Divorce is never fun, even when you want out. Loss of property, status, financial wellbeing, the relationship, your social network, something to do on a Friday night, and maybe even access to your children are all reasons to go a little bit off your rocker in the short term. But what makes some people able to slowly rebuild their lives and move on in a productive way, whereas other people completely lose their shit, won’t let go, or vow to make their ex’s life a living hell?
News that 56-year-old Arizona man Dwight Lamon Jones killed six people over four days, before taking his own life — all victims related directly or tangentially to the handling of his divorce in 2009 — raises the question of how some people cope (or don’t) after divorce compared to others.
According to reports, Jones’ wife had filed for divorce a decade ago after he threatened to drown her in front of the couple’s teenage son, and he was arrested for domestic violence. Jones was a stay-at-home dad, and his wife worked as a radiologist and was the earner in the family. After the divorce he netted a lump sum payment of $100,000 and five years of alimony at $6,000 per month. He was also awarded the gold Mercedes he would drive to each killing. He lost custody of his son, though, and only saw him during supervised visitation. He was never able to earn a living to put him back to the lifestyle he was accustomed to, and spent the next several years living in extended-stay hotels.
Then last week, and some eight years after the divorce was final, Jones began “confronting people connected with the breakup and shooting them,” the Chicago Tribune reported. They note that while it’s not unusual for mass killers to plan their crime sprees months or years in advance or to wait to seek revenge, it’s unusual that he targeted everyone except his wife (up to 75 percent of domestic violence homicides happen after the woman leaves).
Instead, Jones chose only to focus on the people who facilitated the divorce, including a marriage counselor, forensic psychiatrist, two paralegals, and a couple whose ties to the divorce are, as of this writing, still unknown. The Tribune notes that Jones recorded hours of videos complaining about the bias in family courts against fathers, which may indicate his greatest anger was toward them.
Still, Jones’ story is extreme but it’s not an isolated act, and usually, the (female) spouses, children, or new partners are the typical targets of post-divorce rage. Recent headlines alone tell strikingly similar stories: “Husband killed the mother of his children after she filed for divorce,” or “‘Estranged husband’ charged with murder, arson in Hammond fire.” Another just today: “Colorado Man Murdered His Wife in Shotgun ‘Ambush’ 2 Days After She Met with Divorce Lawyer.” And another: “Springfield murder-suicide: Couple was going through divorce, records show.”
There’s a general term in family law circles for people who go to extremes in the aftermath of a divorce: “Divorce crazy” or “divorce psychosis.” (Note that the use of crazy here is for the sake of describing the expression, and that “crazy” is widely objected to by mental health advocates because it stigmatizes mental illness.)
“We often see people at their worst — I’ve heard it called ‘divorce crazy’ — and I think the mental health field should have a special category for that,” family lawyer Paola Stange said in an interview about the nature of the work in 2009. To be clear, “divorce crazy” or “divorce psychosis” can encompass everything from just erratic or jerk behavior to actual criminal, murderous behavior. It just means a person is temporarily not themselves, for the worse, because of the extreme stress of the split.
There is something in psychological literature called brief reactive psychosis, which can happen as an extreme response to a disturbing event, such as death of a loved one, or homelessness or even divorce. But it’s characterized more like an episode of schizophrenia, and includes delusions or hallucinations or even catatonic behavior.
In the context of divorce, it tends to be more about describing the extreme bitterness or outlandish nastiness that may ensue when two people break up and have to involve the bureaucracy of the government. As psychiatrist Jeremy Clyman puts it at Psychology Today, divorce psychosis temporarily brings out in some people the “most dysfunctional versions of themselves.” He elaborates:
It’s a form of insanity that emerges for a temporary period of time (the divorce itself) and remains within the ex-romantic relationship like an invisible toxic mist that distorts reality, blocks healthy impulses, and plays-up pre-existing character flaws.
I can recall a perfectly nice stay-at-home dad, for instance, who sheepishly admitted that he’d taken to pouring ice water on his wife’s side of the bed toward the end of their marriage. He did this, presumably, so that she’d be miserable. Don’t ask me why (I don’t think he even knew), or why she continued to sleep in the marital bed thereafter.
When it comes to divorcing couples, and the negative emotions/destructive behaviors they “fire” back and forth, this anecdote is merely the tip of the iceberg. I’ve listened to divorced couples recall every abuse under the sun — emotional-psychological, financial, physical, and sexual — and it’s all just so surprisingly dysfunctional.
The reason it exists is because, as Clyman puts it, divorce is a scenario that creates such “maximum stress” that life begins to feel much like a war zone. That takes a toll on the body, too, but, crucially, most people recover. A 2015 study reviewing the existing literature about divorce and health notes that while the recently divorced experience a 23 percent higher mortality rate overall, most people cope with the “maximum stress” pretty well. Out of some two million people going through a new separation annually, though, about 10 to 15 percent of divorcing people just don’t bounce back well. The question is why?
Divorce, the study authors note, is shitty for everyone, and considered a major life stress ranking between death of a spouse and a jail term. But the biggest factor in how you’ll respond to separation from a spouse is probably, they conclude after looking at a wide body of research, attachment style.
“People high in attachment anxiety often engage in hyper activating strategies [after divorce], including repetitive efforts to feel close to, or reunite with, the attachment figure, that render the system chronically activated,” they write. In other words, these are the people who find it really really hard to let go. Another study the researchers cite found that those who have a history of major depressive disorder are most likely to experience it again after divorce. “After divorce,” they write, “risk of poor mental health outcomes appears limited to people who have struggled prior to the end of marriage.”
People who never remarry — as was the case for Jones — also face significantly higher risk of elevated mortality and poor coping. Researchers also note that how people recount their divorce (in language or in writing) is indicative of their risk for poorer outcomes, because it indicates their attachment style (high anxiety) as well as their inability to create distance psychologically from the bad feelings of the breakup. “People who recount their experiences in a blow-by-blow manner rather than reconstrue their experiences to find meaning, are at heightened risk for mood disorders,” they write.
Another key to getting over a divorce with some resilience is in how much of your identity is wrapped up in the other person. The researchers note that some research indicates that having a clear sense of who you are outside a relationship — what they call “self-concept clarity” — indicates a greater likelihood of psychological well-being in the future.
Of course, even the 10 to 15 percent of divorces that turn out very badly don’t necessarily involve murder, suicide or crimes of any kind. They typically just involve extremely shitty behavior. Lawyers and divorce coaches tell stories like this all the time of their worst cases of how otherwise good people act like complete jerks because the stakes of the split are so high. Then there are the more predictable jerks: the scorched-earth, false-allegations type divorces, usually involving narcissists who were often abusive the entire time.
That is helpful to know, but it’s not clear how helpful it is to someone before they get married. Which brings us back to the Jones case. Reports say that his ex-wife and new husband had warned police often that he was likely to do something terrible like this — just as the murdered forensic psychiatrist who testified against him predicted. Yet, other stories of terrible coping after divorces involves being blindsided by the person’s sudden extreme behavior — someone once loved and regarded as a good person is now behaving like an entirely different person.
This makes it difficult for us to know who will turn out like this. Maybe the best solution is to simply provide a wide range of services to people divorcing so it never gets that bad. The review of the existing literature identifies areas we should focus on in the future to help those who won’t fare well in divorce, and what we can do to intervene. Their ideas: treat the recently divorced for depression, loneliness, and ruminating, in addition to guiding them on how to forgive and let go. Then, this percentage of people could stop treating divorce as a war, and more like what it is: a chance to move on and start again.