DICLC Family Law Center

THE NEUROSCIENCE OF YOUR DIVORCE

"Look at your past. Your past has determined where you are at this moment. What you do today will determine where you are tomorrow. Are you moving forward or standing still?"
- Tom Hopk

Did You Know?

  • Your body goes into primal fight or flight mode during prolonged trauma (e.g. divorce), making it more difficult to focus and make decisions
  • Studies suggest people who experience significant rejection by a spouse or partner (e.g. starting a divorce) drop as many as 30 IQ points as a result of reverting to a primal fight or flight state due to the trauma of divorce
  • Divorce is grieved in the same way as death—in 7 stages, which can all intermingle in any number of ways: shock or disbelief, denial, anger, bargaining, guilt, depression, and acceptance or hope. People often progress through these stages differently than their spouse or partner, making it difficult to negotiate and find common ground.

It can be helpful for many people to know they are not alone. The bullets above are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to processing the internal reactions people experience during the trauma of divorce. Even those who are initiating the divorce experience these emotional and neurological responses, though often at a different pace and intensity than their partner. This incongruence in processing between the spouses or partners adds to the difficulty of successful negotiation.

Minimizing Divorce Stress Through Appropriate Dispute Resolutions

The divorce process, particularly in a litigation setting, expects people to make rational decisions with long-lasting implications at one of the most emotionally confusing times in their lives.  Yet these emotional decisions cannot be made emotionally if the family is to emerge from the divorce with minimal damage. This is one of the many reasons Alternative (we prefer to call it Appropriate) Dispute Resolution, such as the Collaborative Process can be so helpful:  the parties are given time to slow down and the professionals they work with can help them consider and address their emotions and the whole body’s reaction to the divorce.

Setting the Stage for Your Divorce: If You Understand How You Got to Where You Are, You Have a Better Chance to End Up Where You Want to Be

Introduction

Divorce is often a devastating and confusing experience. Attempts to process the pain suffered from the end of a relationship are caught up in a barrage of mixed messages from family, society, and the legal community in which the divorce plays out. On one hand, we are told that anger and sadness are entirely normal and appropriate reactions to divorce. On the other, they have no place in the legal framework in which decisions are made. Society tells us that divorce is a common occurrence, with the rate hovering around 50%, yet society also casts divorce as a shameful failure. The same family members and friends who will tell you to put your children first will also encourage you to hire a big shark attorney to get all that you can out of your ex-spouse. This fog of conflicting ideologies dictating how you “should” react to a divorce only fosters confusion and anxiety. In fact, according to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, divorce is the second most life changing and stressful event an adult can through. So how can we navigate these conflicting ideologies and minimize this stress and confusion? We must first examine the current framework in which a divorce is addressed and resolved to understand how it perpetuates the problem.

Why a Reason- Based Approach Cannot Work: The Emotional and Physiological Response to Divorce

To understand why the traditional legal framework so often fails (90% of litigated cases return to court), we must look at what actually happens in a divorce, right down to physiological reactions and their influence on our decision making process and capabilities.

Current research shows that all of our decisions are made using the emotional part of our brain—right down to which cereal to eat in the morning. Furthermore, our brains take short cuts in how they process information— we only register a small portion of incoming data, allowing our brains to make sense of it and fill in the gaps based on templates of frequently traveled neuronal pathways—(i.e., experience and pre-conceived notions dictated by society). This organization of data into broad categories not entirely based in reality becomes particularly problematic when we face trauma, such as that of divorce.

It is absolutely true that anger and stress are normal responses to divorce. As noted above, recent studies have shown that I.Q. can drop an astounding 30 points when someone first finds out about their spouses desire to separate or get a divorce. The actual physiological response to this trauma is incredible—the brain actually turns off the neocortex, the area in the mammalian brain responsible for spatial perception, reasoning, and conscious thought. As a result, we are thrust into a primitive “fight or flight” response mode, governed by dominance, competition, fear and greed. We revert back to the very bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (insert photo), feeling like we are struggling for our very survival. The traditional court system focuses on meeting these needs— rarely will a court fail to issue a settlement that provides for both parties fulfilling their most basic needs of shelter, food, water, etc. However, the traditional court system cannot hope to reach any further up the pyramid—even safety is not guaranteed as many have died in the face of a restraining order.

It becomes fairly obvious that the antiquated assumptions which form the foundations of the legal system render it incapable of adequately addressing the natural human reactions and needs that are ingrained in a divorce.

Conclusion: Looking Toward a New Framework

We must find a system which allows for emotions, but also moderates them to ensure they are positively channeled. The recognition of the inadequacies of the current system in addressing the crucial components of divorce has brought forth several movements from those seeking to work outside the traditional court and legal framework. Emergent systems such as unbundled services, mediation, and Collaborative Practice show much promise in accomplishing the delicate balance between addressing emotions and efficiently bringing closure to a marriage.