In my previous post, When Divorce is a Sickness, I discussed the "Malignant Divorce," a phenomenon that is becoming all too common in our society. Sadly, in some extreme cases, divorce can turn very dangerous. Here, I will discuss some behavioral patterns that may be indicate that your ex may be dangerous and what you can do about it.
Divorce is a loss -- a death of sorts. Under the stress of loss and uncertainty, most people regress and become more irritable, needy or impulsive. This immaturity is seen commonly, even in good divorces. Usually there's little serious impact. However, on the dysfunctional extreme, a person going through a tough divorce can regress dramatically to an immaturity that can be truly destructive, which I have labeled a "character trap." It is a term that I use to describe a regression of a personality within a limited time frame -- usually the years surrounding your divorce.
When a person is in this state, they believe their own distortions and just want to win, even if they hurt themselves in the process. While different in many ways, character traps like The Victim, The Control Freak, The Narcissist and The Avenger still have one thing in common. They know with certainty that they have been wronged (even if this is not objectively true) and they usually need to get even in order to feel some sense of justice.
The Intelligent Divorce outlines ten character traps. See if any of these four mirror your experience. Please note that it is nearly impossible to deal with a very disturbed ex spouse without outside help:
1. The Victim:
Victims truly believe that they've been wronged. The Victim might feel that you have stolen the best years of his or her life or that you are so untrustworthy that you should not be allowed near the children. Sometimes there is a kernel of truth in The Victim's claims, which gives The Victim more power. The Victim will use this to sway the opinions of friends, relatives, attorneys, and courts. Understand that this is to be considered a character trap only when it is a distortion of the truth -- if the ex-spouse is actually dangerous, this strategy is adaptive.
What You Can Do:
Get perspective: You will have to come to terms with what, if anything, you did to hurt The Victim. If you are dealing with a true victim, then it is your behavior that requires attention.
Stay involved with your children: Focus on providing your children with a stable upbringing. Live close if possible. Don't play out The Victim's fantasy that you care little for the kids. Actions often speak louder than words.
Manage your temper: Ex's with this character trap can be exasperating. If you respond in a dangerous way, it will be your problem, even if you're provoked. A good therapist can often help you set healthy boundaries and deal with your frustrations while staying involved with the children in as productive a way as possible.
Therapy is useful for the kids: A child or adolescent therapist can give your son or daughter a safe place to sort out their feelings about you and your ex.
2. The Control Freak:
The Control Freak shows a picture of being totally together on the surface, with anxiety and distrust living underneath. He or she will set up situations to make you look bad and present mountains of "evidence" proving that you're irresponsible. Control Freaks will often fight hard for custody, even if they don't really want it. Control Freaks are usually good with money, so they were probably in charge of your finances during the marriage. Sadly, the Control Freak may try to deprive you financially because you are "irresponsible" and because winning is his real goal.
What You Can Do:
Learn about money: Your past dependency on the Control Freak will be used against you. This is an opportunity for you to mature. Read about investing and get some financial counseling if you need to bone up.
Try therapy: To help realistically assess your parenting skills, deal with codependency issues developed during your marriage and treat depression.
Get good legal counsel: A lawyer who enables you to find a voice in the process is invaluable.
Understand where you might find control: Control Freaks are vulnerable to what others, particularly authority figures, think about them.
3. The Narcissist:
Narcissists are self-serving to a fault. They are usually exceptionally charming and will use that charm to get their way, while treating you with very little respect. When a Narcissist falls in love with you, it is like a dream, because narcissists will love you for making them so happy -- but it has little staying power. To narcissists, your history together does not really exist, particularly when they regress. If you have disappointed a Narcissist or if he or she simply has lost interest in the marriage, whatever love you had will not help make the divorce easier. And if you have crossed the Narcissist, he or she may make you pay with vitriol like you could never have imagined. You don't count anymore. This may really hurt, but when confronted with a narcissistic ex it is important to understand the person that you are dealing with.
What You Can Do:
Accept that the Narcissist may never really have loved you in a realistic way: If you accept this as a tragic truth, you can work through the hurt and anger.
Understand that the Narcissist wants to win because she feels wronged: You are dealing with a person who feels completely at home exploiting you and the kids.
Know that Narcissists can look great in public: They are able to present a compelling public persona to your friends and family while treating you with calculated coldness.
Stay calm: Blowups in front of the kids or with the Narcissist in public will come back to haunt you. People with this character trap have a remarkable ability to make themselves look smooth while making you look foolish.
4. The Avenger:
Any of the above, when taken to an extreme, can result in The Avenger. It's normal to want revenge when you have been hurt, but for The Avenger, this urge is overwhelming. Your ex will not be satisfied unless you have been put in your place. He or she holds an extremely distorted view of you and your divorce. Avengers may honestly think that if they can't have the kids, you shouldn't either, or worse yet -- if The Avenger can't have the kids, nobody should. Avengers' self righteousness is palpable, and violence can lie just below the surface. At its worst, Avengers are hell bent on inflicting revenge even if they or the children suffer as a consequence. Tragically for everyone, they simply can't stand seeing you happy and moving on in a normal way.
What You Can Do:
Don't ignore the warning signs: If you think The Avenger hates you or wants to hurt you, don't drop into denial. Most avengers move towards violence when they are in the process of losing control over the divorce, money or the children.
Plan ahead: Have a concrete plan if feel you are in danger. Make use of abuse hotlines and get to know the local police and the legal system. Orders of protection can help, but they are often violated.
Establish safe boundaries: If drop offs at your house or apartment are too dangerous, then have them take place in neutral spots or under supervision. Know under what circumstances you are safe to talk to him.
Therapy can help: You may feel safer than you really are. True safety has to do with dealing realistically with him, maintaining good boundaries (see above) and having a contingency plan.
If you believe that your ex is exhibiting signs of a character trap, get some outside help soon. You will need to be objective in order to help your children safely through the divorce. Use this information or take a look at The Intelligent Divorce: Book Two for more in depth discussion, so you can devise an "intelligent" approach to handle a Malignant Divorce.
Finally, time often heals -- not perfectly -- but sometimes enough. If you are stuck with a malignant personality who won't let go of victimhood or anger, then you will have to adjust to that threat. Remember, it's worth the effort to mitigate the damage, because time can work in your favor. Sometimes, these very difficult ex spouses do move on.
The goal is to keep the damage to a minimum.