Sherrie had just settled into her new flat without her husband. The divorce was a civil one, and the financial settlement left both parties secure. Despite having what she needed financially, she couldn’t shake the feeling of abandonment. It left her with an emptiness that she hadn’t experienced before. She couldn’t shake the physical desire to be near him. Sherrie’s biological and attachment system had grown accustomed to him. Her nervous system was still looking for him. Sometimes, she would think she saw him in the street or smell him even though he wasn’t there. When he would call her to ask for something, she would instantly say yes.
Ryan had been married for seven years when his wife asked him for a divorce. He had always been loyal and committed, and he felt resentment that she wanted to leave. Ryan didn’t want to be single again, and he didn’t want to split the assets. He felt it was unfair to have to give her some of the properties and assets he had worked so hard for. He began to plot his revenge on her. Ryan started to believe that all resources were scarce, which sent him into survival mode.
Carrie had decided that she would stop working to take care of them when her children were born. Twelve years later, when her husband left her for someone else, she felt lost. Her children were older, and her husband no longer needed her. She began to struggle with her identity. The future seemed very insecure and scary. What would she do for work? Would she ever re-marry again? Instead of focusing her energy and time on self-development, she turned the children against their father.
Divorce can be a confusing and painful time.
When people think resources are scarce, they might go into survival mode; leading to fight, flight, freeze or fawn, also known as people-pleasing. Some of these adaptive coping mechanisms might not be so adaptive in a divorce or mediation. As people divorce and separate, they may seek to place arrangements through mediation (i.e. facilitated negotiation). Just as our emotional/psychological state impacts our behaviour, it also affects our negotiation behaviour.
“Fight” as a response is easy for us to understand. We have all done it. In family mediation, this may manifest as a party lashes out in the session, unleashing an aggressive legal strategy or bombarding the other party with legal applications. It may lead to the other party being triggered into a defensive reaction as they feel under attack. Thereby, the situation spirals into a combative reality that neither party desired.
“Flight” is another response that a party may use to avoid family mediation. These parties may not engage at all with the process. This can lead to exasperation from the other party, who may then pursue the legal process as it seems there is no option for a mediated settlement. Paradoxically, the flight response triggered by fears over what will happen can lead to a more intimidating and impersonal process.
“Freeze” is often misunderstood in family mediation as a response to the divorce. This looks like not committing to scheduling sessions; not providing information when required; agreeing then backing away from arrangements, or in the final stages backing away from the entire agreement. It can be challenging to understand as the party in ‘freeze’ may state that they want to resolve matters and move on; however, their actions make this improbable. It can be frustrating for the other party and make them more assertive, triggering an even stronger freeze response.
Lastly, “fawn” is a less common response in family mediation. It may occur if one party feels that they can find a way to convince the other party to stay. It can manifest as making excessive compromises, agreeing to arrangements that are not realistic or refusing to seek/follow legal advice. In response, the other party may take advantage of these concessions. This may seem beneficial; however, if these arrangements are unrealistic, they may not be stable long-term.
Working with a mental health professional
Working with a mental health professional, coach, psychologist, or counsellor can help parties understand the processes and pressures they are subject to. Family and friends can provide emotional support; however, a mental health professional can give context and tools. Understanding the context of what is happening and learning tools to manage emotional regulation put parties in the best position to manage their transition through divorce and separation.
Co-authored with Sala Sihombing
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Although I am a registered clinical psychologist with the Hong Kong Society of Counseling and Psychology, I am not a licensed psychologist or any other type of licensed therapist in the United States. The information I am providing here is educational and informational. This social media page does not provide professional advice, nor does it create a professional-client relationship or any other type of relationship between us. You should always consult your own licensed mental health professional before making any changes regarding your mental health. My goal is to educate, guide, consult, and empower you regarding your mental health journey. Always consult your licensed mental healthcare provider(s) and never disregard or delay medical advice based on information posted on this page or post.