Emotions

“Where are your feelings?” The ant sat next to the butterfly on the hill. The sun was shining and the view went on forever. “Where aren’t they?” said the butterfly. (Toon Tellegen)

Emotions seem to define our daily lives. We make our decisions based on what we think will make us happy, sad or angry. We often choose activities based on our feelings and our emotions are directly responsible for our mental and physical well-being.

The divorce process is a profound emotional event for many people.

Broadly speaking, we are not always conscious of how our emotions influence our decision-making. Still, emotions form the catalyst of behaviour and they will be a deciding factor in how you experience your divorce and the shape it takes.

The way people experience these emotions is deeply personal. One person might be extremely angry, sad or fearful, to the point of being overwhelmed. Another may have emotions that are hardly noticeable at all – which can give the impression that the divorce is of little interest to them at all.

The wide range of emotional experiences are the very thing that complicates the divorce process to such a great extent. The differences between people translate into someone feeling misunderstood or unacknowledged, and vice versa.


Stress

Inevitably, a divorce will produce feelings of stress. Whenever we experience stress, there is a physical reaction. The stress response can vary between individuals. As soon as the stress response is building up or has become present, our system activates a fight-flight-or-freeze response. Ever since prehistoric times, this response has enabled human beings to react quickly and adequately to any dangerous situation.

During stressful situations our body produces hormones. These are controlled by the amygdala. The amygdala (the Greek word for ‘almond’, referring to its shape) is part of the oldest part of the brain, the limbic system. This system is like an emotional armed sentry. Survival is all that matters. When danger threatens, this sentry takes charge in order to be ready to respond instantly. The hormones adrenaline, nor-adrenaline and cortisol are released into the body in order to flee, fight or freeze.

At the same time, the ability to think, the neo-cortex (also called the rational brain), stops. The brake on emotions stops functioning properly. Rational thought is now under pressure. After all, in threatening situations there is no time for a sensible discussion of what the best plan of action will be.

A swift response by the amygdala makes sure that the danger can be avoided even before you realise that you are in a dangerous situation. However, because our thinking is no longer at its best, you sometimes attribute meaning to something that is not there. You assign meaning to something you think is real. You see what you want to see. This can seriously prevent having a sensible discussion during the divorce.

Stages

Even though a divorce process is an emotional one, you will still have to appeal to your rational thought to arrange things in a responsible and respectful way. Not just for your children and your partner, but for yourself as well.

It can be helpful to recognize the different stages of stress and know what your stress triggers are.

Neutral stage

You’re doing fine. You’re calm, reasonable, and are fully aware of what you’re doing and feeling. This is the stage in which you are able to function as you ought, when your problems seem manageable and you experience fewer frightening emotions. You are able to make well-considered decisions and agreements.

Stress stage

In this stage there have been too many stimuli and too much information for you process. This doesn’t even have to be visible all the time. It may have been outside information but also your own thoughts provide information. In this stage the following expressions of stress may occur:

  • swearing and cursing
  • panic attacks
  • profound sadness
  • physical aggression
  • shouting
  • intrusive and claiming behaviour
  • change in muscle tension
  • being unable to let go
  • fatigue
  • unmotivated and sloppy behaviour
  • dizzy spells
  • refusing to answer questions
  • fainting
  • awkwardness
  • making inappropriate or blunt jokes
  • aggressive stance
  • sweating
  • asking a lot of questions
  • incontinence

The outside world will experience such behaviour as undesirable and inappropriate. But if you yourself are in this stress stage, it means you have hardly any control left. These expressions of extreme stress do not result from unwillingness. You are simply incapable of acting any other way. The behaviour is provoked by the situation or circumstances you may find yourself in before, during and after the divorce process.

The stress reaction makes it difficult to think clearly. Talking creates further stimuli that the overburdened information processing system is no longer able to process. Emotions take over and fill in the blanks in your thoughts.

Our brain ‘tunes in’ to the reaction of the emotions we experience. If a certain kind of mood manifests itself more often, the brain will become specialised in dealing with them and gradually show them more and more competently. The survival mechanism is then put on standby. The expressions of these moods start rising to the surface of your emotions.

Because this applies to both positive and negative moods, it is really in your interest to chart your own stress reaction in this stressful and emotional period and to adjust it accordingly.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it during the divorce, but you do have a choice. Do you consciously or unconsciously want to be a victim of the divorce? Allow yourself – no matter how difficult it may be at times – to take control of your life again. We’re happy to help.

Marjon Kuipers