Managing your emotions during a breakup or divorce is a real challenge – to put it mildly. You can expect to feel everything from sorrow, rage, and anxiety to relief and hope – regardless of who chose to end the relationship.
Even though it’s a normal part of the healing process, anger can become a destructive force in your life. As a therapist, I have seen anger between divorcing couples derail settlement attempts and sabotage the development of good parenting plans for their children.
Anger is a normal response to a breakup
“During my divorce proceedings, I attended a funeral for the husband of a dear friend. Sitting beside her at the graveside, I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t my ex be the one being buried instead of her beloved?’”
“When I found out he filed for divorce, I smashed every last family photo I could find. There was glass everywhere. And then I left the house. I mean he cheated and now he was off with her, and I was left to figure out what to do next. I was so angry.”
Both quotes are from actual clients. If you can relate, don’t beat yourself about feeling angry. Anger is most often triggered by some sort of rejection, threat, or perceived loss. Hostile thoughts and physiological arousal are normal responses toward a person or situation you feel has deliberately done you wrong.
A breakup leaves you feeling insecure, powerless, and fearful of the unknown. Anger produces a seductive sense of self-righteousness and moral superiority that dulls your pain and boosts your self-esteem. Initially, it feels far more satisfying to remain angry rather than acknowledge and cope with your painful feelings.
Eventually, you must cope with your overwhelming feelings, or they will poison you from the inside out.
Unresolved anger after a breakup can bleed into other relationships
Unresolved anger tends to have a negative effect on your personal and professional relationships. It has been said that holding onto anger is like drinking poison but waiting for the other person to die. If you don’t heal what has hurt you, you will continue to bleed on people who did not cut you.
How you feel is never a crime, but how you choose to act when you are angry can certainly lead to being charged with one. Anger spins out of control and becomes destructive when pain gets filtered through an irrational, inflexible belief system that is largely based on emotion, not facts.
Don’t buy into the fantasy that you should never be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or disappointment. No one is immune from adversity. We all get a turn.
Adverse situations provide you with opportunities for personal growth. When you can acknowledge this, you become better able to diffuse and process your negative emotions in a healthy way. You can fine tune your problem-solving skills and improve communication with others.
Exploding or suppressing anger can lead to negative consequences
How you choose to process and express your anger makes a world of difference to your mental and physical health. Most people move through anger in one of three ways:
- Calming themselves
Exploding feels very much like vomiting – a relief at first, but in no time, you feel sick inside again. Explosive anger will only escalate an already bad situation.
Suppressing anger is the act of turning your angry feelings inward so you can avoid dealing with them. Over time, suppressed anger can morph into negative, unhealthy behaviors like passive-aggression, cynicism, or vindictiveness. Strive to deescalate the intensity of your anger and extinguish the physiological arousal without exploding or suppressing. Both can lead to physical symptoms such as nausea, headaches, intestinal problems, rashes. In the worst of scenarios, people find themselves in the emergency room suffering a heart attack.
You can never completely ignore or eliminate people and situations that enrage you. You cannot change their behavior either. But you can learn to adjust your reactions and your behavior. Instead of projecting your angry feelings onto your ex, shift your attention to what you define as the actual problem. Your ex is not the problem. The narrative you assign to how you feel about your ex is the problem.
When anger becomes problem-focused instead of people-focused, it becomes easier to transform your feelings of vulnerability and helplessness into a sense of control and power.
One of my clients made the choice to stop referring to bad drivers as “human pieces of garbage.” He now chooses to say, “That driver is violating the social contract,” when he witnesses careless driving. By shifting the problem from being people-focused to problem-focused, he experiences less aggravation when driving.
Master your anger with calming method
The healthiest way to diffuse and process anger is to use the calming method. The calming method blends three skills proven to provide relief:
- compassion (including self-compassion)
Put into practice, this framework empowers you to communicate your needs succinctly and respectfully to yourself and others, leaving you best able to explain just how you would like to have those needs met. There are several ways you can infuse the calming method into your everyday life.
Try the 4-7-8 breathing technique
Your breath is your literal source of life. Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system and sends a soothing signal to your brain that calms anxiety and deactivates that fight, flight, or freeze response. Practicing the 4-7-8 breathing technique can help you become more mindful.
Begin by taking a moment to assess your anger on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most severe you’ve ever experienced. Jot down your number. Next, begin to breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, from your diaphragm. Imagine your breath originating from deep in your “gut.” As you inhale, count silently to yourself 1…2…3…4. Notice your belly expand. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale through your mouth as if you were blowing out a candle for a count of 1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…. As you exhale, slowly repeat a calm word or phrase to yourself, such as “relax,” or “take it easy.”
Repeat the 4-7-8 breathing pattern two to three times each day. Very much like fire drills, practicing breathwork techniques daily (when you don’t need to) will eventually enable you to use them automatically to de-escalate your anger when you find yourself feeling tense or overwhelmed.
Yin Yoga your way to being anger free
Self-awareness is essential for anger management. A consistent evening Yin yoga practice is a helpful skill that, over time, will enable you to gain a deeper sense of inner awareness. Yin is a relaxed, passive style of yoga that involves holding poses (asanas) for longer durations. Learning to hold a pose for an extended period makes it easier to sit with and observe your uncomfortable emotions, thoughts, or physical sensations as they arise. Over time, you become able to pay closer attention to your breath, thoughts, and body sensations, which will relax your muscles and leave you feeling much calmer.
Transform your anger with cognitive restructuring
Your thought process can become grossly exaggerated and overly dramatic when you’re angry. Getting angry does not fix anything and tends to make you feel worse – not better. But you can change the way you feel by replacing negative, angry thoughts with more rational ones.
Strive to use language that illustrates the temporary state of your aggravation. Anger itself is not a bad thing – it is a normal, expected state of being during a breakup. The thoughts you assign to your emotions are what lead to trouble. It takes time to develop the skills necessary to diffuse your anger, but it is a worthwhile cause to invest in. For details on how to work through a five-step process to cognitive restructuring, click here.