Divorce can bring out the worst in anyone. It is a hugely stressful time, there is a lot at stake, and most people feel terribly vulnerable. All of this gives rise to a perfect storm of anger, resentment, and mistrust and can easily drag even the most caring and good-natured person to behave badly.
In a recent Preparing for Divorce support call, empowerment coach Adina Laver, and wellness educator, Dr. Christine E. Kiesinger, explored how to be your best self during divorce. I loved listening to her story.
Over the past 18 months, Christine has been consciously navigating her path as she and her husband uncoupled. Three months in, she realized she needed to consider how she conducted herself and what version of herself she wanted showing up throughout this process, and that even the most aware person can find themselves behaving in shocking ways. She wasn't happy with herself and began to shift.
Why does divorce turn otherwise good people into gladiators when it doesn't have to?
The mere mention of divorce would send Christine and her husband into a very primitive, survival-oriented way of being as it conjured up thoughts of everything in their life that divorce threatened. Divorce disrupted their sense of emotional and physical security, their physical shelter, their way of being both as a couple and as individuals, and their valued relationships with their larger social circle.
She knew that when we experience a threat of this level, our body exhibits a physiological "fight, flight, or freeze" reaction that was evolutionarily designed to protect us. It shuts down systems such as our immune and rational thought systems and makes us fearful and myopically focused on just surviving. In the process, it can draw out aspects of ourselves never seen before. Nonetheless, Christine says she was "shocked at some of mine and my husband's behavior. I didn't recognize myself or him."
Why is the divorce battle addictive, and why you may not realize what's happening?
Christine shared that all marriages begin in a loving place but, all of a sudden, trust flies out the window and we find ourselves in a highly reactive state. When we're attacked, this "flight or fight" response can encourage us to attack back. We're hurt and we want to express it as it feels releasing. However, there's a balance between therapeutic release and becoming addicted to the welling up of these feelings of resent. The more we hold onto our resentment, the more we're affected by it while our spouse remains unscathed. Christine likens it to drinking poison in hopes that our enemy is going to die -- you're the only one that gets hurt by giving into all of this negativity. Powerful stuff.
Why is there strength in being your best self - even when your partner isn't?
Christine notes that it's definitely a choice to "put forth to the best of my abilities the best version of who I am at ever opportunity without... any expectation that my husband will do the same." Yet, it's a choice that leads to growth and empowerment that lifts you out of victim mode. Fighting or fleeing is easy but, by investing time in self-composure, you are regaining control of the situation.
Additionally, our vulnerability and our spouse's aggression stem from the same place - fear. The realization that what's outwardly aggressive from a spouse is just a different manifestation of our fear puts you and your spouse on even footing at a place where you can have a compassion and move forward.
Christine's Lessons for Being Your Best Self
During a difficult time, chant a simple and positive phrase or saying several times. Bringing these comforting words to the forefront of your mind removes you from a highly reactive state, changes how you respond, and allows you to regain control. Now, you're wishing your partner good things instead of hatred. When you maintain your own calm in a chaotic situation, it diffuses the situation much quicker than if both parties are freaking out.
Faces of My Children Exercise
If you feel yourself coming into a reactive mood, think if you would like your children (or other loved ones) to see you this way and later behave in the same way. What kind of narrative do you want to convey to your kids about how you managed your own divorce?
Morning and Evening Reflections
Before getting out of bed, ask what is going to be your guiding value of the day in regards to divorce (i.e., non-judgment, compassion, courage, empathy, etc.). In the evening, ask yourself what you did well in regards to divorce, what you could have done differently, and in what way do you need to forgive yourself. Ending in forgiveness will allow you to go to sleep in peace. Being your best self isn't about being perfect, it's about setting our beliefs about how we want to navigate divorce. No matter how good our intentions are, we're going to occasionally react poorly so forgiveness is important.
Power of the Pause
Make the choice to pause and calm down. Put time between the reactive state and your response with a nourishing activity such as yoga, a walk, or an episode of your favorite TV show. Once you're in a clear state again, play the tape to the end and envision what would have happened if you went through with your initial reaction.
List Your Major Triggers
Make a list of what 3-5 things really trigger you into the "fight, flight, or freeze" mode. Knowing your triggers helps you be better prepared and highlights some areas to focus on addressing as you continue through the divorce process.
Create Divorce Support Dream Team
Brainstorm a list of 3-5 people who can take you to a higher level of understanding on divorce as opposed to a deeper level of negativity and toxicity.
List Your Core Values
Make a list of your core values and beliefs and reference it regularly throughout the divorce process. Ask yourself if these values are present in what you're about to say or do as you proceed with your divorce. This list helps ensure that you're bringing the best version of yourself to the table.
Here's a big take away from Christine's story. If you are the person behind the wheel that's about to take a potentially turbulent journey - being your best self means committing to keeping yourself well, rested, informed, and making really good choices as you drive towards a new life.
Christine's story reminds me that how I show up makes all the difference in terms of how I feel physically and emotionally, the outcome I arrive at, and impacts the well-being of my children, friends and family.
Dr. Christine E. Kiesinger, Wellness Educator, is a certified yoga teacher, Usui and Karuna Certified Reiki Master and Teacher, and clinical aroma therapist. Christine has lectured all over the country in the areas of stress management and shares practical and powerful strategies for stress reduction with her listeners. By training, Christine is a professor and academic scholar of Interpersonal Communication. Her work in the areas of family and intimate, relational communication greatly enhance her approach to stress management. It is Christine’s belief that the presence of chronic stress not only affects the body and mind, but can be destructive to one’s closest bonds and can negatively impact one's professional life. Whether she is teaching on the yoga mat or in a corporate setting or in a university classroom, Christine aims to help her students achieve wellness in all areas of their lives -- their relationships, their professions and within themselves.