It’s not an uncommon thing – two people marry, have children, and over time an increasing distance results in the breakdown of the relationship. The relationship starts out based on love and plenty of passion, but for a variety of reasons, it just doesn’t work out, and the couple heads into divorce.
Usually, one person is ahead of the other on the “divorce readiness scale.” This person leads the way in talking about separation and divorce, and is usually first to talk to an attorney and start the actual process. Many couples are amicable up to this point, but once the paperwork is started, people who are otherwise very pleasant can become furious, and a battle begins to gain control over children, finances, and more.
As I work with many couples in this situation – fighting over parenting time and creating, maybe even encouraging unhealthy alignments with their children – I often wonder “WHY?” How can two people who came together in love, who created their children in love (presumably), and who worked so hard together to raise those children now fight so hard to keep their children from the other parent?
Thankfully, not all divorcing or divorced parents behave in this way. Somehow, they’ve been able to work through the disappointment and hurt of the failing of the relationship, and can co-parent without the acrimony that is the hallmark of high-conflict families.
In my search for an answer, I came across the research of Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and a senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute. According to Ms. Fisher, “being rejected in love is among the most painful experiences a human being can endure” (read Ms. Fisher’s article here).
Divorce and Abandonment Rage
Her research shows that there are several regions of the brain involved in our response to rejection; as we protest the loss of a partner, “many rejected lovers swing violently from heartbreak to fury” – a reaction called “abandonment rage.” She notes that the rage network in the brain is closely connected the part of the brain that anticipates rewards – and when we don’t get that reward there can be rage and aggression. The reward and rage circuits in our brain are closely intertwined.
As the theory goes, this unhealthy rage is designed to help rejected lovers extricate themselves from the relationship and move on to new partners and the possibility of more children. Sadly, in many cases, the rejected parent does not extricate themselves from the relationship conflict; there is too much at stake, and the frequent frustrations and losses in the process of divorce seem to perpetuate the sense of loss, rejection, and fury.
Professionals who work high-conflict families can help their clients understand the biological background of this anger – how the anger stemming from rejection may be fueling conflict and in some cases an unhealthy alignment between themselves and their children. This alignment is unhealthy for children as well as the other co-parent. Many divorced parents will deny this anger or be unaware of how their anger at their co-parent is seen and felt by their children – and yet, it is a likely explanation for many of those cases in which children end up resisting or rejecting contact with one of their parents.
Anger is not the opposite of love – that would be indifference. With indifference, many of the common parenting time and other divorce-related issues could probably be solved in a fairly straightforward manner. The presence of anger signals feelings of rejection and abandonment, feelings that would be wise to address in order to help everyone in the family move on.