THE BLOG
11/22/2010 07:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Toxic Dump II

The word "divorce" refers to an objective state of affair. The word cannot predict the thoughts, feelings or emotions at play.

I have known people for whom the word "divorce" meant liberation. They actually wanted to bless the laws of the state of California that allowed them so quickly and efficiently to end a sordid mess.

For others, often the one left behind, the word divorce is an assault on the very fabric of one's life. Years of interpersonal work and hope are dashed upon the rocks. An imagined future is obliterated. The overriding emotion is grief - an attachment to a state of affairs, or an imagined state of affairs, that you can never have or never have back. Mom, Dad and the kids will never sit together at Thanksgiving again.

And in either case, being left or leaving, anger is usually the haunting spirit, especially if there are things to resolve other than physical and legal fact of separation and divorce. We move apart, then live apart, and the state grants legal affirmation. If children are present or there is anything of monetary value at stake, we want our way. Sometimes we want our way because it is just, and sometimes we want our way as a means to inflict harm or keep the fight, i.e., the marriage going. Sometimes resolving issues with the kids and money are pretty straightforward (most state have fairly predictable guidelines by now), but anger has us fight anyway.

And sometimes (often?) even the one who leaves realizes and feels liberated, is not liberated from the feeling that they have left behind years of their life and misspent treasure of emotions and words.

The decision to divorce often lets loose ferocious, repressed demons. I have known couples who constantly renegotiated their marriage through bickering. The bickering usually occurred within a frame that allowed the marriage, or at least a shambles of such, to exist. Then, one or both have had enough. All restraints are released. Liberated, long locked anger and resentment can be frightening to behold.

I once counseled a woman who was spitting with anger. I had thought "spitting anger" was a colorful metaphor. As she spoke of her now estranged husband, with whom she had bickered for years, her mouth would curl up in the shape of contempt, saliva formed in the pocket between her teeth and lower lip, and as she spoke her tongue would occasionally tick out some of the accumulated venom. Her face was contorted with rage. I was immensely worried for her.
As she spoke of her estranged husband's contemptuous, snide behavior, his tone of voice that barely hid his glee in witnessing the suffering he was able to inflict on her, I felt the rage build up in me, too. I could feel myself mirroring her emotions. Bad move for a counselor. But at least I could get a glimpse of the stench of the toxic dump haunting her from within, a toxic dump that has strange, alluring, addictive quality. It whispers to us, "ingest me."
I recall regaining my bearings with some effort, and then trying gently to coax her away from the well of poison within. My counseling orientation is usually rooted in the teachings of spiritual formation and moral psychology. Reframing thoughts, directing consciousness, guiding toward mindfulness, aiming toward virtue. I quickly hit a wall, eyes that told me "back off."

I realized that this person was not pursuing the addiction, she was going through the beginning stages of deep and profound grief. Grief that she had spent so many years trying to work things out with a man who was not worthy of her efforts. Grief that she had known this all along. Grief that she had let him get to her, that she had become a marionette to his machinations.

She was in the beginning stages of a tortuous withdrawal. The best I could do, I realized, was just be present until enough venom was expunged, until enough of the poison was out of her system, so that we could start to reshape her inner life toward virtue.

Thankfully, it only took her a couple of months to get started. I have seen many others stranded for years.