What’s A Divorce Curfew?
My mother used to tell me that “nothing good happens after midnight.” As a teenager, I thought otherwise, but as a therapist specializing in high-conflict divorce, I’ve developed my own spin on Mom’s wisdom. In fact, I urge my clients to follow an even stricter curfew: to stop participating in any divorce-related activities by 8 p.m.
That means no emailing your ex, no poring over legal documents, no grousing about your divorce on the phone with friends. There is nothing good that comes from focusing on your divorce after 8 p.m. It will just hijack your nervous system and keep you up half the night.
Divorce is traumatic. And high-conflict divorce is even more traumatic. You probably feel like you’re constantly dodging bullets, anticipating the next round of shenanigans from your dastardly ex. Your overactive amygdala (the part of the brain that processes emotions) keeps you on high alert, poised for disaster.
What Happens When Your Nervous System Doesn’t Calm Down
Staying on high alert makes you misjudge events. That means that you overreact to benign occurrences — gagging when you hear the “ping” of an email, for instance. Your ex’s emails, while monumentally obnoxious, are not actually going to hurt you. And yet your nervous system interprets them as threats to your survival.
If you’re already prone to anxiety and depressive rumination, focusing on your divorce at night will make you feel worse. You need to shift your focus from what you’re worried about — the 57 ways your ex wronged you, or is going to wrong you — to what is actually going on in the present. The good news is that you get to choose what’s going on in the present when you focus on something positive.
Maybe that’s a good book. A trip to the ice cream shoppe with the kids. Knitting a scarf. Taking a bath. Some sun salutes. Going on a brisk evening walk.
It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s good for you, and helps restore your nervous system to baseline.
When you’re calm, you’re better able to make mindful choices. That means you don’t respond to drama with more drama. You don’t spend hours imagining a catastrophe that hasn’t happened. You decide to focus on the here-and-now, and what you can control.
When I first started working with Claire, she had a hard time functioning at home and at work. She cried through our first session as she told me about all the crap her ex was putting her through. To quote Law & Order, her ex was especially heinous, but obsessing about his heinous-ness wasn’t making things any better.
One of the first interventions I made was to put Claire on a divorce curfew. Since she was in the middle of a custody evaluation, this meant that she had to prepare legal homework before 8 p.m. After a couple of months of being very disciplined about her regimen, Claire told me that she was sleeping better and enjoying her evenings.
“When my friends call me after 8 p.m. and ask me what’s going on with my ex, I tell them I can’t talk about him because I have a curfew!”
Claire told me her divorce curfew was one of the biggest contributors to her improved mental health. (She also developed a solid mindfulness practice).
Although it seems like a small thing, respecting your divorce curfew is an act of radical self-care. Your divorce will still be there in the morning, so give it a rest for tonight.