Ten Things We Do For a Sense of Control During Divorce

Divorce is weird.

Before separate homes are obtained, your spouse is someone you (probably) see more days than not, someone you (most likely) speak to at least once in a 24-hour period and someone who (ostensibly) knows you better than anyone else.

And then you split. And the person who was your everything becomes a sort of avatar in some alternate universe. I mean, they’re not dead but they’re also not the person you knew. They’ve become an almost stranger, yet one that is still somehow familiar.

It’s a weird feeling, going from thinking about them all the time to struggling to not think think about them at all. And in this topsy-turvy turned around world, we often do some strange things in an attempt to regain a sense of control and dominion over our own lives.

Are any of these familiar to you??


1 – Sleuthing and Snooping

This was my preferred bid for control while I was waiting to for the courts to confirm that my marriage was over. I somehow felt more comfortable, more confident when I had an idea of where my ex was and what he was doing. It was simply too… well, weird, to go from daily contact to none. So I, in essence, kept up a one-sided relationship for several months by checking to see if his car was at his parents’ and reading his other wife’s blog.

The snooping gave me a sense of control over what was happening to me. Even though I had no influence over the events, I could at least gather some information. And since that’s exactly what I didn’t have during the marriage, it was sort of currency that helped to pay down my anxiety.

Information can become addictive. I realized that my need to keep up with him was beginning to hurt more than help when I recognized that I was energized by the discovery of new information, defeated once it was learned and allowing myself to be controlled by the incoming data.

I made the decision to go cold turkey and never look him up again. That choice was right for me. Do what’s best for you. No matter your choice, think carefully – Are you gaining a sense of control or are you allowing the information to control you?


2 – Giving Advice to the Ex

I have worked with several people who find themselves in a position of advice-giver and informal life coach for their ex spouse. The role is often a comfortable one for both partners, especially as it continues to promote helplessness in one and power in the other all while continuing a sense of connection.

I understand the motivation to act as guide for your ex. It’s scary to have someone loose in the world who knows your innermost thoughts and vulnerabilities. The thought of them moving on can stop up a sense of unease. What better way to limit the damage and narrow the options than to act as their advisor?

Of course, this role is often limited in scope and span. At some point, the former partner will either ignore the counsel outright or will begin to seek advice elsewhere. And for the advising partner, the control is more illusion than reality. You can suggest, but you cannot mandate. And that’s a good lesson to learn.


3 – Assigning Labels 

I’ve spoken quite a bit about the current trend of labeling people as narcissists. Regardless of the true rate of the disorder, the motivation behind readily assigning labels comes down to a desire for a sense of control.

Whenever we have encounters with difficult people or situations, we use labels to name it and give ourselves a sense of mastery over it. It’s not unlike the concept of knowing a monster or demon’s name in literature; once we name it, we can begin to understand it. And once we understand it, we can then control its influence.

Labeling is a powerful tool. A necessary one. Especially in cases of abuse or extreme power imbalances, labels are extremely effective at deflecting attempted attacks and predicting future ones.

However, labels are also limiting. They are like Cliff Notes, a mere summary of an entire narrative. If you spend too long focused only on the brief synopsis, you risk losing sight of the larger picture.


4 – Applying Rigid Rules

“I can’t date again unless it has been at least one year since the divorce.”

“I will never allow myself to trust again.”

“I have to walk exactly 2 miles every single day.”

Rules have their place. Guidelines are important. Yet when requirements become too restrictive or inflexible, it’s a sign that they are being clung to out of a need for control. Sometimes having too many options becomes overwhelming, so we artificially prune our choices until they seem manageable.

I fell into this one during high school with my eating habits as I struggled to gain a sense of control over my health after a freak arm condition and my life as several young friends died. I cut many foods out of my diet and limited my fat intake to unhealthy low levels. In the midst of all of the craziness, calories were one thing I could count on.

By all means, give yourself lines to color within. Just make sure that you’re also giving yourself room to grow and expand.


5 – Allocating Blame

The most powerful person in a courtroom is the one who hands down judgments. When we point our fingers at another, it helps us to feel as though we are the ones who are calling the shots. After all, the voice is the only weapon left to the victim, the ability to say, “You did this to me.”

Sometimes blame can be empowering, the acceptance of a painful truth acting as a starting point. Other times, blame becomes a trap, keeping you from looking within.

I felt righteous as I first blamed my ex. After all, I didn’t cheat. I didn’t steal. He was the bad one; I was the good. It seemed so clear. But as time moved on, it also rang false. Yes, he did do those horrific things. And no, I did not. But that didn’t mean that I had no responsibility to accept myself.

What I was really looking for was a promise that this wouldn’t happen again. And that wouldn’t come from pointing fingers at him; the best assurances would come from understanding myself.


6 – Micromanaging the Kids

Coparenting is no joke. Just when you get the whole parenting together thing figured out, you have to learn to trust your ex (of all people!) with your children.

A common response to this stressful situation is to try to control all aspects of the children’s experience with the other parent, from the color of their shirts to the side of the car they sit on. Every detail is considered and communicated.

All of that is fear talking. The fear of letting your children out of your sight. The fear that maybe they don’t need you as much as you think they do. The fear of letting go before you’re ready. And so you strive to hold on any way that you can.

Kids need space to grow. Their other parent needs room to navigate their role. This is where trust comes in. Decide what is really important and let go of the rest.


7 – Looking For Reasons Why

I was desperate to figure out why my ex did what he did. I turned myself into an amateur sleuth mixed with armchair psychiatrist in an attempt to make sense of the unanswerable. The search itself made me feel like I was more driver and less passenger of my life as I controlled my focus.

This strategy offers a different sort of control. We want the world to make sense. We expect things to be fair. By looking for explanations and motivations, we are trying to prove that the world still operates according to some common sense guidelines.

Looking for “why” can become a trap because there is rarely a satisfactory answer that suddenly causes everything to fall into place. Instead, some tentative understandings may be reached along with a hearty dose of, “who knows?”


8 – Obsessing Over the Ex’s New Partner

As soon as I learned the name of my husband’s other wife, I set out to learn everything I could about her. I found out the names of her family members, her place of birth and the high school she graduated from. I used the wedding receipts to ascertain that she was a vegan and I learned about her passions from her blog entries.

In my case, my interest was short-lived. Once I actually talked to her (a conversation that is stranger than fiction; check out the book to get the full story), I realized that his actions were way more about his escape than her attributes.

Others don’t have such an easy out. The new partner is front and center in their minds, becoming all-consuming. And by focusing on this (probably) inconsequential person, they are able to look away from the more painful aspects of the split. In other words, obsessing over the new partner is a way to control the overwhelming emotions.


9 – Diving Into the Court Battle

You’ve accepted that you can’t change the past. You’ve admitted that you can’t alter your ex’s behavior. But you can still steer your attorney as long as you keep signing the checks.

Some people seek to find some feeling of jurisdiction during the changes that accompany divorce by striving to dominate the legal process. Some do this through offensive moves, requiring that their ex respond to the constant volley of demands. Others control through noncompliance, dragging out the process and stringing their exes along.

Ultimately, only the attorneys benefit from this bid for power. And no matter how much you pay your lawyer, you may discover that only the judge can make the final call.


10 – Changing the External

The breakup haircut. The divorce remodel. We joke about those things because they’re true. When relationships end, we are often driven to make changes in our external world, either by changing our appearance or by altering the space around us. It’s a small way of exerting just a little bit of control in a world gone mad. It’s a way of saying, “I may not be able to command everything, but at least I have authority over this.”

This is one of the healthier ways to find a sense of mastery in your new and unpredictable life. As long as you maintain control over your budget, that is!

And if you think your need for control is out of control, check out this advice on how to rein it in.




Thank you for sharing!

9 thoughts on “Ten Things We Do For a Sense of Control During Divorce

  1. I can related to all that you wrote about in this post. I have done all at some level not the same extreme as you to maintain control in my life and I don’t like it. I was a person who had full control of my life before this and now I am trying to regain it. These actions make me feel worse not in control. Some of them, I have done because he pulled me in to do it for him. My biggest battle right now is with myself. My soon to be ex cheated on me with someone who I thought of as a friend. I struggle with a lot of trust issues and guilt right now. I made the decision to file for divorce. My actions infuriated him more after I caught him cheating so I became the bad person in this situation not him or this OW. Or at least that is how I see myself based on what he has said to me, what I hear friends repeat to me about what he says to them, his actions and behavior now. I struggle everyday with this battle in my mind. Feeling guilty and wanting forgiveness from the person I love the most in this world even though he is the one who hurt me. He said once several months ago that we yanked things wrong and I won’t take responsibility for any if it. I took offense to his words because it is not true. I have apologize a lot during this whole time and meant it. I tried showing it as well. He however has not. Since you mentioned taking responsibility in your post, I was wondering what you meant by this being the person cheated on like myself. I believe I have taken responsibility, hence all the guilt I feel, and i need to let it go. It is making me sick. I am waiting for someone to forgive me for deciding to divorce him because he cheated on me. I see this as very screwed up. Why should I be forgiven for deciding to do what is best for me? He clearly decided to do what he wanted when he cheated and isn’t able to to admit that his actions set the ball in motion. I also don’t understand why I am the one trying to gain control this way and it doesn’t seem like he is. I deal with feelings of rejection because I don’t think he once did any of the things you mentioned in this post. I have felt like he just washed his hands of me and only wanted me to help him learn to be a single person. When I wouldn’t anymore he seemed to move on quickly.

    1. The one who cheated often lays the blame for their actions at the feet of their partner. By backing you look/feel bad, he makes himself out to be the “good guy” in his mind. He’s not going to be an accurate source of information about you. He’s projecting the image of you that he wants/needs to see right now to lessen his own guilt.

      When I talk about the betrayed taking responsibility, it basically comes down to two things:

      1 – Refusing to stay in a place of victimhood and taking responsibility for your own healing process. For example, I thought for a time that I needed my ex to apologize in order for me to move on. That was placing the responsibility for my well-being on his shoulders. And that’s ultimately a losing proposition.

      2 – Casting a critical eye on your tendencies/behaviors/fears in the relationship in order to learn and grow. In my case, my fear of confrontation and losing my husband helped to make me blind to what happened. Again, the betrayal is on him, but by learning to manage my own stuff, I’m in a healthier relationship now.

      Suggestion with the guilt – compose a list of the reasons that divorce was the right decision for you. Enlist the help of trusted friends or family. I have a feeling that seeing it spelled out will help you find peace with the decision.

      Don’t worry about words right now. Think of him as a kid who’s just been caught. He’ll say anything to try to weasel out of it.

      1. Thank you for the suggestions. They are helpful. These are things that my family, friends and therapist have been telling me. It is just taking a long time for it to sink in. We are like acquaintances right now and that is the hardest for me too because I didn’t expect or want this. Plus how can you be an acquantice with someone who you have been with for over 30 years more than half your life. I don’t regret my decision because I can’t be with someone who cheated and isn’t remorseful but I am also still in love with and miss him tremendously. It hurts too much to have any contact with him of any kind which is difficult since we have children and are going to be grandparents soon.

  2. I definitely looked for the “why” (she cheated), but other than that, once I made the decision to move on that was it. I was out, no looking back, no checking up on her. We have to talk occasionally due to the kids, but at this point she’s basically an acquaintance. Someone I know, or knew, but her life moving forwards is hers and I’m not really interested in what she does with it, as long as the kids are fine when the are with her.

    1. Our kids are adults. I find it hard thinking of him as an acquaintance and him acting like I am one after 28 years of marriage with 5 years of dating prior. He is the one who cheated and when I asked him to stop the relationship…1. I was told I made demands and put time limits on him….2. He said that he was only friends with this woman and he doesn’t just kick his friends to the curb it doesn’t matter who they are…3. I expressed concern that she would do something to herself and he said he would be able to live with himself if something happened to her because what was happening in our house. Basically, I became second best to a woman that I thought was a friend to me and I when I finally put my foot down for good. He, like you, has not looked back, has not checked up on me. Instead, he continued his relationship with this OW as if nothing ever happened, which infuriates and frustrate me even more, especially since I have to keep my distant from him and her for my emotional well-being. The only thing I am really interested in right now is that they would admit what they did and apologize to me. Unfortunately, I know this will never happen. So it is a daily battle in my head to wipe it all from my mind and move on.

      1. Hi lorrieirvin,

        I had to take the approach I did for my own sanity. When I found out about the affair, she denied it, only admitting it when I had proof, and then only admitting to the bare minimum she thought she was caught in. She also tried turning it around and blaming me for her choices. And like yourself, I never got an apology. There was no guilt, just anger at being caught.

        After that, there was just no way I would have ever been able to look at her in the same way again. It made me call into question everything I had thought I knew. It hurt, a lot. But accepting that she had made her choices and they were hers allowed me to detach myself somewhat from things.

        Life has to move forward for me, and there was no point wasting mental energy on someone had been able to do that to me.

        1. zombiedrew2,
          You just described what I have been living. I am trying to get to the point where like you I waste no mental energy on someone who can do that to me. If you do not mind me asking how long did it take you to get to this point? Did it happen after the divorce was final or before?

          1. Hi Lorrie, well the divorce isn’t final yet – so I guess before. It’s a bit complicated though (are they always). She walked out on me 5 years ago, physically and emotionally – giving me some garbage about being confused, not being sure if she wanted to be married anymore, and needing some time.

            We had been together a long time, and have kids. So I tried to see this as one of the “bad times” that went with the good. I tried to keep my marriage and family together, while she stayed checked out on me and increasingly wanted to live an independent life.

            Then I found out about the affair, which had been ongoing for many years. And really, that was it for me. As soon as I realized that this whole time she had been effectively using me, I was done. I had probably a week where I struggle with it, and after that, there was no looking back. That was a year ago.

            1. Well this is all fresh and new for me. I wasn’t expecting it at all. I believed we were in a good place up till last fall. We have been married for 28 years and dated for 5 before that. We talked about what we’re planned for retirement. We or at least I was excited about our adult children finally moving out and having time to ourselves again. Of course, we had the usual ups and downs that all marriages have and I believed we could weather any storm and he promised me we could. Unfortunately, the one thing that I told him I would never be able to handle was another woman and that is what came between us. What started out as a friendship with someone who I also became friendly with became more than that. I told him I was jealous and didn’t trust her. He promised to not cross any boundaries and than it all went down hill from there. Like you, I found evidence that for me showed cheating. He denied it and only admitted certains things. He became defensive, he was confused, needed time to think, and he defended the other woman. The list goes on. Finally I left him after about 2-3 months of trying to make things work and couples therapy because I had to think of my emotional wellbeing. I continued to try and work things out with him though and eventually felt like he was using me so I finally so enough I am done. Still despite all of this, my brain is in the right place right now. However it is my heart that continues to hang one and I am trying hard to stop living in the past, looking for answers I will never get and hoping to not stay trapped in this hole I fell in today. I was totally blindsided but the person I trusted the most in my life andsimejne else I called friend.

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