Emotional War Games

Stacy D. Phillips of Blank Rome LLP explains what Danny DeVito’s character taught us in The War of the Roses – there are no winners, only degrees of losing

We frequently hear stories about contentious divorces that seem to be right out of the movies.

Unfortunately, these situations may not be so far-fetched. They are the emotional war games that some people engage in to assume and retain control during a divorce.

Many divorcing couples do not want to engage in any type of war, especially an emotional one. Contrary to their best intentions, however, individuals can get caught up in the turmoil of feelings, and it seems only natural to initiate or defend themselves in emotional warfare. Some participate with gusto while others do so reluctantly. In either case, attacks are launched and defended against. Casualties and collateral damage are real.

[To read more of Stacy D. Phillips’ thought leadership click here]

Emotional wars are ugly, and battles may be waged on many fronts. There is the ever-popular “emotional blackmail” maneuver, which is far more common than one might think. This type of battle tactic often involves the children, which is unspeakably sad. Next, there is the “hit ’em below the belt” ploy used by the classic passive aggressor. Here too, children are often recruited as unwitting allies, and the negative effects can last for many years. Many vintage emotional warmongers choose “shock and awe” as their weapon of choice. These aggressors likely have a history of intimidating opponents in all parts of their life, so they are particularly adept. Moreover, they know their spouse’s most vulnerable triggers. This kind of brutal tactic often spills into the public lives of otherwise private people, carried out in places they work, socialize, or even worship.

Social media platforms are rife with the detritus of couples at war. Vitriol can be delivered at any time of the day or night.

Texting and emailing, of course, have become the weapons of choice for many warring spouses as they find they have a tempting arsenal literally at their fingertips. Inundating the other with all manner of electronic assaults is far too common. But be warned if you are tempted to go down this path: Texts and emails can live forever and are certainly retrievable to be used as evidence against you.

Social media platforms are rife with the detritus of couples at war. Vitriol can be delivered at any time of the day or night. Some attackers even engage in a deeply offensive practice known as “revenge porn,” which involves posting intimate, personal photos of their soon-to-be-ex-spouse, causing public humiliation and significantly raising the stakes of battle. The personal pain inflicted is considerable, exacerbated by a potentially unlimited audience, and amplified by 24/7 technology.

Over the course of my 30-year career, I have witnessed too many emotional wars. It is often the initiation of the breakup or filing for divorce that drops the first bomb. The rest of the emotional attacks are merely residual fallout. The “attacker” can be in a state of constant combat readiness, or as cool as a stealth bomber. The “defender” can be just as offensive, having a knee-jerk reaction to every attack and engaging in return fire. This is what I see most often. Sometimes, although it is rare, I do come across a neutral participant. They are able to maintain objectivity even when emotional bullets fly around them. These are exceptionally well-grounded individuals who have come to terms with the divorce and have chosen to resist the temptation to play petty war games. What is their secret weapon? They are able to maintain their neutrality because they are no longer vulnerable or emotionally attached to the “attacker.”

Most people who were once on intimate terms have some degree of hurt and sadness when the relationship ends. These feelings are the real impetus behind any emotional war. The innermost fears, desires, and sensitivities, once shared, become ammunition. And, for those who bring with them emotional scar tissue from prior relationships, the vulnerability factor is heightened.

As in any negotiation, be it friendly or adversarial, the best practice is not to react, but to respond. To react is to act on a stimulus. To respond is simply to reply to it. There is a huge difference. Reacting demonstrates that you are personally and emotionally engaged—your buttons have been pushed. Replying indicates you are merely taking care of business calmly and confidently. Replying is a far more powerful position to hold, broadcasting that you are in control: literally in control of your emotions, and figuratively in control of the situation at hand. This is the goal.

Perhaps Danny DeVito’s character in The War of the Roses said it best. When engaging in emotional warfare, “there’s never a winner, only degrees of losing.”

[For more on Blank Rome LLP’s approach to Family Law click here]