I have been in practice long enough to see many couples and families develop over the past thirty years. While there are countless stories over a full range of topics, one that greatly interests me involves divorce.
Many couples and individuals have come to counseling after divorcing 15, 20, or 25 years earlier. Most are quite happy in their current lives and marriages. Many, however, have looked back on their previous marriage with one very powerful observation: Their original divorce did not need to happen!
What an astounding realization! Not only was I impressed by their honesty, but I was also amazed they could look back on their divorces and understand them in a completely new light.
So, what is this all about? As I spoke with these couples it became clear to me that they were looking at how they previously managed emotional reactivity, and how that dovetailed with divorce. Every couple has to manage conflict, but the business of managing emotional reactivity, which is part of managing conflict, is not easy. Knowledge of how the brain works and how to use the brain to one’s advantage is critical to managing reactivity, especially intense reactivity.
Specifically, there are two brains that come into play when managing reactivity. Those two brains are the prefrontal cortex, and the limbic system. The prefrontal cortex and the limbic system are often referred to as the logical and emotional brains, respectively.
Here is a quick overview: the prefrontal cortex is the brain that allows us to make decisions, reductions, inductions, calculations, etc. The prefrontal cortex is the CEO of the brain. The limbic system, otherwise known as the mammalian brain, is the center of all emotions. The limbic system possesses all the pain centers, the pleasure centers, and is the part of the brain that has a very unique connection to the prefrontal cortex. It is the fight-or-flight-brain, among many other things.
Here is how the two brains work in concert: when the limbic brain is activated, it sends an amount of adrenaline up to the pre-frontal cortex commensurate with the degree it wants to inhibit pre-frontal cortex functioning. In short, adrenaline inhibits the pre-frontal cortex from thinking.
Those two brains, in effect, operate in opposition to one another. It is a survival function that allows us to take action without having to think first. Another way to think about these two brains is that they often function inversely. When limbic activity is up, pre-frontal cortex activity is down, and vice versa.
In practical terms this means that the limbic system will inhibit an individual from thinking clearly when they are feeling intense emotions. That is why, in the middle of a heated argument, people may say and do things they wish they could take back—things which sometimes lead to divorce. The one thing that is very important to understand about the brain and conflict is that the limbic brain always wants relief. And the fact that it wants relief is not enough: it wants relief NOW! The lengths to which an individual will go to get relief can include divorce.
An unfortunate artifact of those couples who are in constant conflict is that they become so tired of chronic conflict, and the intense emotional reactivity that comes with it, that they will do anything to reduce their emotional reactivity. When the high emotional reactivity has persisted for many months, or in some cases for many years, couples will often decide to get a divorce. They just can’t stand “it” anymore: they want relief.
After a rear-view look in the mirror several years post-divorce, some couples have realized that had they known how to reduce their reactivity as a way to get relief, they may have been able to avoid a painful divorce.
The Catch-22 that comes with divorce as relief is that the divorce process, rather than decreasing reactivity, actually increases it. That is one of the reasons depression often accompanies the divorce process, especially a protracted one. Ironically, a couple may not experience the emotional relief they went down the divorce road looking for until many years later.
That is why it is very important when seeking couples counseling that the couple and the therapist both understand how the brain works. In addition, the therapist must know how to teach a couple to manage emotional reactivity. Once emotional reactivity is managed consistently, then a couple is able to determine whether or not divorce makes sense.
Divorce as an emotional reactivity reduction strategy is not the best way to achieve emotional equilibrium. In fact, is possibly one of the worst ways to reduce reactivity, while couples who have a smooth divorce process tend to be very effective at managing emotional reactivity.
My purpose in cautioning against “relief divorce” is not to moralize against divorce. Clearly there are many couples for whom divorce is the viable alternative, and it may have little to do with reducing emotional reactivity.
Overall, it is important to understand the distinction between divorce as relief from intense emotional reactivity, and divorce that is not about relief of that sort. Remember: reducing emotional reactivity will allow you to think more clearly about the marriage, and also about divorce, because the pre-frontal cortex will not be inhibited by limbic activity.
Reduce emotional reactivity before you choose divorce. You won’t regret it.
© Copyright 2011 by Jim Hutt, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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