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.





Controlling Your Divorce

Part of what makes divorce so difficult is that so much of what is happening around you – and to you – is completely out of your control. It’s scary. It’s crazy-making. It’s infuriating.

And it also doesn’t have to be so bad. Learn how you can control your divorce. 



7 Subtle Signs You Have a Backseat Driver in Your Life

For a long time (okay, even now), when my now-husband would vocalize his opinion about something that he thought would be good for me, I recoiled. It felt almost invasive.



Not because of what he was saying, but because of what I have been through.

My now-husband is direct, expressing his thoughts and feelings overtly and directly (a trait I very consciously looked for the second time around). Sometime I chafe, but I love the fact that it’s all on the table. And even though it’s not always comfortable, I love that he challenges me to defend my decisions and actions because it serves to help make me better.

My former husband was covert, passive aggressive and manipulative in his approach. Unflinchingly supportive on the surface of any thought or action I undertook, while silently steering me in the direction he wanted. He never questioned me, never told me what to do (except to relax while he tackled some chore on his own). His control was subtle, which is exactly why it was so powerful. My defenses were never triggered until it was too late.

The following strategies are commonly used by people who are passively controlling. Those who, rather than overtly take over the wheel of your life, cunningly influence how you turn the wheel. All of these signs can have multiple meanings; on their own they do not indicate control. But when more than one show up along with a sense that boundaries are being crossed, it warrants a closer look.

The tears may be real, but the emotion is not. This trick is learned in infancy, as babies realize how tears can halt punishment and bring attention. Some never abandon this trick and persist in using tears to manipulate those around them. Look out for waterworks that only come when something is desired and seem to halt as soon as the goal is obtained.

Affection and attention are doled out as a distraction and a pacifier. This was my ex’s favored ploy. It sounds crazy to complain about an attentive husband, but when I look back, the affection was increasingly used whenever I came dangerously close to the truth. His great big bear hugs felt protective at the time, now they seem more like a martial arts-style submission.

Decisions are held back. Waiting to make and/or communicate a choice is a particularly crazy-making form of covert control. Everybody else is held in limbo, their own lives and decisions delayed. Doing nothing can carry with a great deal of power when others are depending upon you.

Money is used as a mode of communication. Sometimes finances are used in overt control, such as when one spouse makes all of the financial decisions and doles out an allowance to the other. But it can also be more indirect, such as when purchases are kept hidden or the partner with the higher income feels entitled to make decisions for everyone.

Judgement is passed. This can be direct, “You look like you’re trying too hard when you wear that skirt,” or indirect, pronouncing something unacceptable in someone else. My ex took it a step further and frequently renounced choices and behaviors in others that he was guilty of himself.

The favors and gifts are given with some sort of reciprocity in mind. The stereotypical idea of a wife using sex to get her husband to do things comes to mind here, but it’s by no means the only modality used. Handouts can be used with great efficacy to shape behaviors. After all, there’s a reason we train animals that way.

They accuse you of being controlling. Projection and gaslighting at its finest.


In a healthy relationship, each partner challenges theother and accepts influence from the other. It flows both ways, balanced.

When there is controlling behavior present, the interange is not equal. One holds more power than the other.

And when there is a backseat driver, a more passive controller, this inbalance can be difficult to pinpoint.

Control thrives when you’re too close too it, too afraid to see it and unwilling to erect and maintain boundaries.

Take a step back, trust in yourself and practice making decisons by yourself and for yourself.



I Hate Mums

I Reject Your Reality and Substitute My Own

Subtle Signs You’re Being Manipulated By a Covert Abuser

The Misuse Of Affection

How to Rein In Your Need For Control

I was embarrassed to wear shorts.

The insides of my thighs were covered with tiny half-moon cuts and welts, formed by my own finger nails digging into my tender flesh. It hurt. But strangely enough, I did it in an attempt to not feel pain.

It was my first conscious bid for control. Every month, my hormones would send my insides roiling and the uncontrollable pain made me feel like I was a pawn to my body’s commands.

And so I found a way to create a pain that was under my control. A pain that would distract from the other and that I could alter the intensity at will.

The next act of control was also prompted by the actions of my body. After hand surgery and complications, I faced months of physical therapy and time in homebound school. Again, I felt helpless against the pain and limitations of my body.

And this time my dominant hand was unavailable to cut half-moon slivers from my thighs.

So instead, I cut fat from my diet. Today, I probably would be diagnosed as orthorexic, a pattern of eating extremely “healthy,” where major food groups are eliminated. I ate plenty. But still my hair grew thin and my skin dry because of the lack of fat.

I saw it at the time as an example of great willpower.

In reality, it was great fear.

I continued to play this game. Every time life told me I wasn’t in the driver’s seat, I responded with a, “Yeah, watch this! I’m going to MAKE this happen.”

And then I would.

And I would feel a little better for a time.

A little more in control.

And a little less scared.

But it was always temporary. Because life always had something else in store. Something I couldn’t control.

And it took the big one – facing my biggest fears of losing my then-husband along with all of my financial security – to make me finally realize that the joke was on me.

That by trying to control, I was only adding to the tension. The fear.

Because there I was, everything gone. Nothing certain.

And for the first time in my entire life, I felt no need to try to control anything.

Control What You Can (And Only What You Can)

Even in the most overwhelming and devastating of life’s tsunamis, there will always be something that you have some level of power over.

And it’s amazing how far just a touch of control can go in easing your mind. Identify what you can control within your situation and control the heck out it. Be careful here not to make the mistake I did in my youth. You’re looking for areas you can control that don’t cause you additional harm.

For example, I have a friend in the early (and rife with scary unknowns) stages of cancer treatment. There is so much she has no jurisdiction over. However, when she was sent home with a software-protected disc of images and instructions to wait several days until her doctor could read the results, she had other ideas. She controlled what little she could.

Look At the Big Picture

The more narrow your focus, the more likely you are to get upset or scared by what you see. Because in the details, it’s all overwhelming. So take a step back and try to see the bigger picture. Not only does the current situation represent only a small section of your life, but you may also find that the areas where you can take more control will increase in time.

If you’re having trouble seeing the forest for the trees at your current juncture, talk to, read or watch somebody who has been through similar. This will help to provide perspective and give you ideas of how you can work within your particular parameters.

Build Belief in Yourself

Part of what makes a lack of control so scary is that we can easily become afraid that we won’t be able to make it through. So put effort into building your confidence in yourself (guess what – that’s something you do have some control over!).

Remind yourself of areas where you succeeded despite the odds. Engage in activities where you shine. Surround yourself with people that believe in you and build you up. Set (and achieve) small challenges for yourself.

Understand the Difference Between Control and Choice

You cannot always control what happens to you, but you can always choose your response. Rather than get hung up on what you cannot control, recognize the power inherent in being able to select your reaction.

When my first husband ended the marriage with a text, I was so angry at first that I couldn’t make him talk to me. I felt powerless. Like my voice and and my options were taken from me. Eventually, after months of being angry and frustrated, I realized that I was focusing on what I couldn’t do rather than on what I could. And I soon as I made the decision to shift my attentions to my own choices (as opposed to his), the anger and frustration started to dissipate.

It’s a little crazy, the only control he had over me was the control I gave him. Once I decided that I would be okay regardless of him, I took back that control. That’s really what forgiveness is all about – a shift in the idea of who gets to decide when you’re okay.

Learn Your Fear Languages

It’s not just love that has its own languages; fear has its preferred tongues as well. Do you have a tendency to catastrophize, assuming that everything will end in the worst? Are you prone to all-or-none thinking when it comes to life’s struggles? Do you get overwhelmed by the details and fear that you’ll never find your way out? Do you stop sleeping as your nights fill with thoughts? Or do you worry about the future, endlessly ruminating over possible scenarios?

Learn to recognize when your fear is speaking. That alone is powerful. We often interpret its words as facts, when really they’re just opinions. And biased ones at that.

Know Your Go-To No-Goods

We all have distractions we turn to in an effort to take the edge off of the discomfort of being out of control of our lives. I used to tattoo half-moons into my legs and demonize butter. Maybe you turn to alcohol or Netflix or the space under your covers.

Recognize what you are pulled towards that is not good for you or not good for you in quantity. Just naming them can sometimes help lessen their pull. If you find their siren song is too strong, don’t hesitate to get help. Because at that point, you have relinquished control to your particular habit. And isn’t a desire for control what sent you there in the first place?

Learn to Steer Intro the Skid

One of the first safety lessons new drivers learn is what to do in case of a skid. Because untrained instinct, which tells us to pull the wheel sharply against the skid, will only lead us off the road. Instead, we have to be coached (and often convinced) that the best way out of a skid is to move the wheel along with it until control of the car is regained.

And that same principle holds true when life throws us into a skid. Be patient. Work with it. And take control again once you are able.

Remind Yourself Why It’s Worth It

When you’re feeling out of control, it’s easy to center your attention on what you don’t like about the situation. So try shifting it to what you eventually will like about the results. When I was going through my divorce, I wrote a list of all of the things I was experiencing or would (hopefully) get to experience that wouldn’t have happened if the marriage didn’t end. I also constantly reminded myself that the (totally unwanted and totally sucky) situation was also making me stronger, more aware and more compassionate.

Trust That You’ll Be Okay (Even If You Don’t Know How)

So much of a need to control is a desire to know the future. Which, of course, is impossible. For all of us. It really comes down to faith. Trust that even if you don’t know how or when, you’ll be okay.

Time spent worrying and trying to control takes away your happiness now in a barter with life for happiness later. But life doesn’t always honor those rules. You’re much better off taking life as it comes and accepting that the only thing you can ever control is your own response.

So make it a good one.





Early April of 2010 was a strange time for me. My divorce had been finalized a few weeks before, I had given notice at my current school that I would not be returning the following year, I had just started falling for Brock and I was planning on moving to Seattle in June. I should have been in a panic.  The life I was living had an expiration date. I didn’t know how I would make money or where I was going to live come June. I should have been scared of the unknown, especially since I am a planner by nature. Surprisingly, I was only slightly uncomfortable with the amorphous nature of my future. I think I was so relieved to have survived the divorce that I felt like I could accomplish anything.

I had been applying to school jobs online in the Seattle area, but I needed to visit the city in person to complete the background check needed to get my teaching certification in Washington. My friend and coworker, Carissa, was in a similar situation. She was ready to leave Georgia and wanted to move to the NW to go to graduate school. Like me, she had vague plans but nothing solidified. We decided to move against the spring break migratory patterns and visit Seattle that April. We planned on a combination of sightseeing and job hunting/ school searching while we stayed with my dad and his wife.

We rented a car and plugged in my GPS, which I packed since I had only been to Seattle once as adult (I was visiting Seattle the previous summer when I received the text that my husband had left). Now, if you are familiar with Seattle, you know there is an area through downtown where the interstate splits into 17 levels (okay, so maybe it’s more like 3, but it feels like 17). As Carissa and I were traversing that area in order to get from the airport to my dad’s house, the GPS instructed us to take a left turn from the top level where there was no place to turn. We ignored its command since we hadn’t taken out the extra rental insurance. A few moments later, the device announced, in a voice that sounded like a robot raised in Australia, “Recalculating.”

It became a common utterance of the GPS over the next week as we traveled around unknown areas. We laughed every time we heard that word and it became the theme of our week. I’m not sure if it was due to the excessive cloud cover in Seattle in the spring, our wrong turns, or divine providence, but I have never heard my GPS recalculate so much before or since. Carissa and I never became annoyed at the machine, we actually laughed harder each time it needed to recalculate. It wasn’t worth getting upset about. We trusted the GPS to get us there even if it took a different path than expected.

It was fitting, as Carissa and I were both recalculating ourselves during that trip. We went into the week with grand plans of interviews (for both) and university tours (for her). The reality? We went whale watching, took the underground tour, did the wineries, saw Vagina Monologues, listened to live music, visited the Pike St. market and hiked the foothills of the Cascades (every trip peppered with “recalculating”. We only made one future-related stop and that was to submit the fingerprints and other information for the background check in order to teach in Washington. Now, Carissa really wanted to take a break from teaching and become a full-time student. She was only applying as a back-up. Me? I had no desire to go back to school; I was applying to be able to bring in a paycheck.

Except I made the decision at the last minute not to complete the process.

My entire life, I have played it safe. I have always been conservative with career choices and money. I only took very calculated risks and generally only when I was okay regardless of the outcome. I’ve never been impulsive. I’m not one to fly by the seat of my pants. I am a planner to the nth degree. I find comfort and security in lists and spreadsheets.

But that week, I recalculated. I made the decision to put aside the plans (and, yes, spreadsheets) of the previous 8 months. I decided to shelve my preparations for a move to Seattle. I still don’t really know why I did it and I still can’t believe that I did. I chose to follow my instinct that spring rather than approach the situation more rationally. So, after traveling 3000 miles from Atlanta to look for employment in the NW, I started looking for Georgia jobs while seated on my father’s couch. Nuts? Absolutely. But, strangely, I felt calm about the decision.

Within a few weeks, I had a job in Atlanta lined up for the fall and I located an apartment. It’s a decision that I’ve never regretted but I still can’t fully understand. Yes, I had started seeing Brock, but that relationship was very young and we had no idea that it was going to persist. Honestly, at that time, I would have said that my need to escape from the memories of Atlanta was stronger than my feelings for Brock. So, why did I stay? What was it in that moment that allowed me to trust the GPS of my gut rather than the itinerary mapped out in my brain? I don’t know but I’m glad I listened.

It’s easy for us to try to fully plan our route through life. But sometimes, our vision becomes clouded or we make a wrong turn or divine providence intervenes and we have to recalculate. Sometimes we get upset when that happens. We want to get back on the planned route and continue the planned journey. We might get irritated at having our preparations interrupted.Yet, we never really know where a path will lead. Every journey has an element of faith. Sometimes we simply have to trust that a decision is the right one for us in the moment.

As a planner, I struggle with staying calm when things unexpectedly change. But now, when they do, I think back to that spring, Carissa and I laughing in the car, and my instinct leading me the right way. There’s nothing wrong with recalculating. Even if you traveled a long way to do it.

Now, if I could only go whale watching in Atlanta:)