Last month, tragedy struck in the suburbs of New York City. The Friedlander family was in the middle of a divorce, and like many in these tough economic times, the couple was living together. Things took a turn for the worse, and the father, a respected attorney, is reported to have killed his wife and kids, before turning the gun on himself.
The Friedlander case is an example of what I call a "malignant divorce." In a malignant divorce, spouses do things to people who they once loved that no one would believe. Malignant divorces are the cancer of divorce, and like cancer, they can appear in many ways with a variety of outcomes. Some can be successfully dealt with, some can be managed and some are truly dangerous.
In the town of Cross River, New York, four lives tragically ended as the result of one such divorce. But this community is not alone, because such horrors are not dependent on economic status, race, religion or geography. Malignant divorces can and do happen everywhere.
Our society is not well prepared for the deceit and power of such disturbed personalities, and judges and law enforcement can miss the signs. Yet, like the Friedlander case, there are dangerous ex husbands and wives out there. So, how do you deal with an ex spouse if you think that he or she may truly be a threat?
Thankfully, there is a lot that you can do if you feel at risk. In my book, "The Intelligent Divorce: Taking Care of Yourself", I explore solutions to this problem. In my upcoming book, "The Intelligent Divorce: Dealing with Your (Impossible) Ex," I will be exploring The Malignant Divorce in even greater depth. Until then, here are some tips:
1. Take action. If you are the healthier spouse, your life is probably growing more unreal by the day, and it is not your fault. It may not be fair that you have to be the bigger person, but the situation will not improve if you rely on your spouse to stop his or her behavior.
2. Seek out therapy. The only thing you have control over is your sanity and your actions, particularly around your children. This will help you channel your grief, outrage and fear in a productive matter, with the best interests of you and your children in mind.
3. Put safety first. If living in the same house with your spouse (or ex spouse) is too dangerous, then something has to change. If you feel threatened when he or she drops off the children, then meet your ex in a public place -- and in broad daylight. Know that anticipating violence is not a perfect science; so if you think you got it wrong and need to move out, seriously consider it.
4. Remember that recurrent violence is exactly that: recurrent. There is usually warning in domestic violence; the problem is that many victims of abuse are habituated to this dehumanizing behavior -- after all, your spouse loves you, no? This doesn't make it right. If you have questions, consult a therapist or call one of many hotlines available for this purpose.
5. Act responsibly. The pressure in these situations is intense, so think twice before acting out if your negative behavior is serving as a model for your kids at school. For instance, some kids can become bullies if they witness aggression at home. Also, learn how to deal with your ex when he or she triggers you. If you get triggered and then badly lose control, you are the one who will be in trouble, no matter how provocative he or she may be.
6. Set limits, particularly when you're parenting. This is not easy. You will have to decide when to hang up the phone on your ex as things heat up, when to walk away from a toxic situation, and when it is time to call your lawyer or the police. You are not always going to get it right and under all this pressure, you're not always going to be a saint. This is when a good relationship with your therapist is crucial. No matter how angry or hurt you may be, your children will always come first. This will be your gift to them.
7. Send your kids to therapy as well. They need to have a safe place to deal with what they are going through with an adult ally. In addition, your child's therapist can help you understand how to be a better parent. On occasion, a talented therapist can counsel the self-serving ex spouse and may make some headway. And, if things get dangerous, some therapists find the wherewithal to hold an out of control parent accountable. It is not a perfect solution, but sometimes the cancer of divorce can only be managed, and not really treated. It is better than nothing.
The malignant divorce is alive and well in America. Like many cancers, often there are no easy answers, but there are effective approaches -- and that counts.
Wake up and take advantage of the help that is out there. And, in the end, believe in a better future. This often proves to be the greatest gift that you can give to your kids.
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