Your Brain During Divorce: Why Is It So Hard to Avoid Reacting Emotionally?

In this series, we’ve been speaking with Dr. David Rock, the director of The NeuroLeadership Institute, a global initiative bringing leadership experts and neuroscientists together in a new science of leadership development. This piece discusses Dr. Rock’s theories about how the brain influences relationships, including how divorce can affect our brains.

Dr. David Rock’s theories about how emotion is inextricably intertwined with logic in our daily decisions and relationships, were a key component of our discussions about negotiation and the strong emotional reactions divorcing couples experience. He explained that, while our brain utilizes the prefrontal cortex for decision-making and problem solving, there is no specific “logic” center of the brain that acts alone. Rather, the brain acts as a network, linking nearly all of our decisions to emotions. In fact, emotions are nearly impossible to completely divide from cognition.

Facing a Provocatively Emotional Situation Can Impair Cognition

When you face a stressful or emotional situation, your body and your brain see that situation just as it would an actual physical threat. In other words, although your ex may be standing in front of you, your body sees your strong emotional reaction to your ex just as if a tiger were crouched in front of you waiting to pounce. While dealing with the threat, your brain reduces resources, including oxygen and glucose, allocated to your prefrontal cortex. In other words, the strong emotions encountered during a divorce can actually physically impair your ability to think and react logically.

Dr. Rock describes this reaction in your brain as a “see-saw effect.” If your brain sees a threat as minor, the reaction will be less severe. But for emotionally provocative stimuli, like divorce, your strong emotions may make it nearly impossible for you to reflect, think about new ideas, or process a simple request. These strong emotions can cause errors in cognition. No wonder divorce can be so difficult to navigate without reacting emotionally.

Strong Emotion Can Cause Errors in Intention

Dr. Rock also explained that the cognitive impairment we face as the result of strong emotion can also cause us to misinterpret the intentions of others. Because our ability to logically think is impaired, we are much more likely to assume that others have bad intentions when they may actually be good or neutral. And if someone does have slightly bad intentions, it can cause us to think that their intentions are much worse. This effect also lasts for several hours. Obviously, this can be a problem during divorce negotiations.

What can we do about this? Be sure to follow along our entire series with Dr. Rock for more tips and insight into how the brain reacts during divorce. 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.