Don’t Fall Into the Trap of the “Relief Divorce”

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.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 9 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • andrea

    October 5th, 2011 at 2:30 PM

    if you ask me nobody would regret a decision that is well thought out.only a decision taken in haste would bring feelings of regret or make a person reconsider his decision.

    many people get divorced without thinking too much about how everything will then turn out.they pull the trigger without thinking and oftem this trigger is no less than that of a gun-its actions cannot be undone,most often!

  • Lara

    October 5th, 2011 at 5:06 PM

    Divorce is a painful occurence for far too many American families. Couples get hasty and make decisons irrationally because of what they may be feeling on one day or maybe a week, and rarely do they think back on the good times that they have been able to share together too. I know that there are some marriages that are FAR better off broken apart, but I too think that a large majority of marriages gone wrong COULD be saved if the couple would just be willing to give it a try. No one ever said that marriage was easy but somehow we have all gotten the idea from somewhere along the way that it should be. And I do not think that there is one married couple alive who wuld say that it is always smooth sailing. We simply get lazy and many times do not want to do the hard work of holding it all together anymore.

  • Larry.P

    October 5th, 2011 at 11:44 PM

    A decision taken in haste always comes with its own share of problems.But taking a big decision such as divorce and that too while being incapable of thinking carefully is just crazy.It may seem like the best thing to do at the moment but it is something that would leave the decision maker regret the decision down the road.

    Not only with regard to divorce but with everything,I think people need to develop the power to think clearly and be sure of what they want.If a person is able to leave something and then come back to it when he is emotionally stable and has an open mind,he will be in a much much better position to make a wise decision.

  • SiDnEy

    October 6th, 2011 at 5:05 PM

    This happened to a friend.He jumped the gun and divorced his wife and now 5 years later he regrets the decision and is now so obsessed with her and is trying to woo her back.I fear it is only going to lead to complications and trouble.

  • D.P

    October 7th, 2011 at 3:28 AM

    Most people commit mistakes when they are in a hurry. And sometimes the definition of this ‘hurry’ can create problems I think.
    You need to take time to decide about things, true. But when it comes to divorce, a period of time that is sufficiently enough for many things is just not long enough. It needs far more amount of time and although it can get frustrating and the relationship may not seem to improve. But keep trying and you will be rewarded with a renewed relationship.

  • Jim Hutt, Ph.D.

    October 10th, 2011 at 8:49 AM

    Lara,
    Thanks for your comments!
    You’re right–no one said marriage would be or is easy. One way to make marriage a little “easier,” so to speak, is to think of yourself as the one needing work, and stop focusing on your partner. The reason marriage is work is because each partner needs to work on themselves. Focusing on your partner only stalls working on yourself, which, of course, prolongs whatever marital difficulty you are having.

  • Julie Holt, MA

    October 27th, 2011 at 1:16 PM

    As a child of divorced parents and a current private practice therapist, I have a unique perspective. I can tell you that the problems that led to the divorce in the first place don’t go away simply because two people are no longer legally married to one another. We tend to marry the person with whom we subconsciously recognize has the highest potential for letting us work out our personal issues (often stemming from childhood). Just because a marriage has problems is not an indication it should be over (barring physical danger). It might actually be an indication that the opportunity to work out deep issues is presenting itself.
    The thinking is that if you don’t work out your “stuff” with this particular person, you’ll still have the “stuff” to work out with someone else.

  • Redke

    February 14th, 2020 at 9:13 PM

    What an interesting idea.

  • sam

    July 1st, 2023 at 2:16 PM

    That would be the Harville Hendricks approach, which states we gravitate toward mates to work out our childhood trauma/wounds/inner child work. While that may be true, if partners are unaware of that dynamic taking place, their marriage just looks like one big screaming therapy session and they have no idea why. I personally do not agree with the model. Do your own inner work with your therapist and your inner being.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.