11/08/2010 12:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Toxic Dump

People divorce because they are suffering. Some suffer intensely. At least one person in the marriage is hurt to the point of rage or profound alienation. Others suffer because some animating principle of the marriage, something that gave it life and meaning, has disappeared. Some feel choked into a petrified holding pattern that points only toward a death that looks back on an unfulfilled life. People have to get out.

And oddly: even when both want out, they remain angry for years; how much the more so when one is left by the other. As a counselor, I find that the main role I play with people whose marriages are suffering or whose marriages are ending is to help them manage anger. In short: they do not believe they can go through this without anger. They are wrong. Anger is not necessary; it is a choice, and almost always, a very bad one.

Anger is the great toxin; it will make any relationship bad and any divorce worse. Everyone has a reason for being angry, for filling oneself with toxicity due to someone else's behavior. It is true that other people act in foul ways. People heave toxic dumps right into our lives. And our revenge: ingest it. Others are not mature enough to metabolize their own anger or flawed nature, so they throw it us. We ingest their anger, metabolize their hurt for them, because they refuse to work it through on their own. And due to their anger, we become angry and hurt ourselves. Their behaviors dictate our emotions. When we allow others to cause us to be angry, we make ourselves morally and often physically sick. And bizarre voices within us give us good and cogent reasons for doing so.

Often when I give some version of this talk (and I give it often), a person comes to tell me a story to refute my theory. Yes, rabbi, truly, anger is usually disproportionate and does poison us, but I have a story that will show you that in my case, anger was only true option.

One such discussion is fixed in memory, probably because I had just begun teaching about this issue, and was not yet accustomed to the amount of resistance I would encounter. After a talk at a Friday night service, a woman approached me; she must have been about 60 at the time (this was 20 years ago) then told me a story in contours now very familiar to me. This one was the tragic version. Act I; there she was, minding her own business, being a good wife and good mother. Her idyllic world was rent when the villain (mister), ruined the marriage. Act II was the horror, the custody battle which went in his favor due to the inherent injustice in the legal system in general, and the nefarious conduct of the judge in particular. This avalanche of evil was only exacerbated by the incompetence of her counsel, an incompetence matched only by his unmerited fee.

After hearing several minutes of the legal aspect of the narrative, I gently asked her if we could move forward a bit so she could ask her question or make her point. (I discovered later that, like nearly all people in a lawsuit, discussing the case has a profoundly cathartic effect on those involved. It is as if by rehearsing their side of things, their version will become part of the moral fabric of the universe. At least, one person, you the listener, will be persuaded. The immediate payoff for any evangelist is the listener coming to faith, seeing the world his/her way).

A bit miffed, she moved on to Act III, the ongoing tragedy. Her access to her children was limited. Crucial events in their lives were denied her. I could see the sorrow behind her anger, but just barely. A neurological tickle told me something was not right here. I finally saw it: this woman must have had children rather late in life, and perhaps this has added to her bitterness, the Anger that In This Case Is Justified. I asked her, "How old are your daughters now?" I thought, maybe with some guidance and intervention, some part of her relationship with them could be salvaged.

"Oh, 27 and 30", she said.

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