Divorce & Widowhood · Emotional Health

When Divorce Turns Ugly

Except in very rare cases, the process of separation and divorce can be stressful at best and anguished, even dangerous, at worst. I have known many women who went through divorce and suffered traumatic symptoms such as night terrors, severe anxiety, and crippling depression. Several have had to undergo extensive dental work to repair the damage from grinding their teeth in their sleep.

It’s hard to understand how we can go from tender promises of life-long love to the extreme acrimony displayed by many couples that split. Yet the answer lies right there at the beginning. When we marry, we are pledging to a bond built on trust. Often we change names, integrate our finances, and become enmeshed in almost every aspect of each other’s lives. Legally, your spouse becomes your closest relative. Emotionally, the impact of marriage is even more consequential.

Brain imaging studies reveal that when we are shown photos of a spouse, the area that lights up is the same area as the one stimulated by thoughts of the self. In other words, we are actually “rewired” to think of him/her as a part of ourselves. That is not a figurative, or metaphorical event—it is a physical change. Perhaps that’s why when we lose someone we have loved deeply, we feel it as if we have lost part of our bodies.

The transition from beloved to enemy is rarely immediate. No matter how angry we may be, the mind takes a while to adjust to the new circumstances. Learning a spouse has cheated may evoke immediate rage and a determination to split, for example, but the full process is a long one. Even when you leave or kick him out on the spot, the mourning process can take years, and usually involves some of the same stages as recovering from a death.

The profound feelings of ownership we feel when we marry and live together are hard to dismantle. This can exaggerate the grief we can experience when splitting up possessions. Sorting through items and furniture may be painful, but it is exacerbated by the underlying anguish that stems from losing someone who is a part of yourself.

No act of trust is more profound and far-reaching as having a child with someone. This is the ultimate act of co-mingling—your DNA and his combine to produce a new human, and with that child, a legacy of future generations that will forever represent that “marriage” of your genes.

When splitting up, children are the ultimate possession. Not only do the parties each (usually) feel a profound attachment to them, but the children also represent that way to best “weaponize” your anger at your spouse. While it is obvious to the rest of us that this is not a healthy or loving way to behave when your children are concerned, many divorcing couples lose all reason in their quest to “take” as much as they can from their opponent.

For some people, the fight seems justified. Many have ample evidence from our years with an abusive or neglectful partner that indicates he would not be a good parent in the future. An explosive case in the 1980’s illustrates how murky things can be for both parties. In 1985, Elizabeth Morgan, a Harvard-trained physician, alleged that her former husband had been sexually abusing their pre-school daughter. Frustrated by the legal system and delays, rather than force the child to submit to further visits with her father (also an M.D.), Morgan left the country and lived in New Zealand under assumed name. At the time it was speculated that Morgan was assisted by her father, who had been a top CIA operative. A few years later, Morgan was jailed for two years for contempt of court after refusing to produce her daughter for visits. The daughter continued to live with her maternal grandparents during that time, probably in England.

Morgan’s ex-husband denied the charges throughout and has not seen the child (now 26) since she was a toddler. In addition to the pain he suffered from not being allowed to exercise his parental rights, he says his reputation and practice were destroyed. Nevertheless, Elizabeth Morgan’s actions, and those of her parents, indicate that they strongly believed the allegations and were willing to go to any lengths to protect the little girl.

There are obvious parallels to the Woody Allen/Mia Farrow custody case, though they were never legally married. Allen has always ascertained his innocence and claimed that Farrow used this as a tactic to gain custody. Now grown, their daughter says the accusations are true, and many of her siblings support her story, though some do not. Allen’s reputation was damaged when the case was re-examined a few years ago in light of the “#MeToo” era.

A more recent case highlights that people can sometimes go to even further extremes in custody battles. A Connecticut couple, as reported in The New York Times, both threatened violence:

“He threatened to kidnap their children and take them overseas, she said. She threatened to have the mafia break his legs, he countered.

He drove an S.U.V. toward her, swerving away at the last minute, she said. She had mental health issues and couldn’t keep their children safe, he claimed.

The recent disappearance of Jennifer Dulos, a 50-year-old Connecticut mother who was reported missing shortly after dropping off her five children at school on May 24, has quickly cast a light on her 13-year marriage to Fotis Dulos, and the bitter legal battle more than two years long to end it.

The authorities arrested Mr. Dulos, 51, and his girlfriend, Michelle C. Troconis, 44, last weekend in connection with Ms. Dulos’s disappearance and accused them of hindering the investigation and tampering with evidence.”

Ms. Dulos had told friends that she was worried about her safety as the custody battle raged, and she feared her husband would kidnap the children and take them to Greece. The couple met at Brown University, and lived in a 15,000 square foot house with their five children. Mr. Dulos is now claiming that his wife staged a “Gone Girl” type disappearance in order to frame him, but the case remains open, and his wife’s mother has been given temporary custody of the children.

These three cases underscore that being well-educated, wealthy or famous offers no protection against the violence of an ugly divorce. When people do not have the money for expensive lawyers or can’t escape to foreign countries the violence sometimes turns deadly. We have all heard of men who shoot their ex-wives and their own children (and often themselves) as a consequence of separation or divorce.

While violence and allegations of sexual abuse are not uncommon, most divorces are less extreme. But it’s important to recognize that divorce and custody battles take their toll on everyone, especially the children. As a rule, the more narcissistic and self-centered a person is, the more likely he will react with rage if he feels he is losing something valuable. Some spouses don’t treat their children as valuable until they realize that taking them will hurt their spouse. In terms of the consequences, such actions may not be “violent” but they most certainly are abusive.

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