“Your divorce won’t look like others you have heard about; let go of some preordained idea of what you expect to happen. Be ready for anything and assume nothing.”
We often read about how to have a “good” divorce. We are instructed to play fair, not to lash out at the other spouse and to approach negotiations with a calm and level head.
But that dance takes two to tango.
And if you’re caught in a divorce with someone who is determined to not adhere to the rules, you better be ready to learn a new dance or you will be trampled.
A malignant divorce is where one partner is intent on making the experience as difficult and drawn-out as possible. Sometimes this is aggressive and overt as verbal battles are initiated and children are treated as weapons to wound the other spouse. Other malignant divorces are more subtle, with manipulations and quiet deceptions woven throughout depositions and discoveries with the goal of undermining and discrediting the other. Both types of malignant divorces are carried out by those with a documented lack of empathy, such as narcissists and sociopaths, but the fevered emotions of divorce can trigger irrational behavior in even the most phlegmatic person.
A malignant divorce threatens more than your bank account; it attacks every facet of your existence, including your own sanity. If you find yourself in the midst of a malignant divorce, here’s what you need to survive:
The sooner you accept the reality you’re in, the better off you will be. Your divorce won’t look like others you have heard about; let go of some preordained idea of what you expect to happen. Be ready for anything and assume nothing.
If you’re facing a tsunami divorce, you may be struggling to let go of the person you thought your soon-to-be-ex was. Release any guilt you have about not having a “good” divorce. Act with integrity and intention and let go of any culpability for your ex’s actions.
Do Your Research
Since my divorce arrived unexpectedly via text message, I didn’t have time to do any research ahead of time. I trusted my attorneys to suggest the best course of action in my case. And I’m still paying for that decision.
If you can, do the investigation of the laws in your state yourself. If you are not up to the task, enlist the help of friends or family. If, like my ex, your partner cannot be trusted to adhere to the demands of the decree, try to have it structured so that you do not carry the burden of enforcement.
Understand the System
The system is not designed to deal with this type of dishonesty, nor is it designed to protect marital victims. This was my hardest and most painful lesson. I expected there to be more accountability for him, but the reality is that someone, especially a gifted liar, can skate through relatively unscathed.
If you know your spouse will not play by the rules, mediation is probably not a good fit. The divorce process requires paperwork to be submitted on time. One of the more effective tools a difficult spouse will use is that of stalling. In a malignant divorce, the faster you’re in the courtroom, the better.
This is critical when your ex will spin outrageous lies; you need to have anything and everything at your disposal to be able to refute his or her claims. My ex took all of the financial and computer records with him, so I had to stretch to find any evidence. Those little scraps of data were enough to have him arrested for bigamy and kept him from claiming my retirement account. Collect everything, even if you think you do not need it. This evidence can be used to back up your story, refute your ex’s claims and can also build your credibility with the court.
Find something, some place, or someone that is your anchor to reality. The world of the pathological liar is a crazy one and you have been brought along for the ride. There will be times when you begin to doubt yourself, begin to feel as though nothing is as it seems. This is when you need to turn to your anchor to remind yourself of what is real and what is smoke and mirrors.
Choose Your Battles
It can be so hard to listen to your ex’s inflated claims and not try to defend each one. You will find that it is not even possible; he/she is adept at turning up the speed of the malicious game, distracting you with one lie while volleying two more. Choose your battles. Select the lies to tackle based on the impact they will have in the divorce. Let the little ones go. Some of the lies that made me the angriest were regarding the intimacy in our marriage. I could have tried to refute those, but it would have been wasted energy and a difficult truth to prove. I had to learn to believe in the truth, even when he was spewing lies but let go of the need to defend every claim.
Define Your Limits
Decide early on how far you want to go. A malignant divorce can grow, swallowing up years of your life and dollars of your paycheck. At some point, it may make more sense to cut your losses and move on. Decide what that point is for you.
Know Your Allies
Having a supportive team is critical when you’re in the midst of a malignant divorce. You need people that believe and support you to help you maintain your strength and endurance. If you are in therapy, make sure your therapist is familiar with behaviors like those your ex is exhibiting. Be prepared to bring evidence.
Sometimes allies can also come from the most unlikely of places. I found my one of my greatest supporters in the IRS when I was granted innocent spouse relief. There are people and agencies out there that can help; know them.
Make no mistake; you are in a war. It is critical that you take breaks between the battles to rest and care for yourself. Spend time with friends that you know believe you and believe in you. Go for a massage; tender comforting touch can help the soul heal. Make sure to exercise; it can be a great tool for alleviating anxiety or reducing anger. Try meditation when you are able. You will need to stay healthy; don’t give your ex the power to take that away from you.
With a manipulative ex, there is nothing to be gained from contact, as they cannot be trusted. See if you can get a no-contact clause in your separation. Also, you may need to consider your physical safety. Remove yourself from your ex. He/she is not what you thought and contact will only serve to delay that realization.
If you have children together, you will obviously need to have communication, but you can limit the type and frequency. Communicate with email, so that there is a trail of evidence and your words cannot be twisted. If you feel anxiety upon reading emails from your ex, have them sent to a separate email folder where you can read them when you are ready.
Focus on Your Future Rather Than on Fairness
My new husband asked me years after my divorce if I wish I had done it differently. I didn’t know if I could have done it any differently. At least not at the time.
I got a divorce.
I went into the divorce process looking for the system to establish fairness. I had convinced myself that I needed that judgment in order to heal and move on. I gave the courts the power to determine if I was going to be okay.
But the courts punish everybody involved.
My $30,000 divorce decree was ultimately only good for changing my name.
It was up to me to change my life.
It is important throughout that you remember what is really important: you and your future. You will not win all the battles, especially when your ex doesn’t play by the rules. But, if you remember that your ultimate goal is to get out and get on, you will be okay.
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Photo: Ashley MacKinnon/Flickr