Your Brain During Divorce: What Gets in the Way of Rational Analysis?

We’ve been speaking with Dr. David Rock, author of the bestseller Your Brain at Work. In this post, we discuss Dr. Rock’s ideas about what motivates our behavior and the behavior of others, as well as how we can better manage relationships through preparation, reaffirmation, and setting goals.

In our discussions with Dr. Rock about how the brain processes emotion during a divorce, he shared with us his theories about how emotion is intertwined with the decisions we make every day. Even decisions that seem to be completely rational, will often draw upon emotion, or memories of a feeling, from earlier decisions or relationships. This can make emotionally laden situations like divorce particularly challenging.

Strong Emotion Physically Impairs Rational Analysis

Emotionally provocative situations like divorce can actually physically impair our ability to think logically and rationally. While your brain draws upon the prefrontal cortex to aid in logic and decision-making, the entire brain is interconnected. When your body faces a strongly emotional situation, your brain sees this as a threat. While dealing with this threat, the limbic system, which is involved in strong emotional responses, pulls resources such as oxygen and glucose away from the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This physical reaction impairs your ability to think logically, but it can also impair your ability to process what you hear, answer simple questions, or even follow simple instructions.

The Teenager Example

Dr. Rock uses an apt example of attempting to talk to or reason with a teenaged child while they’re angry at you. They may hear you ask them to pick up the car keys from the floor, but they may not be able to even process the task because their body is dealing with a strong emotion that is impairing their cognitive ability.

The same thing can happen with adults when we face emotionally challenging situations like divorce. When the brain pulls resources from the prefrontal cortex to deal with a threat, it can be difficult to thoughtfully reflect, listen to new ideas, or even process simple requests. Moreover, this cognitive impairment can actually last several hours after a precipitating emotional event. You’ll need to wait until you or your former partner are calm once again before attempting to continue a rational discussion.

While your brain is trying to deal with a stressful threat, you may also overreact about the intentions of others. You are more likely to see ill intent where it doesn’t exist. Obviously, this can cause problems during a divorce. Planning ahead, however, and carefully choosing the time and place for stressful events can help you overcome some of this reaction. Be sure to follow the rest of our series with Dr. Rock for tips to regain your ability to think rationally during an emotional situation.

If you’re contemplating divorce but would like to try a different approach, one that might have a brighter future, call us for a confidential consultation.