Are These Emotional Triggers Sabotaging Your Divorce?

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You tell yourself that you’re going to be strong. You’re determined not to get into another one of “those” arguments. Yet five minutes after you see your soon-to-be-ex you find yourself sucked right back into the same fight you’ve had a thousand times before! What’s worse is that you KNOW better! The truth is, it’s not totally your fault. You’re being set off by your emotional triggers.

What is an Emotional Trigger?

According to, a trigger is:

anything … that serves as a stimulus and initiates or precipitates a reaction or series of reactions.

Broadly speaking, an emotional trigger, then, is anything that stimulates an emotional reaction in you.

That trigger can be something intense – like someone yelling in your face. Or a trigger can be something subtle – like the fake, self-satisfied smile your spouse flashes at you when you know s/he is lying like a rug in court but you can’t prove it. (… and your spouse also knows that if you dare accuse him/her of lying at that point YOU will look like the crazy one!)

The interesting thing about emotional triggers is that, while some are universal, others can be very personal.

The same thing that makes me have an emotional meltdown might not affect you at all. That’s because many of our emotional triggers are established in childhood.

Since everyone’s childhood was different, their emotional triggers are different, too.

Frustrated Man Coping With Divorce and holding his head in his hands

Discovering Your Emotional Triggers

The problem with emotional triggers is that many people don’t even realize what their triggers are. That’s particularly true if the trigger is subtle or the emotions that it sets off are emotions of sadness and pain rather than anger and upset.

For example, some people consistently feel like a failure after talking with their soon-to-be-ex (STBX). They write off those negative feelings as being a natural consequence of going through a divorce. (Doesn’t everyone feel awful when they’re talking to their divorcing spouse?)

Because these people think that their misery is natural, they don’t make the connection between what they feel and the conversation that they just had. They settle for the surface explanation (divorce makes everyone feel bad) and they don’t dig for the deeper truth (my spouse purposely pushed my buttons when we talked.)

Emotional Manipulation

Another reason people don’t recognize their emotional triggers is because the person who is setting those triggers off is a master manipulator.

For example, I once had a friend who was an expert at subtle emotional manipulation.

We went out to a bar one night and the bartender started to be interested in me. He wasn’t interested in my girlfriend. I was having a great time, but my friend wanted to leave. Once we walked out of the bar, she turned to me and said, “I saw the bartender talking to you. Did he ask you out? He asks everyone out. He asked me out last week. He’s such a flirt!”

On the surface, the conversation was harmless small talk. Yet, it wasn’t harmless. No matter how I answered her question, it left me feeling like crap.

If the bartender asked me out, it was no big deal. He asks everyone out.

If the bartender didn’t ask me out, what kind of a loser was I? He asks everyone out!

Either way, I lost. Meanwhile, she felt better.

(NOTE: Narcissists are particularly good at this technique! They can make you feel like yesterday’s garbage while having what seems like a totally calm, non-emotional conversation.)

Red and blue boxing gloves holding gears steady - make peace

Divorce and Your Emotional Triggers

Even though emotional triggers can be very personal, certain parts of divorce tend to make almost everyone react badly. They are full of universal hot buttons that are constantly getting pressed.

The good news is that, if you know what those hot buttons are, and you know what your own personal hot buttons are, you can prepare yourself for what’s coming. Then, you’re less likely to react in a way that will disadvantage you.

The more you can keep your emotional triggers in check, the better control you will have over your emotions in your divorce.

The better control you have over your emotions in your divorce, the better outcome you are likely to get. (… and the less time and money you’re likely to burn through during your divorce!)

The four areas of divorce that have the most emotional triggers are money, kids, the divorce process itself, and “third parties” (a/k/a your spouse’s new squeeze). In the interest of keeping this blog post shorter than a Game of Thrones book, we’ll only talk in detail here about two of these areas: money and the divorce process.

Your Money Triggers in Divorce

Money is one of the most complicated emotional triggers you will ever find. People kill for money. They commit suicide over money. Some people love money. Others hate money. Many, especially in divorce, let money drive them.

Yet, what is money? Certainly it must be more than pieces of paper with pictures of dead presidents on it.

At its core, money is nothing more than a representation of value. What makes money so complicated is that we, as human beings, attach meaning to that value. The meaning that we give to money in turn triggers various strong emotions in us.

We think that money will give us security, freedom, independence, power, and control. In divorce, where life is full of insecurity, dependence, and a lack of power and control, we cling even harder to money. We want it to give us what we lack.

That’s what makes money so incredibly difficult to deal with – especially in divorce. Money can trigger some of your deepest fears and insecurities. What’s more, since divorce is FULL of money issues, the ugly emotions that come up when you and your spouse are talking about money can come up A LOT!

Close up of George Washington on money with word bubble: Help!

It’s Not About the Money

What’s helpful to remember is that many times, when you and your spouse are arguing about money, your argument isn’t really about money at all.

It’s about getting back at your spouse for what s/he “did” to you. It’s about your fear of the future, and your need to sock away as much money as you can now since you don’t know where life will take you once you’re on your own. More often than not, it’s also about your values and getting what you perceive to be “fair” for all the work you put into the marriage.

For example, if you’re mired in a divorce you didn’t want, you’re probably deeply upset and hurt because your spouse left you, or admitted s/he doesn’t love you, or cheated on to you etc.  Unfortunately, your spouse doesn’t care about any of that. S/he doesn’t want to hear about your pain. So, instead of dealing with that reality, you spend hours arguing over who is going to get the Tupperware.

Financial Trigger Points Surrounding Money and Divorce

The money “trigger points” you can expect to have to deal with when you’re going through your divorce often depend on you, your spouse, and your personal financial situation. But, here are some typical hot buttons you want to look out for:

1. Your Spouse Stops Contributing Toward the Joint Bills

In today’s world, money equals survival. If you stop paying your mortgage, the bank forecloses and kicks you out of your house. Then you’re homeless. Then you die. (Or, at least you think you will die.) You also feel like you will die if you don’t have money for food, medicine, or other daily necessities. That’s why it’s so terrifying when your spouse stops paying the bills.

Of course, not every divorcing spouse stops paying his/her share of the household bills. But if you rely on your spouse’s financial contribution in order to make your monthly nut, you are financially vulnerable. How do you deal with that vulnerability? Have a Plan B.

Figure out a way that you can pay the bills for a month or two on your own if you absolutely had to. You may never need to. But knowing that you have a way to survive will help you sleep better.

2. Your Spouse Won’t Pay Child Support, or Contribute Towards Your Kids’ Expenses

This trigger point is sensitive because it involves your kids. You might understand why your spouse doesn’t want to pay for anything involving you anymore. But your kids?!

No matter what you do, you will never take the emotional “bite” out of this particular trigger point. If you’re like most parents, anything having to do with your kids is sensitive. The best thing you can do to deal with your emotions if your ex starts holding back money from the kids is to get practical.

You need to figure out how you’re going to make ends meet and how you can give your kids the best quality of life on your own. To do that, you need to be able to hold your emotions in check while you, again, figure out Plan B. (NOTE: It also wouldn’t hurt to take your spouse to task for paying the kids’ expenses in court, mediation, or whatever divorce process you’re using.)

Close up of hand putting $100s in a shelf of books, hiding money

3. Your Spouse Hides Money or Takes Money Out of Your Account Without Telling You

The reason that these types of activities trigger so many emotions is because they don’t just involve money. They involve deception. Hiding money or taking money without your consent are fundamental betrayals of you and of your relationship.

Not every divorcing spouse hides money. Not every divorcing spouse drains the bank accounts and leaves his/her spouse high and dry. But if your spouse does, it will likely throw you into a panic. How do you deal with that? The best way is to stop it before it starts.

If you have a real reason to think your spouse will cheat you, talk to your lawyer about the steps you can take to prevent that from happening. You also need to be vigilant with your own finances. If you see that money is missing from your account the day after it was taken, you have a much better chance of getting it back then you will if you don’t notice the withdrawal for two months.

No matter how expensive you think your divorce will be, chances are, it will cost you more than you ever dreamed. Because lawyers bill by the hour, it’s astounding how quickly you will blow through the initial retainer you paid your lawyer. After that, you will want to vomit every time you get another legal bill in the mail.

To keep yourself from falling into despair over the cost of your divorce, you need to do two things.

  1. Do everything within your power to keep your legal bills low. That means dialing down the drama and trying to settle reasonably. It also means doing your own legwork, and only using your lawyer to do the legal work you can’t do yourself.
  2. Let go of what you can’t control. If your spouse is hell-bent on fighting, and you don’t feel you can give in, then you might as well accept the fact that your divorce is going to cost you a fortune. (I know. That’s not a perfect solution. Unfortunately, nothing in divorce is perfect.)

5. Your Spouse Cuts Off Your Health Insurance

Not all divorcing spouses are foolish enough to cut off their spouse’s health insurance before their divorce is final. But if your spouse does this to you, it will likely turn you into a total crazy person. That’s especially true if you have chronic medical conditions and you really need health insurance.

Like not paying the household bills, the failure to maintain medical insurance triggers your survival instinct. It also enrages you because, to you, it seems like your spouse wants you to die. (Which, by the way, could possibly be true.)

Like so many other money issues, the way to deal with this is to do your best to prevent it from happening. You might want to remind your spouse that, since you are still married, YOUR medical bills are also his/her responsibility. As soon as you find out you are uninsured you also need to tell your lawyer immediately. The lawyer can then try to resolve this issue right away. If need be, you can also probably get a court order requiring your spouse to keep you on his/her health insurance until your divorce is done.

Boxing glove shooting out of white pawn chess piece knocking the head off a black King chess piece.

Emotional Trigger Points in the Divorce Process

Finances aren’t the only thing that can send your blood pressure skyrocketing to Pluto during your divorce.  Various parts of the divorce process itself are likely to trigger your emotions in ways you might not expect.

(NOTE: While all of these emotional triggers can set you off no matter which divorce process you use, by far and away divorce litigation will cause you the most angst. That’s not to say that going through mediation or Collaborative Divorce is any picnic either. But at least they tend not to be quite as infuriating as litigation.)

1. Your First Appointment with a Divorce Lawyer  

It doesn’t matter whether you have been wanting a divorce for years, or whether your spouse just blind-sided you by having an affair. Either way, going to a divorce lawyer’s office will be traumatic.  Your head will be spinning, you will have a thousand questions, and you’ll probably forget at least half of them. (You’ll also probably forget the answers, too. Sorry!!)

Believe it or not, all of that is normal. It’s also a good reason to bring a list of written questions with you to every lawyer interview. The list will help to keep you focused and make sure you don’t forget to ask something important.

Shocked young business man reads a document he is holding.

2. Serving/Getting Served With Divorce Papers  

If you’re getting an amicable divorce you may not have to deal with having the Sheriff come to your house and serve you with divorce papers.  But, if your case is messy, or you and your spouse are fighting, you will likely have the “pleasure” of seeing the Sheriff at your door. If that doesn’t make you lose your cool, wait. Reading your divorce papers probably will.

Divorce papers tend to be full of accusations and enough legal mumbo jumbo to make your head spin and your guts churn.  They often have so much inflammatory jargon in them that you feel queasy even if you’re the one who had the papers drawn up! Unfortunately, in all but the most amicable divorces, that’s just the way legal papers are written. If you’re going to litigate your divorce, it’s best to get used to reading these kinds of documents. Chances are, you’ll be reading a lot of them.

3. Seeing Your Spouse In Court For The First Time  

There’s no getting around it.  The first time you go to court and see your spouse sitting across the room from you, arms folded, and purposely ignoring you, it will feel weird. It will be weird. It will be emotional. You will NOT feel good.

If it helps, you might want to bring a friend with you to court for moral support. (Just make sure it’s a platonic friend! Bringing your new squeeze to court will make your already tense situation a thousand times worse. Plus, it makes you look bad.)

Harried woman holding a large stack of paperwork.

4. Receiving Your First Round of “Discovery” Requests

“Discovery” is the information gathering stage of the divorce case.  This is the time when your lawyer sends you a list of documents to produce that’s so long and detailed that it rivals an IRS audit.

You will be asked to make budgets, create balance sheets, and answer detailed lists of written questions.  You may be asked to appear for a deposition. Or, you may have the pleasure of having your bank accounts, credit card accounts, retirement accounts, and every other account you ever had in your adult life subpoenaed.

You will be stunned by the sheer volume of information that your spouse’s attorney will ask from you and about you.  The fact that the vast majority of this information may end up being completely irrelevant doesn’t matter. You’re going to have to deal with putting together a small mountain of paperwork. Then, depending on how long your case drags on, you’re going to have to continually update it. Sorry. Welcome to divorce litigation.

5. Giving Your Deposition  

If you have never testified in court, you’re in for a real treat here.  Giving your deposition makes you feel like you’re on the witness stand for first degree murder.

Your spouse’s lawyer will not only try to get information from you – much of which will be highly personal and perhaps embarrassing – but s/he will also have no problem implying that you are a bad parent, a horrible spouse, and an overall rotten human being.

In order to survive this ordeal, you’re definitely going to want to prepare yourself, both emotionally and legally. It also wouldn’t hurt to have a therapy appointment scheduled for as soon after the deposition as possible. Your therapist can then help talk you down from the emotional ledge you’ll probably be on at that point!

Confused woman holding her head with many fingers pointing at her.

6. Participating In A Custody/Parenting Evaluation  

If you love your children, going through a custody evaluation is very likely going to be one of the most horrible experiences of your life. You will be scared to death that you are going to lose your children. You will be terrified that if you say or do one wrong thing the evaluator will slam you in his/her report. And, when you find out how time-consuming and expensive getting a custody evaluation can be, you will be shocked.

There’s no getting around the stress that accompanies this stage of the divorce process.  The best way to deal with custody evaluations is to avoid them altogether.

If you and your spouse can work out an arrangement regarding your kids, you will be able to skip this gut-wrenching part of the divorce process.  But, if you do have to go through a custody/parenting evaluation, make sure you spend a lot of time preparing for the evaluation in advance. This is definitely a time when you want to put your best foot forward.

7. Appearing For Trial

There is a reason that court room dramas are so popular – they’re dramatic! That’s fine if you happen to be watching the latest made for TV movie. It’s not so fine when  it’s your life on display for the whole world to watch.

Trials are stressful for a lot of reasons, but the biggest stressor is probably the uncertainty that surrounds them. You can have the best lawyer and the strongest case and you can still lose when you go to court. That’s why the best way to deal with trials is to do your best to avoid them altogether. If you can settle reasonably without going to trial, do it.

If you can’t settle reasonably, then arm yourself with as many calming techniques as you can. Learn breathing exercises. Practice self-control. Develop a poker face. You’re going to need all of that and more in order to manage your emotions as you feel attacked, betrayed and lied to during your divorce trial. (Sorry!)

8. Appearing For Your Final Divorce Hearing 

Even if you settle your case, in many states, including Illinois, you and/or your spouse still have to show up in court for a “final hearing.” When you do, the emotions that you feel may surprise you.

There’s something about knowing that your marriage is about to be over for real that can hit you like a ton of bricks. Sure, you knew you were getting divorced before. But in the moment everything gets finalized that knowledge becomes real.

Maybe getting your divorce finalized will make you happy.  Maybe you will be sad.  Very likely you will feel some mix of both emotions, as well as dozens more. No matter what else you are feeling, though, you need to be prepared for one thing you probably don’t expect.

Real divorce hearings are one of the most anti-climactic experiences you will ever have. Over the years, I’ve had many clients walk out of court, look at me, and ask, “Is that it?”

The answer is probably, “Yes. That’s it.” Be ready to feel empty.

Closeup portrait angry young woman blowing steam coming out of ears, having nervous atomic breakdown, screaming isolated grey wall background. Negative human emotion facial expression feeling attitude

Coping With Divorce When You’re Feeling Triggered

Knowing the points in the divorce process which will likely trigger your emotions is extremely helpful.

When you know WHEN you will likely be triggered you can get yourself ready to exercise massive self-control in those moments. That makes it less likely that you will lose your cool at a critical time.

Of course, knowledge alone won’t stop you from feeling a surge of emotions when your spouse, your spouse’s lawyer, or the system, pushes your buttons. But at least when you KNOW what to expect, you can prepare yourself in advance so that you deal with your emotions more productively.

The key to getting divorced with the least amount of heartache and expense lies in learning to control your emotions in the moments that matter. Exploding in the middle of a court hearing can cost you dearly. Letting your emotions rip when you’re home alone is probably healthy.

The bottom line is that you don’t need to be a Zen master to get through your divorce with grace. All you need to do is to understand your emotional trigger points and be ready to deal with the rush of emotions that will inevitably come when your spouse, your lawyer, or the system pushes your buttons.


This post was originally published in July 2018, and revised and updated in March 2021.

Head shot of Karen Covy in an Orange jacket smiling at the camera with her hand on her chin.

Karen Covy is a Divorce Coach, Lawyer, Mediator, Author, and Speaker. She coaches high net worth professionals and successful business owners to make hard decisions about their marriage with confidence, and to navigate divorce with dignity.  She speaks and writes about decision-making, divorce, and living life on your terms. To connect with Karen and discover how she can help you, CLICK HERE.


dealing with divorce, divorce blog, divorce litigation, divorce process

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  • I just read your article posted on your site about avoiding litigation during the divorce process. My husband and I were in mediation for 5 hours and still could not reach an agreement on many decisions that needed to be made. I would have loved to have stuck with mediation to work through a parenting plan and finances, but when you are dealing with a person who is being unreasonable, you are simply forced into litigation. Why do people think that it is possible that two people who disliked each other and could not get along when they were married would be able to work through a divorce in an amicable way?? Ii does not make any sense to me. My husband did not show much respect for me for many years, and that is the same disrespectful person I am dealing with today. Trying to work with him without my lawyer involved is futile.

    • Believe it or not, it IS possible for many people to work through divorce in an amicable way. Mediation usually helps. But, unfortunately, mediation doesn’t work for everyone. As you said, some people are just stuck on being unreasonable. When that happens, you may just have to litigate … at least for awhile.

      I have found that when the legal bills start mounting, many people who were unreasonable at the beginning, start suddenly becoming reasonable, just so they can stop bleeding money.

      It is a pity that your husband hasn’t been reasonable so far. I hope that he comes around. Unfortunately, there are those people (between 5 – 10% of the divorcing population) who just have to fight. Some of them fight all the way through their divorce, and then continue to fight for years afterward. It’s ugly. It’s sad. For the kids, it can be tragic.

      I hope, for your sake, that you and your spouse can resolve your differences without having to go all the way through trial. Even if you have to swallow your pride on some things, just to put your divorce behind you, it will probably be worth it. On the other hand, if your husband is just completely outrageous and unreasonable, you may be stuck living through an ugly divorce.

      You’re in a tough spot. I wish you the best.


      • Thanks, Karen. I want nothing more than to put this whole experience behind me. I also want to make sure that I am responsible in making sure that my financial future is as good as it can be.
        Thanks again for your thoughtful response!

  • Trigger? How about attending my son’s wedding in three weeks where ex will be bringing the woman that broke up our marriage? Not divorced two years yet. I have absolutely no idea how I will react being in the same room with THEM. No alcohol for me.

    • Mother of the Groom,
      You are obviously the classier woman. Hold your head high and be gracious. You are the big winner here, in every way!
      Good Luck. You can Do it!
      A Fan of Strong Women

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