Emotions can lead us to do strange things, particularly when circumstances seem especially dire. It may feel as if your actions are beyond your control at these times, and in some ways they are.
Most people have heard of the fight, flight, or freeze response. This reaction is biologically triggered in both animals and humans when faced with, or even when they sense what they think is, an emergency. This means that when confronted with danger, we’re primed to run away, stand and do battle, or simply become inert and play possum. Any of these can be appropriate responses to a particular situation. But we usually revert to them at moments when they’re of no use, and in doing so we actually make things worse.
Again, this mechanism is automatic in times of crisis; it is designed to get us out of danger as quickly and effectively as possible. Yet our actions, or non-actions, at this time override our rational decision-making process. Scientists tell us the response originates in the limbic system of the brain, which is the seat of our emotions.
Roger Seymour, a psychologist in Alta Loma, California, describes this system’s limited function: “The limbic system’s vocabulary is composed of a few hundred signals,” he notes. “Those signals aren’t words or coherent thoughts, but emotions such as fear, joy, relief, or dread. By contrast, he explains, “The prefrontal cortex has an almost unlimited vocabulary.” And this is the part of our brains that we use to analyze, plan, distinguish right from wrong, and interact socially.
Within the limbic system is a small structure known as the amygdala, which controls our response to emergencies. “It has a vocabulary of two,” Seymour says. “The amygdala is the part of the brain that stores wordless terror, or, everything’s okay.” In other words, it’s concerned with the basic issues of life and death. It is one of few areas of the brain that are fully developed at birth, which suggests its function is critical to our survival.
This also means that we can experience terror before we have the capacity to understand it; the parts of our brain that might help us explain frightening events are not yet fully developed. So, when something happens which dredges up that childhood terror and triggers the amygdala’s panic response, all our rational tools are useless. A cascade of hormones is released in our bodies, preparing us to act aggressively before we have a chance to mull things over. And that’s why in a crisis we do things that don’t seem to make sense.
The perceived threat may be something obvious, such as a physical attack or an impending car wreck. But it can also be something far more subtle: Arguments, threatening words, or fear of imminent loss can trigger this reaction as quickly as an attacking predator. The familiar sound of a belligerent voice can send us into emergency mode. Receiving an ominous letter in the mail can induce an irrational state of panic.
And our responses may not be the obvious ones of physically fighting or running. When we raise our voices in defiance, or refuse to concede even a trivial point in an argument, that can be an expression of the fight reflex. Retreating into another room, refusing to communicate, or escaping into some addictive behavior can be a form of fleeing, or running away. Likewise, when our eyes glaze over and we nd ourselves suddenly unable to act, that can be a manifestation of the freeze response.
While these internal upheavals are driving our behavior, the last thing we should be doing is making long-term decisions involving huge amounts of money. But that’s exactly what happens in many divorce situations. I’ve already described how clients often run away and stop communicating during the sale of their property. This is a flight response, as surely as if they were being chased by a bear.
But this action doesn’t help matters and only hinders a process that must go forward. And some ex-partners will fight over silly things on principle, even when it hurts them. I’ve watched clients go into court with their lawyers and haggle over who should keep the candlesticks and napkin rings! Of course, they paid thousands of dollars for that privilege.
In one memorable example from my practice, a divorcing partner was willing to destroy his whole life just to strike a final blow against his ex-wife. Brad owned a commercial building from which he operated a successful business. He and his wife, Shirley, also owned a second house, which they rented out.
When they divorced, it was agreed that he would keep the commercial building and his business; she would get the rental. It was a fair arrangement, since the equity in both properties was about equal. But then Brad convinced a friend to file a $200,000 lien on the rental property —just so Shirley couldn’t access the equity. Their case was under the court’s jurisdiction, and the judge was not pleased.
He ordered Brad to have the lien removed and threatened to force a sale of the commercial property to give Shirley the money she was entitled to. Brad responded by filing bankruptcy. But that only stalled the process; it couldn’t halt it. After much legal maneuvering, Brad’s commercial property was removed from the bankruptcy proceeding and sold out from under him. He lost his marriage, his property, his reputation, his business, his fortune, and ten years of his life — just to satisfy a mad desire for revenge.
That was a dramatic example of the irrational behavior that may be spawned by divorce. But not all cases are so extreme. Some have a façade of reasonableness, but the substance is the same.
These are responses I’ve learned to expect, especially in high conflict divorces. My role as a real estate agent is to cool things down and recommend solutions that will be most beneficial to the clients. When I’m appointed by a court to oversee the sale of a home, I am a neutral body. My only client is whoever is on the title to the property. I have to be unbiased regarding the spousal conflict — and I must appear that way too. That means giving each partner equal attention, recognition, validation, and eye contact.
After years of dealing with hostile and belligerent people, I’ve learned that most are being driven by fear — that wordless terror that even they may not understand. With these folks it doesn’t help to make well-reasoned arguments. They need to be heard, reassured, and then guided toward a solution in their best interests.
Excerpt from The House Matters in Divorce by Laurel Starks, Unhooked Books.