Understanding Vicious Cycles in a Divorce

Human beings are incredibly good at getting trapped in vicious cycles when faced with challenges in life. When divorce hits and we’re faced with one of life’s biggest obstacles, getting caught in a negative feedback loop is pretty common.  

The American Psychological Association defines a vicious cycle as a “situation or behavioral pattern in which an individual’s or group’s problems become increasingly difficult because of a tendency to address or ignore them repetitively through unhealthy defensive reactions that, in fact, compound them.” 

That’s a lot of words to explain a pretty simple thing. 

A vicious cycle, plainly, is getting stuck in a chain of events that get worse and worse as they go. Each thing negatively inspires the next, like massive daming dominoes falling on each other, in a seemingly endless pattern.  

Let’s say you have a toothache. 

There’s a dull throbbing in the corner of your mouth, bringing with it the promise of worse pain down the road. But going to the dentist is painful too, so you avoid the problem. You fire down two Tylenol to numb the pain temporarily and get through your day. 

It works at first but eventually the pain intensifies. Now you rub some over-the-counter numbing agent like Oragel directly on the tooth. And while you’re dumbly rubbing a finger in your mouth, you feel something weird. 

Is that… a bump on your gums?

What the hell is that? 

That’s weird — that definitely wasn’t there before. 

Anxiety building, you Google “infections” and “gums” and get just enough information to scare you into finally making an appointment with the dentist. 

You land in the dentist chair — avoidance longer being an option — and lose a day of work. You miss the next day too because recovery takes longer than expected. It all results in lost wages and you fall behind on meetings, so you have less money now and your boss looks at you funny. 

The decision to not handle the problem when it was manageable led to it becoming larger. Not doing anything about it or applying stop-gap measures to put the issue off temporarily allowed the problem to get worse. 

This is how a vicious cycle works. 

Unattended problems spawn more challenges, increasing in number and severity. Small issues have a tendency to morph into monstrous beasts that are more difficult to deal with than the original issue.

That’s why the “cycle” part of “vicious cycle” is a bit of a misnomer because when you’re stuck in a negative pattern like this, you don’t actually arrive back where you started.  Every negative action and its subsequent bad consequence leads you not back to where you started, but in a step down the ladder. 

It’s not just a cycle but a spiral, one that spins downward incrementally and progressively, taking you farther and farther away from the solution.   

On the turn of a screw, a vicious cycle is the steady slide downward, twisting and turning towards the bottom.  

What a Vicious Cycle Looks Like in Divorce

In a divorce, spiraling downward can involve literal things people can touch, feel, and experience as they do the wrong things to handle their problems. 

Drinking Down the Spiral

Some people latch onto negative activities like drinking, drug abuse, or other substantive distractions as a way to avoid what’s happening. Substance abuse is a common crutch for dealing with — and dulling the pain of — a divorce. It’s Tylenol for the toothache, so to speak, and likewise negative in that it requires more and more intake as time goes on to get the same relief.  

Depending on substances to experience temporary relief and handle problems produces not solutions but real, long-term, negative side effects. They land you further down the spiral, farther away from solving your issues. 

Drinking to forget leads to a hazy morning, where you don’t get anything done because you’re physically unable to get off the couch. Your mood worsens because of it and you spend a lot of time reflecting on your sad position in life. 

Depression sets in yet again and before you know it, you’ve got a bottle in your hand in an attempt to kill the sorrow you’ve accumulated from your previous endeavor. 

Staying out a bit too late drinking leads to feeling like shit at work one day. Next thing you know, you’re spending a Saturday stuck on the couch because you went harder the night before. The grass gets higher outside and the housework goes undone.

The next thing you know, your vicious cycle of drinking to feel better and feeling worse because you’re drinking results in you getting pulled over for driving under the influence. Now you’ve got a stack of lawyers fees from your DUI to pair nicely with the other mountain of legal debt from the divorce attorney. Add to that the loss of a driver’s license so now you can’t drive to work.    

And your drinking continues. And the cycle goes on. 

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA)  categorizes divorce as a general stressor, setting it apart from childhood mistreatment, minority stress, and catastrophic events. Regardless of the distinction, the NIAA states that “long-term, heavy drinking can actually work against you, leading to a host of medical and psychological problems and increasing the risk for alcohol dependence.”   

From a physiological standpoint, stress is anything that challenges a body’s ability to function normally. The body’s natural reaction to drinking alcohol is to bounce back into balance. If the stressor continues and the alcohol use carries on as well, the new balance point is further down the vicious cycle.  

Addiction is a real danger. Becoming reliant on drugs or alcohol doesn’t fix the issue at hand and leads only to more reliance. Drugs and alcohol don’t fix problems — they actually pull you deeper into an increasingly erratic tailspin.

But sometimes, getting caught in a vicious cycle doesn’t require drugs or alcohol. 

Sometimes, all you need is your own mind. 

Being Married Long After the Marriage Ends

Marriages involve some of life’s strongest of emotions — love being the most powerful of them all. So it’s no small wonder that people get caught in a vicious cycle when the relationship ends.   

Divorce doesn’t magically sever the ties that bind you to another person. You don’t fall out of love with someone else just because they don’t feel the same way about you anymore. Love is a complex emotion that grows as time goes on. 

Divorce is often a forced tearing away from the person you were in love with for so very long by that same person. When that separation hits, when you hear those damning “I don’t love you anymore” words, it’s a literal shock to the system. The ties that bound you together are severed and the one cutting the ties — the person holding the knife — is also the person to which you were married.

But for some, the separation isn’t always so complete. 

Some remain attached to their ex-spouses for days, weeks, or even months. The ties that bind have been cut but some people — especially men — will keep reaching out for their partner long after the split, grasping into the space where they once were. 

Elisabeth Joy LaMotte, licensed independent clinical social worker and founder of DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center, writes that even if the divorce is legally final, people may stay psychologically married. 

“This may reflect that you never wanted your marriage to end,” Joy LaMotte writes. “Most divorces are not a mutual decision. If you did not want it to end and your partner broke it off, consider that it is never optimal to direct emotional or romantic energy toward an unavailable partner.”

When the love is gone, the loneliness sets in and men have to deal with that wife-shaped hole in their lives. Where once existed a person to share their life with now resides a blank space — a void where once resided the love, security, and balance of married life. 

That hollow place within a person when a divorce occurs is a vast, black emptiness is a terrifying, wanting place that begs to be filled with second-hand information from social media, friends and family. 

People spend way more time than necessary filling that void with whatever information they can find. They monitor their ex’s activities on social media from afar, listening for cues about how they either feel or don’t feel about them anymore. They get updates from friends and family about how their soon-to-be-ex-spouse is getting along, taking in bits of information to fulfill their desire to know. 

Dr. Andra Brosh, writing for Divorce Magazine, calls it engaging in the old dynamics and interactions with your ex

But let’s be honest here, it’s not about what their ex is doing or not doing. Guys headed for a divorce aren’t interested in what their exes put on Twitter or hearing about their day from shared friends. 

Soon-to-be-divorced people are interested in what they say about them. 

The question isn’t:

“Did you see what she put on Facebook?” 

Instead it’s:

“Did you see what she put on Facebook about me?”

The reason here, the cause behind it all, is that deep down inside, people on the verge of divorce know that once their ex stops talking about them, the relationship is really over. 

People — especially men — maintain an attachment to their exes as a divorce unfolds largely out of fear.  

Some men get so terrified of dealing with the true reality of their situation that they spend a good part of their lives post-divorce literally trying to act like they are still married

The remaining attachment to their ex and fear of what comes next is the straitjacket that keeps men in a vicious spiral downward. Attachment is a rope tied around their neck. Fear wraps that rope around us and anxiety binds the knots tighter as we spin in a whirlpool of sadness. Effectively disarmed from progressing forward, people spend days, weeks, and perhaps months ruminating over the past and instead of moving forward. 

Staying stuck in the downward spiral is, for some, more appealing than living in the actual reality of their solitude. 

Repeating the negative actions from a connected time — continually doing the wrong things over and over to relive some semblance of togetherness — is somehow more palatable than progressing forward solo. 

The long-term goal, after all, is detachment from your ex. 

“You will still feel many emotions, but your interactions with your Ex will not hold the same potency,” Brosh writes. “When you make the choice to detach, you are accepting the circumstances of your life and the reality of your situation.”

The Sisyphean Quest for Need Validation

People do some fairly painful and negative things to bring an end to a marriage. 

Emotional and physical abuse leveled on partners leave them feeling like broken, shattered half-people after the relationship is over. Tiny hurtful comments snowball over time, emotional manipulation builds to control, and literal violence results in physical hurt you can see. 

Other times, the hurtful things our partners do is hidden initially but soon comes to light in an instant, like a bomb going off in our marriage. Partners sometimes go outside of their marriage, engaging in long periods of infidelity that has them sneaking around to keep affairs going. 

Others secretly secure personal bank accounts and drain us of our resources in an instant, leaving their partners with literally nothing. 

When the dust settles, when it’s all cleared out and the full realization of one’s life comes into view, all the pain and suffering we endure has us looking for retribution. 

People are filled with an intense urge to let others know how they were wronged and what’s more, they need others to agree with them. 

The need for validation is strong. 

Searching for validation of being wronged in a divorce is in itself a vicious cycle, just like pushing a heavy boulder up a steep hill only to have it roll back down in some kind of Sisyphusian struggle.

To recap, Sisyphus was the subject of a story despite being first written over 2,870 years ago by Greek poet Homer. After cheating death twice, Sisyphus was doomed by the Gods to struggle in eternity by rolling a heavy boulder up a steep hill. Despite his best efforts, Sisyphus never gets the rock over the lip of the hill. He spends eternity locked in a worthless struggle to accomplish an impossible task. 

Divorced people, especially men, get into a vicious cycle that resembles a Sisyphean question for validation. They tell and retell their story over and over, searching for confirmation of being wronged from those around them. 

The frustrating part is that even if they get that affirmation, when people agree that they were wronged, it doesn’t stop the search for validation. The boulder representing the quest for validation never actually seems to clear the crest of the hill. 

And that’s because it’s not just about receiving your validation. 

If it was just about being validated, you’d tell your side of the story, get the confirming feedback that you were in fact wronged, and move the fuck on. 

But it doesn’t happen that way. Validation never seems to exit you from a vicious cycle, no matter who provides the confirmation and regardless of the number of times it’s delivered.   

Lebron James, Bill Gates, Brad Pitt, and Jesus Christ could tell a divorced guy stuck in a vicious validation cycle that yes, in fact his cheating wife was awful for cleaning out the bank account and breaking up the family. They could confirm it 100 times. 

It wouldn’t matter, the same guy would spend Friday night over beers with his buddies retelling the same divorce story, continuing the spiral downward. 

The reason why this search for validation is so fruitless, consuming, and painful is because it’s far less about finding confirmation of wrongdoing and more about being heard. Telling your tale of woe isn’t just about having someone listen to your problems and telling you that you’re correct.  

Gaining validation isn’t going to exit someone from a vicious cycle. Moving on will. 

Progress doesn’t happen with this phrase:

“You’re right.”

Progress is made by answering this question instead: 

“You’re right, now what are you going to do about it?” 

Life coach D. Grant Smith writes that seeking validation is the root of insecurity. 

“It’s not just thinking that you’re not enough or that you’re not worthy,” Smith writes. “Those two false beliefs will derail you on their own. But the root of the problem is the idea that someone else telling you that you’re good enough or worthy will make it so.”

The key here is where you are seeking validation. Focusing outside won’t get you the answers. Instead, look inside. 

“Here’s the truth: No one gets to determine your value except you,” Smith writes. “If you give anyone else the power to determine your value, you’re still conceding what’s rightfully yours to someone else.”

The Other Side of the Coin

Being stuck in a vicious cycle is an exhausting, brutally negative process that sucks the life out of you and everyone around you. The negative feedback loop — doing the wrong things and getting bad consequences that lead to more bad activities — takes a ton of time and energy. 

The good news is that vicious cycles aren’t the only kind of process for which we can involve ourselves. Spiraling downward isn’t the only option. Vicious cycles are just one side of a coin.

On the flip side is the virtuous cycle. 

Virtuous cycles involve positive, incremental steps that climb upward. Reversing the engines from vicious to virtuous starts with a decision, one that comes with the recognition of your actions and the act of moving forward. 

We all have the power to break vicious cycles and start the climb upward. 


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