Monday, January 30, 2023

Feeling the stress of divorce

by Bill Rutherford
| April 21, 2010 9:00 PM

A child asked this week if I thought she was a bad kid. I looked at her with surprise and asked, "What makes you ask such a question? I think you're a wonderful kid." The child, looking down at her feet cried quietly, "I think my mom and dad are getting a divorce because I've been a bad kid. They always yell at me and are upset at me. I try to be good but I just can't." She slowly raises her head and looks into my eyes for her answer. The girl and I have lots to talk about.

When a couple struggles in their relationship people know. Friends, family, coworkers and children feel the stress of an unhealthy relationship. They become the unwilling reciprocate of projected, unwarranted explosions and belittling by an angry, anxious, scared friend, daughter or mom who's about to end their marriage. I hate divorce because I believe it is an easy escape to an uncomfortable but fixable situation.

Couples get angry, intolerable, rude and verbally abusive. When this happens in a marriage the marriage loses balance. Balance must be regained for the marriage to be successful.

A non-negotiable action that must result in instant separation is physical abuse. When a partner hits, someone has to leave. Hitting is a powerful tool to gain control when all other attempts to control no longer work and cannot be condoned. When someone hits, someone has to leave - period!

Almost as devastating as physical abuse is infidelity. When a partner wanders outside the marriage and becomes intimately physical with another person, a marriage is permanently damaged. Trust is degraded; the victim becomes insecure in their ability to please their partner and the reason for the exploration always questioned. Trust becomes improbable and frustration increases. So, infidelity and physical abuse are relationship killers and intolerable.

How do we regain balance in our relationships to build a healthy marriage once that relationship has lost balance? John Gottman in his book, "Why Marriages Succeed or Fail," offer suggestions through years of research on the four behaviors that make marriages fail. He calls them the, "Four Horseman of the Apocalypse."

The first horseman is CRITICISM. Complaining is different than criticizing. Complaining focuses on a person's behavior, "When you wash my car you don't clean the wheels, they always look dirty," is complaining about the way one washes a car but does not criticize. Criticizing is a personal attack such as, "You are lousy at washing cars and don't care how my car looks." It is OK to complain but not criticize.

The next horseman is CONTEMPT. Showing contempt for your spouse results in disrespect and being uncaring. Being contemptuous includes insults and name-calling. Calling your spouse fat, stupid, ugly, a jerk, wimpy, and more creative or crude names results in degrading your spouse and forming a separation of intimacy.

Other forms of contempt include hostile humor and sarcasm, mockery and offering negative body language. Rolling your eyes, making hurtful jokes or being sarcastic truly hurts, no matter the intent. When a spouse says, "I was only joking, can't you take a joke," they are really saying, "I'm putting you down and degrading you and you need to accept it."

The third horseman is DEFENSIVENESS. No matter what your partner charges, you insist that you are not to blame and become defensive to everything they say. Being defensive includes denying responsibility, making excuses, whining, offering a yes, but you did it first, excuse. Mature, secure adults accept responsibility for their action and do not need to put blame on people who question their action.

The last horseman is STONEWALLING. This is the strongest and most potent horseman due to its factor of control. A person who stonewalls does not fight back; turns into a stone wall and does not argue, fight or show emotion. The stonewaller learns that it is safer to be quiet than to speak. This really upsets the fighting spouse who wants feedback and is not getting it. The stonewaller controls the debate by not participating in it. Stonewalling stops communication and forces the spouse searching for feedback to search outside the home for a voice to listen to their discord.

How do we build an unhealthy relationship into a caring, nurturing relationship? First, if you and your spouse are riding one or more horseman of the apocalypse, get off the horse. Recognize your negative hurtful behavior and quit doing it. If you can't, search for help.

Second, if your relationship is dying and neither of you have committed the big non-negotiable acts (infidelity or physical abuse) it might be time to restart your relationship. Look back to your wedding day. Was it a happy day? Do you have fond memories of your relationship when it was fresh and new? If the answer is yes, it is time to rekindle that relationship. If possible, move into different homes, maybe back with your parents and start dating again.

Ask each other out on the first date again (remember the four horseman and don't fall into the hurtful, abusively controlling ways of the horseman again). Wait for a few dates for that first kiss, become a gentleman and open the car door for your date, be kind, generous, bring flowers and talk about your future and what being in love might really look like.

It is time to rewrite your past into a new future. Your past as a couple didn't work. Reinvent your past and create a new future. You will be surprised at the outcome.

Lastly, if none of this works and divorce is the only option, remember your kids. The ONLY way kids remain healthy after divorce is if parents co-parent effectively. Let your children know you are divorcing because mom and dad can't get along and it has nothing to do with them.

When talking with your ex-spouse, pretend you still like each other. Kids struggle with love and loyalty during divorce. They are loyal to the custodial parent and will protect them 100 percent. The opposite is true when they are with the other parent and protect that parent when visiting. Don't put kids in the middle of your divorce.

Never speak poorly about your ex-spouse in front of your kids. Don't make boys become the, "man of the house," or girls become, "little moms." Let your kids be kids. If you're sad, be sad in private; don't turn your children into caretakers. Don't pit kids against parents and keep them out of court proceedings.

Divorce is evil and hurts all involved. To lesson the hurt, be kind!

Bill Rutherford is a psychotherapist, public speaker, elementary school counselor, adjunct college psychology instructor and executive chef, and owner of Rutherford Education Group. Please e-mail him at and check out

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