July 25

Coping With Divorce: Are Your Emotional Triggers Sabotaging You?



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

Frustrated Man Coping With Divorce and holding his head in his handsCoping with divorce – and doing it at least reasonably well – takes the patience of a saint and the inner strength of an advanced Zen master. (Neither of whom, coincidentally, usually get married!) Yet, of all the skills you need to successfully navigate through divorce, none is more critical than knowing how to deal with the emotional slings and arrows that divorce throws at you. How do you do that? It starts with understanding your emotional triggers.

What is an Emotional Trigger?

According to Dictionary.com, 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.

The interesting thing about emotional triggers is that they are usually very personal. The same thing that throws me into an emotional meltdown might not affect you at all. That’s because a lot of triggers are established in childhood. Since everyone’s childhood was different, what triggers painful emotions in me may be very different from what triggers them in you.

Divorce, of course, triggers emotional reactions in everyone.

While each person going through a divorce will be emotionally triggered by different things, there are certain parts of divorce that, on average, tend to make most people react badly. The problem is that, since most people don’t know what’s going to trigger them emotionally, they are wildly unprepared to deal with those triggers. As a result, they ride the emotional roller-coaster of divorce while clinging to the rails and screaming at the top of their lungs.

They don’t realize that, if they knew what their emotional triggers were, they wouldn’t have to get on the roller coaster in the first place.

Red and blue boxing gloves holding gears steady - make peaceThe Emotional Triggers Involved in Coping With Divorce

What makes divorce so tricky, and so emotional, is that it affects so many different areas of your life at the same time.

Divorce is not just a legal process. It is a financial process, and an emotional process. It affects everything from your social status to your family structure. Divorce affects where you live, how you live and with whom you live.

In each one of those different areas – legal, financial, social, relational – there are potential emotional triggers. There are “hot buttons” that are capable of setting off a tsunami of emotions in almost anyone.

Some of those hot buttons will be intensely personal. Some people turn into screaming banshees  when their spouse takes two days to return a simple text message. Others don’t care about that, but go crazy when they see thousands of dollars unexpectedly disappearing from their bank account.

Yet, some of the emotional triggers in divorce are not personal. They are universal.

But that doesn’t mean that they are well known.  Or, at least, that doesn’t mean that they are well known to the people who are going through divorce. (Professionals know very well where those triggers are.)

So, the first step in coping with divorce well is to do your best to NOT be emotionally triggered every five minutes while you are going through your divorce. To do that, you need to know where the emotional triggers are lying in wait. That way, you can be prepared to deal with them.

The three areas with the most emotional triggers are: Money, Kids, and the Legal System. In the interest of keeping this blog post shorter than a small book, we’ll only talk here about money and the legal system.

Close up of George Washington on money with word bubble: Help!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. We, as human beings, attach meaning to that value.

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 fraught with emotions in divorce. That’s also why, when you and your spouse are arguing about money, your argument often isn’t really about money at all. It has more to do with your feelings that your spouse is being callous, greedy, extravagant, or manipulative.

You’re upset because your spouse left you, or doesn’t love you, or lied to you. But, instead of dealing with those emotions, you transfer them to money. Then you spend hours arguing over why your spouse can’t give you $100 to pay the electric bill.

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:

Financial Trigger Points Surrounding Money and Divorce

  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.

  1. 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

  1. 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.

  1. You See Your Legal Bills Mounting

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.)

  1. Your Spouse Cuts Off Your Health Insurance

Not all 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. If need be, you can also 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 of Divorce Litigation

Finances aren’t the only thing that can send you skyrocketing to Pluto during your divorce.  The legal system is another prime place for hidden emotional triggers.

Of all of the various ways that you can go through a divorce, litigating in court probably has the most emotional landmines. Here is a list of events that take place in the course of a typical litigated divorce that are likely to make your emotions go into overdrive. (NOTE: Many of these apply to mediation and Collaborative Divorce, too.)

  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.

  1. 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 are often so bad that you feel queasy even if you’re the one who had the papers drawn up! If you’re going to litigate your divorce, though, it’s best to get used to reading these kinds of documents. Chances are, you’ll be reading a lot of them.

  1. 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. There’s just no getting around it.

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 are 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, but emotionally and legally. It also wouldn’t hurt to have a therapy appointment scheduled for as soon after the deposition as possible.

young woman covering her ears as many hands point at her.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!)

  1. 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 really about to be over that will just hit you like a ton of bricks when everything gets finalized.

Maybe you will be happy.  Maybe you will be sad.  Very likely you will feel some mix of both. And, no matter what else you are feeling, you will probably be disappointed. Divorce hearings aren’t like TV. They tend to be one of the most anti-climactic experiences you will ever have.

Be ready to just 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 attitudeCoping With Divorce When You’re Feeling Triggered

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

Yet, 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.

The key to dealing with those emotions and coping with divorce is to learn to control your emotions in the moments that matter. Exploding in the middle of a court room 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 them when they come.


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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

  • […] can be invaluable. In a perfect world, that someone would be a professional therapist. But a trusted friend, or a close family member, can also […]

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