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.