesting and important observation about emotional pain and why it feels physical. As psychologists Geoff MacDonald and Mark Leary detailed in a Psychological Bulletin article a couple of years ago, the same brain regions involved in experiencing physical pain apparently are involved in experiencing emotional pain. So, expressions like "hurt feelings" are more than an analogy. Emotional pain hurts. Literally
The pain of lost love is deep, and it aches all the more because of the many complications involved in divorce, especially divorce with children. And the searing pain causes other problems. A big one is anger.
We are "hard-wired" by evolution to respond to pain with anger. You can readily observe this in animal behaviour - and in your behaviour. Be careful around an injured dog. It might bite. Why? The dog is in pain and is prepared to hurt back, to defend itself, even if you are trying to help. When an animal is attacked and injured, it is adaptive to fight back, even blindly. Fighting back is adaptive for immediate survival - and for survival of the species.
Or think about your own behaviour. How do you react when you stub your toe? You probably get mad. And if you're furious enough, you might even kick the offending piece of furniture again, this time on purpose. Now there's a reaction psychologists cannot explain as learned behaviour. We're talking hard-wired emotion and emotional responses.
Rejection hurts. Pain makes us angry. In our primal rage, we want to hurt back.
And there is one more complication. Anger makes us hurt less.
Think about it. This makes complete sense from an evolutionary perspective. Pain impedes self-defense. Anger shuts out pain, physiologically and behaviourally. Think about wounded soldiers who fight on and on, only realizing that they have been shot after the battle is over. In laboratory experiments, animals will tolerate more pain (electric shock) if they are given the opportunity to attack another animal. Anger shuts out pain, including emotional pain. So part of the reason people stay angry at an ex is to sooth their own pain. Being angry is easier than being hurt.
Rejection hurts. Pain makes us angry. In our primal rage, we want to hurt back. Our rage makes us hurt less.
And this is a recipe for disaster if you are divorced with children. Children can be, and often are, wounded in their parents' emotional crossfire, by the anger and primitive desire to hurt back, feelings and actions that stem from parents' own, deep emotional pain. If you cannot understand children's predicament intuitively, if you cannot put yourself in their shoes, I ask you to trust me on this one for the time being. In another blog, I will give you lots of examples and refer to long traditions of research on the problems of children caught in the middle.
If the pain-anger-hurt back circuit is "hard-wired," we cannot help ourselves, right? Wrong. At least some degree of emotional control is possible. We can use the big part of our brain, our cortex, to help us regulate our "little brain," those subcortical, emotional structures and circuits that we share with other animals. We cannot control our feelings. We cannot make the pain of divorce disappear, as much as we might like to. But we can use our whole brain, not just the primitive part of it, to understand our feelings and control our actions. Pain may set off a primitive impulse to hurt back, but we do not need to act on it.
If you do not have children, you can indulge your anger in divorce, or in any emotional break-up for that matter. You can scream, "I never want to see you again," and believe you mean it. If you do not have children, you don't need to think more deeply than that.
But if you have children, you need to put them ahead of your emotions. How? Embrace your pain. Look inside, past your anger, and let yourself feel the pain. Look for something to heal the hurt that's more adaptive than anger. Talk about your pain, write about it, consult a therapist. Doing this is emotionally unnatural. I get that. But even though it hurts more, feeling the pain behind the anger also is emotionally more honest.
Robert E. Emery, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology and well regarded international practice-based researcher. His research about the often overlooked, intense emotional cost of separation and divorce for children and parents is extensively cited around the world.
In July, we are honoured to be hosting Dr Emery on a tour of Queensland, to give a series of lectures, including the 15/16 July 2014 in Brisbane, entitled "The Truth About Children and Divorce." Not afraid of controversy, Dr Emery will invite you to discuss his research on topics including infant overnights, randomised trials of mediated and litigated child custody disputes, and coparenting conflict and attachment.
Dr Emery’s explanation of high emotion, especially anger, has helped many family mediators deal with emotion in the room and also to understand how the length of separation affects and predicts behavior. The connection between how adults handle their emotions at separations and the effects on their children is the key Dr Emery can use to unlock many puzzles for mediators, family lawyers and other workers in the separation field.
Blog post originally published on February 23, 2009 by Robert E. Emery, Ph.D.