Getting Uncoupled

Anger Can Blind a Marriage Long After Divorce

Magazine Issue
March/April 2006
Getting Uncoupled

Marcia and Frank sat across from each other in the waiting room. She was a slight, fair-haired woman in her mid-forties who initially appeared rather meek. She looked worn and drawn. By contrast, he was large and imposing. Although he was quiet, his presence alone appeared to exude considerable power for his wife, judging from the way she kept glancing over at him to see his reactions.

Marcia had made the appointment, telling me on the phone that she and Frank had been separated for nearly two years and were heading for a divorce. They wanted to come in for counseling about their son, Mark, who seemed to be having trouble dealing with the breakup of their marriage. The session she’d scheduled for herself and Frank alone was ostensibly to talk about Mark, and how they might help him adjust to the new domestic situation.

From the phone conversation, it sounded as if Marcia and Frank had made a reasonable adjustment to their separation, and were now ready to work together as a parental team on behalf of their son. But when they entered the therapy room, they immediately moved to separate corners, like boxers gearing up for the big fight. Marcia did most of the talking from her corner, while Frank sat stone faced in his, occasionally making a remark out of the corner of his mouth. Neither looked at or spoke directly to the other.

Marcia vaguely referred to problems with her son’s behavior, using generalizations like, “I can’t communicate with him” and “We don’t get along,” but never describing any specific problem. When the therapist, Marian, whom I was supervising, tried to clarify why they’d sought therapy, the same pattern continued-abstractions from Marcia with occasional interjections from the mostly sullen and taciturn Frank.

Thirty minutes later, Marian still didn’t have any idea why they wanted therapy. But, considering that Frank and Marcia both sat rigidly in their chairs, never once acknowledging the presence of the other and looking for all the world like any other angry, troubled, married couple, Marian abruptly took a plunge in another direction. She asked them to be more specific about why they’d come in. “I can’t help wondering,” she said, “if you two are still having marital problems.”

Marcia suddenly exploded. “What, be married to him? Are you crazy?! I’ve been trying to divorce him for two years, and I just want to get it over with, so I never have to deal with him again. But we have a son, so I’mforced to deal with him! Frank won’t cooperate with anything I try to do for Mark’s sake-he stonewalls on everything just the way he did during the whole time we were married.” With her voice growing louder and shriller, she continued to berate Frank for being pigheaded, obstructive, and out to sabotage everything she’d ever tried to do, in the marriage and during the divorce proceedings. Frank’s face became even harder and more sullen, if that was possible. Marian sat quietly for a few moments as she tried to figure out what she was dealing with. What was this unfolding drama? Was this a child case, a marriage case, or a divorce case?

In fact, as it very quickly became clear, it wasn’t exactly a divorce or a marriage case, but a kind of hybrid. This couple was technically and officially getting a divorce, but they’d by no means made any kind of reasonable and peaceful “adjustment” to their status as soon-to-be ex-spouses. Quite the contrary, they were still seething with unresolved emotion for and about each other. Marcia was shrieking, and Frank was looking like every other silently angry male spouse Marian had ever seen. Although Marcia was furiously insisting that she wanted nothing more to do with Frank, she was showing by the intensity of her emotion that she was hardly feeling in any way detached from him. For his part, Frank’s body language said it all-he was no more emotionally removed from his wife than she was from him.

Trying to understand what the real issues were-Mark’s problems didn’t really seem to grab the interest of either of them-Marian shifted focus from their son and asked the couple how they were handling their separation. She found out then that they weren’t really “separated.” Marcia still drove Frank to doctors’ appointments and brought him chicken soup when he was sick. She had a circle of friends, but he hadn’t moved on to finding other companions; Marcia was still the most significant adult in his life. The two spoke on the phone every day. Frank’s possessions remained in their marital home, where Marcia still resided. In short, they seemed to be both married and not married.

Attachment isn’t always demonstrated through affection or clingy neediness. Spouses who can’t let go of each other often exhibit a pattern of constant animosity. Like Martha and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? they keep the battle roiling between them as a perverse means of staying together.

Indeed, Frank and Marcia, like many couples who are legally divorced or seeking divorce, were still emotionally tied to each other, and this underground “marriage” made it hard to get a legal, much less an emotional, divorce.

So, what should the therapist address next? Would it be wise for Marian to crack open this emotional powder keg and discuss with both spouses together why they were so upset with each other? Or might it be better to see them separately to figure out why the emotional intensity between them was so high and to clarify what the issues were that they needed to resolve regarding their son? Marcia opted for the latter, choosing to explore with each individually the various factors that still kept them emotionally married.

The individual sessions revealed that one factor was Marcia’s sense of betrayal. When a couple divorces simply because both parties decide they can’t get along, there’s less chance of unresolved, postdivorce attachment than is the case when one partner has been, or feels, betrayed by the other. Paradoxically, betrayal is a kind of glue that tends to keep couples emotionally stuck together in a way that a divorce arising from mutual dissatisfactions doesn’t.

In this case, Frank had not only engaged in an affair, but had squandered a great deal of the couple’s life savings on his mistress. Therefore, as the couple went through the divorce process, any lapse in Frank’s cooperation with Marcia made her feel violated and victimized all over again. His guilt about what he’d done made him feel depressed and withdrawn, which looked to Marcia like sullen indifference, resistance, and a refusal to cooperate. But in fact, any time Frank moved toward her emotionally and made a stab at cooperating, his sense of guilt overwhelmed him and he sank back down further into silent, apathetic depression. To Marcia, his withdrawal felt like another betrayal because now he was having a secret affair, so to speak, with whatever was going on inside his own head.

Another sign that this couple had technically separated but remained emotionally married was the intense passion they each felt for each other, albeit it in a painful, mutually wounding sort of way. Divorcing people who haven’t resolved their feelings about either the marriage or their separation often refuse to allow themselves to be conscious of the fact that they may still feel strongly drawn to the other, often sexually. A circumstance so common as to be almost a cliche’ is the recently separated or even long divorced couple who meet again and fall passionately into bed together. This sort of thing can go on for years.

Frank was so emotionally overwhelmed by what he’d done to Marcia that he’d tried to hang himself to get her the insurance money to replace what he’d spent on his girlfriend. His attempt to kill himself came very close to succeeding, and he spent a long time in the hospital. His passion was perhaps unusual in being so intense that he was willing to die for his wife, but any therapist has seen similar actions in marriages that are supposedly over.

Frank’s desperate act complicated and intensified the family relationships. Mark felt sympathetic and protective toward his father, and tended to blame Marcia for the whole imbroglio. This infuriated Marcia and intensified her sense of betrayal. No way had this couple “put the past behind them.”

Finally, ongoing anger is a sign of a relationship that’s still very much alive, in a kicking-and-screaming sort of way. Strong, negative emotions about someone allow the angry person the illusion that he or she is truly finished with the ex, when, in fact, the intensity of the anger belies this. Obviously, Marcia was enraged at Frank for his hurtful lapses. But Frank had been angry with Marcia for a long time before the affair. And considering his silent but obvious hostility, it was safe to conclude that he was still angry, though he kept it submerged in depression-any awareness of his own anger evoked feelings of shame and guilt for what he had done. The old pattern that had led to the affair in the first place was still evident. Marcia had been, and continued to be, highly and vocally critical of Frank, to which he responded with passive-aggressive silence, refusing to allow himself to show his rage.

The Realization

The first step in treatment with couples in this predicament is to make the covert drama overt. Once Marian had a good idea of the situation, she simply stated what she believed to be the truth: in spite of the decision to divorce, Frank and Marcia were still strongly attached to each other. She did this because once a covert drama is made overt, it’s much harder to maintain.

She also shared her sense that there was still a good deal of love in this relationship. Otherwise, she wondered, why would Marcia be so filled with passionate emotion years after the betrayal, and after she’d presumably put it behind her by separating from Frank? Likewise, why would Frank still feel such intense shame and pain? It seemed to her that they were still acting the way they did when they were married and struggling to survive as a couple. Therefore, Marian concluded, she doubted whether they really wanted to be divorced at all. Her position allowed her to wisely remain neutral about whether they should or shouldn’t get divorced-she simply was describing what she saw.

At this point, I should note that both Marian and I felt strongly that Marcia would have to be crazy not to be enraged by Frank’s behavior. We weren’t challenging the validity of her anger, only the relentless intensity of it. The point was to help her become aware of this pattern, as a first step to moving beyond it and proceeding to a “real” divorce, if that was what she actually wanted.

Marian also told the couple that she knew they’d probably reject what she was telling them. She got an immediate and negative emotional reaction from both of them. “Do you call this a marriage?” Marcia cried. “I don’t want to be married to him! He keeps hurting me, just like he did when we were married. He withholds everything-he’s just an emotional stone wall, and always has been!” Marian responded that she appreciated what Marcia was saying, but that the very strength of Marcia’s feelings supported her assessment that they were still so emotionally attached that she doubted their commitment to divorce. “Tell me what I have to do to end this thing and I’ll do it!” Marcia wailed desperately. Marian responded that she still wasn’t convinced that she wanted out.

Marian used this approach because it mixed the truth with a strategy for change. Her statement about the love between Marcia and Frank provided a useful insight that helped them see that their actions weren’t consistent with their spoken desire to pull apart. This insight challenged them to focus on their unconscious interactions rather than on their conscious feelings of anger and betrayal, allowing each of them to see how much they stirred up emotional responses in the other.

If either or both spouses agreed with this new understanding of their interactions, they’d either accept the wisdom of Marian’s assertion, calm down, become less reactive, and work more cooperatively toward their spoken goals or rethink whether divorce was what they really wanted. Another alternative was that one or both might want to challenge her assertion that they were acting more like people who love each other than like individuals who were trying to get a divorce. If Marcia and Frank were particularly resistant, they might even begin to feel angry at Marian and want to prove her wrong. Whatever the response, using this strategic intervention, Marian was actually shifting the focus of therapy to the dilemma they already were facing-did they or didn’t they want a divorce?-and forcing them to deal with it, rather than fight each other.

Surprisingly, Frank now came to Marcia’s rescue by making one of the first clear statements he’d made since entering therapy. He sat forward and growled at Marian, “We don’t have to convince you of anything.” This defense of Marcia implicitly confirmed the validity of Marian’s insight that they were emotionally still married.

By the end of this session, it was painfully clear why Marcia and Frank had been unable to cooperate on any of the steps necessary to settle either the domestic or financial aspects of their divorce. Since the immediate response to Marian’s challenge was a hostile rejoinder by Frank, Marian concluded that the change would happen because Frank and Marcia would want to prove her wrong in her view that they couldn’t let go of each other. As Joel Bergman wrote in Fishing for Barracuda, she’d offered them a contest interesting enough to replace the contest they were already in.

At the end of the session, Marian said that if they were really ready to let go of each other emotionally, they should be able to pick one settlement issue that remained unresolved and complete it within the two weeks before the next session. By doing this, she was again redirecting them away from their inner turmoil to their mutual interactions by giving them a task that they couldn’t accomplish if they focused only on their animosity toward each other.

Moving On

Frank and Marcia walked into the next session dramatically altered. Marcia said in a conversational tone that they’d been working on their divorce and talking about financial issues. Frank agreed with more geniality and warmth than would have seemed possible only two weeks before. During this session, for example, when Marcia reminded Frank of a detail he needed to pursue with his accountant, he promptly took out a pad and pen and jotted down a note to himself. As we discussed earlier in this case study, their conscious understanding that old feelings of attachment and even love actually stood in the way of their divorce transformed their experience and their perceptions of each other, allowing them to form a friendly coalition for the task at hand. Whether they’d accepted the therapist’s opinion and acted on what she suggested they do or had taken umbrage with her-which is what they did-the result would have been the same. Marian’s intervention had thrown them into an entirely new set of interactions, which had transformed their hostile marital dance into a more harmonious choreography.

Their acceptance of the challenge posed in the previous session had allowed both of them to get more in touch with the feelings of kindness for each other that remained in spite of their anger. If at this point they’d told Marian they’d decided not to divorce, she’d have supported them and helped them work on their reconciliation. However, they still intended to pursue the divorce, but they had paradoxically now become a couple who could work together for a common aim-the dissolution of their marriage.

Marian continued to express skepticism about their ability to take each additional step necessary to resolve the divorce issues. She applauded each success, but repeatedly wondered with them whether the next step might not throw them, either back into each other’s arms or into renewed hostilities. They came back to each session proudly demonstrating that they’d proven her wrong yet again about the danger of relapse.

The date when they needed to appear in court and finalize their divorce arrived between the sixth and seventh sessions, and Martha and Frank were ready. They carried their court appearance off without a hitch and terminated therapy after session seven. During the next two years, Marcia, Frank, and Mark came in periodically for counseling sessions geared to helping everyone become a cooperative, post-divorce family.

The legally divorced but emotionally married couple hasn’t garnered nearly the attention it deserves from therapists. However, it’s a dilemma that can haunt families for decades, taking the form of what looks to outsiders like ongoing warfare over issues that have long since lost any relevance. Such relationships can cause enormous suffering, not only to the spouses themselves, preventing either of them from getting on with life, but to the children, who essentially grow into adulthood in an emotional war zone.

In our culture, most people marry in a haze of love, passion, sexual desire, and the delusion that they’ll always feel about the other the way they do on their wedding day. No wonder many are conflicted about the decision to divorce and reluctant to give up on those feelings! And we therapists working with divorcing couples always need to bear in mind that where there’s been love, there’s always the potential for the messy intensity and confusion of ambivalent attachment when it’s gone.


Jerome Price

Jerome Price, MA, LMFT, LMSW, is the director and founder of the Michigan Family Institute, Inc. He is a family therapist, author and internationally recognized presenter, having written one of the better known professional books on treating adolescents (Power and Compassion, Guilford Press 1996).