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 she would 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 that 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 when her children were born, she would stop working to take care of them. 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 into self-development, she worked on turning the children against their father.
Divorce can be a confusing and painful time
When people think that 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 put in 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 which is 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 continue to 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, which can trigger 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 which 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, then they may not be stable long-term.
Working with a mental health professional
Working with a mental health professional, a psychologist or counsellor can help parties to understand the processes and pressures to which they are subject. 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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