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Managing Anger Toward Your Ex

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The end of a marriage—and the complex process of divorce—can bring a flood of painful emotions: sorrow, frustration, anxiety, defeat, self-blame, guilt, shame, and of course, anger.

From a sudden feeling of white-hot rage that makes you want to explode to a simmering resentment that seems to slow-burn in you all the time, there’s just nothing like the anger you can feel at someone you loved, with whom you shared a life, a family, and plans for the future.

Anger at your ex is a normal, expected part of a divorce. Managing that anger can make an enormous difference in moving forward, co-parenting effectively, recovering your peace of mind, and even preserving your health.

Unmanaged anger can lead to rash decisions and undesirable consequences; it can even delay proceedings and prolong the divorce process.

Holding on to anger keeps you trapped, hurts your mental and emotional health, and can even wreak havoc on your physical health, causing insomnia, fatigue, and anxiety, and can even compromise your immune system.

Here are several tips from the experts on how to manage anger toward your ex:

Acknowledge your feelings. Many people are reluctant to admit to anger (or sadness, fear, shame, etc.) because they think “negative” emotions are destructive. But feelings are just feelings; They’re not bad, and you’re not bad for having them. It’s what you do with those feelings that matter.

Anger is a natural response to betrayal, breach of trust, and deep disappointment—and as such, it’s a reflection of self-respect. Healthy anger can spur meaningful action and bring about positive change, like having a difficult conversation, setting boundaries, or deciding to leave a destructive relationship.

But trying to ignore, deny, or suppress your anger, or numb it with self-destructive behaviors, won’t relieve it; it will only delay your healing and may make you feel worse.

Get to the root of it. Be honest about why you’re so mad and what you’re feeling. Was there a betrayal, neglect, or financial irresponsibility? Are you holding onto anger to punish your partner, or is it a way of hanging onto the relationship? Or perhaps, as is often true, your anger is rooted in other feelings—fear, shame, loss of control?

Express it. It’s essential to name your anger and get it out. But there are healthy and unhealthy, helpful and unhelpful ways to express it.

Lashing out at your ex when there is no longer use for constructive anger, using your rage as punishment or manipulation, or badmouthing your co-parent in front of your children will only worsen the situation. However, venting to a trusted friend, confidante, or counselor can make you feel better and let your anger go.

Writing your feelings can also be an enormous relief. You can journal or sit down and pen a letter that you’re NOT going to send to your ex:

  • Say everything you feel.
  • Don’t hold back.
  • Get all that fury out on paper—then tear it up.

Acknowledge your part. “It’s a rare couple in which both partners were exactly equal in the breaking of the marriage, but it’s an even rarer couple in which one partner was solely at fault,” Dr. Constance Ahrons wrote in “The Good Divorce.”

Learn your triggers. Knowing what sets you off and recognizing the signs of anger flaring— increased heart rate, flushed face, quickened breath, etc.—can help you take steps to manage it before you have a blow-up. Take some deep breaths, count to 10, or remove yourself from the situation for a few minutes.

Work out to work it out. Exercise is a healthy physical outlet for strong emotions and the hormones your body produces under stress. Break a sweat regularly. Research shows that aerobic exercise, running in particular, is effective for managing anger. Walk, hike, ride a bike. Boxing can help you focus your anger and punch it out on a bag; tennis, racquetball, golf, etc., can have a similar effect.

The stress of divorce can inflate your anger response. Find a relaxation practice that works for you. Many people find the calming effects of mind-body practices like yoga, tai chi, breathwork, or meditation helpful. In addition to greater peace overall, regular practice can give you tools to manage heated moments.

Be intentional about seeking the positive. Though it may sound trite, focusing on the good things in life, big and small, can improve your outlook. Make fun plans with friends and family, tend your garden, watch a colorful sunset, cook a delicious meal, savor your morning coffee, read a good book, notice the birds singing, and find the things that bring you happiness and make you feel grateful. “Nearly a decade of research by Dr. Robert Emmons — the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude — and others has found that people who have regular gratitude practices are healthier, happier, and have better relationships,” says Harvard Business Review.

Seek professional help. Divorce and the feelings that surround it can feel overwhelming. If your anger is taking over or you’re having trouble controlling it, take steps to prevent behavior you’ll regret. Talk to your doctor or mental health professional.

The experienced family law attorneys at SFLG can help you navigate your divorce and choose the course that will be the least stressful. In these complex and contentious disputes, we aim to keep the proceedings as amicable and straightforward as possible.

by Debra Schoenberg

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