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Psychology of Divorce

The Psychology of Divorce

With more than 35 years of experience as a divorce attorney and psychologically trained mediator, I am a strong advocate for divorce with dignity.

I have mastered techniques using psychology and sound legal strategy to get couples through the divorce process without going insane or draining their bank accounts.

In my many years of practicing law and medicine and treating personality and mood disorders, I have learned that separation and divorce are not simply legal issues. Psychological issues drive the divorce process in a crucial way.

After witnessing the emotional pain of many couples, I decided to develop a unique psychologically infused mediation process to tackle divorce in a more humane and civil way. My divorce technique addresses both the head (legal strategy) and heart (emotions) of the divorce process. This groundbreaking method of marrying legal strategy and psychology saves couples time, money and pain.

Call to schedule your confidential consultation: (646) 663-4546

The central truth about divorce is that it is a “psychological experience.” Divorce is far more than just what is in the court papers or what a judge decides. Divorce is about people, psychology and the emotional health of a couple. The traditional divorce system is a conflict-based, lengthy and costly process that completely ignores the psychological component of divorce.

Why fight when you can discuss, negotiate and participate in a thoughtful and peaceful divorce process? My divorce mediation method involves behavior modification, the use of psychology—identifying personality and character traits, emotions and family dynamics—and applying the law to develop strategies for a more positive experience and successful outcome. My divorce approach is powerful, positive and productive, with a special emphasis on the psychology of divorce.

Mediation is a negotiation process between divorcing spouses on the important issues: finances, property, spousal and child support, custody and visitation. As the divorce mediator, my role is to keep you talking, on track and to make sure negotiations are reasonable as well as offering creative suggestions when you hit a roadblock.

The focus of mediation is for you to control your own divorce. Spouses have the opportunity to discuss their personal needs and priorities and to arrive together at an agreement that is fair to both of them.

What divorcing couples feel, think and do has a huge impact on both the process and the substantive outcome of divorce. Using my divorce method, divorcing couples can get better results and make their journey less adversarial.

For couples that have never traveled the divorce path before, it can be scary, confusing and overwhelming. When it comes to divorce, the legal system by its very nature is adversarial, pitting people against each other with the promise of only one winner and with no room for compromise. I say, “If you were once in love, able to organize your lives and build a life together, you should be able to discuss and organize your lives to dissolve your marriage and to live apart.”

I often explain to spouses that with mediation there are no losers; everyone is a winner. Mediation offers the opportunity to see your divorce and your spouse through a different lens.

As individuals go through the process of separation and divorce, it would be unnatural if people did not have feelings. Husbands and wives may feel hurt, angry, disappointed, scared, insulted and/or abused. As a result, divorcing individuals frequently do the following things, which raise the stakes and often cannot be undone:

  1. Take all of the money out of joint savings, checking and investment accounts;
  2. Change the locks on the marital residence;
  3. Prevent their spouse from seeing the children;
  4. Stop paying household bills;
  5. Cut off access to credit cards or abuse them to run up debt;
  6. Turn off the family phone plan;
  7. Insult each other;
  8. Threaten a spouse, saying things such as, "I will take the children away from you," and “I will not give you any money.”

I cannot emphasize enough how many divorcing couples have either done these things or tell me they are planning to do them. Spouses do these things out of anger or fear, to protect themselves from what they anticipate the other will do. They also do it for revenge.

At a first consultation, I discuss strategy with clients to determine what steps they should take and should not take to protect themselves so they make choices based on logic, not emotion. Poor choices can be used against you or end up in court when it could have been reasonably avoided without unfortunate consequences.

For example, if a spouse prevents the other from seeing their children, you can be almost certain someone will start a lawsuit and get a judge to order visitation. If someone stops paying the bills, the other spouse will go to court to obtain an order of support. These actions ensure that the case will be litigated, that each will pay a large retainer to separate attorneys, and that a judge will make decisions and orders neither party may like.

When I meet with a new client, I explain the likely parameters of what will happen if he or she goes to court and does not negotiate a settlement. In New York, there are guidelines regarding how much spousal support and child support is normally paid. Why spend the family money just to get what you would get without a court order? Don’t act out of anger or revenge. Going to court is not the answer.

There are three ways to end a marriage: litigation, negotiation or mediation. In any context, your personality traits and those of your spouse and what you do, make a major contribution to the
outcome of your divorce. The way property is divided in a family is straightforward. The same goes for child support amounts and spousal maintenance. There are statutes and precedents in New York that make the outcome fairly predictable. It does not really make sense for couples to roll the dice and fight in court. They will get pretty much the same results in negotiating as if they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers.

Rage and fear are normal feelings couples experience when they are going through a divorce. However, the behavior and actions of divorcing individuals can be modified and controlled. I provide couples with both the insight and tools to manage their divorce in a more productive and positive way.

In addition, if a spouse is suffering from a personality or mood disorder, I help identify features and elements of these problems and guide spouses on how to respond in productive ways that will benefit them and their family.

Psychology affects human behavior. Examples include the sociopathic personality of Hitler and how he changed the history of the world and the narcissism of Napoleon and how that affected France and Europe. On a much less global basis, we see how psychology and personality traits affect the process and outcome of divorce.

The following are some of the personality disorders plaguing marriages today.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

People with narcissistic personality disorder exhibit a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration and lack of empathy beginning in early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

  1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements);
  2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love;
  3. believes that he or she is "special" and “unique” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people;
  4. requires excessive admiration;
  5. has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations;
  6. is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends;
  7. lacks empathy and is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others;
  8. is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her;
  9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

Antisocial Personality Disorder

A. A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, occurring since age 18 years, as indicated by three or more of the following:

  1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
  2. deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
  3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;
  4. irritability and aggressiveness as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
  5. reckless disregard for the safety of self or others;
  6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
  7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated or stolen from another.

B. There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15.
C. The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.

Major Depressive Disorder

A. Depressed mood or a loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities for more than two weeks.
B. Mood represents a change from the person's baseline mood.
C. Impaired social, occupational and educational function.
D. Specific symptoms of which at least 5 present nearly every day:

  1. Depressed mood or irritable most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by either subjective report (e.g., feels sad or empty) or observation made by others (e.g., appears tearful).
  2. Decreased interest or pleasure in most activities, most of each day.
  3. Significant weight change or change in appetite.
  4. Change in sleep such as insomnia or hypersomnia.
  5. Change in activity such as psychomotor agitation or retardation.
  6. Fatigue or loss of energy.
  7. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt.
  8. Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or more indecisiveness.
  9. Thoughts of death or suicide, or has suicide plan

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

A. Either obsessions or compulsions:

Obsessions as defined by (1), (2), (3), and (4):

  1. recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses or images that are experienced at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and inappropriate and that cause marked anxiety or distress;
  2. the thoughts, impulses or images are not simply excessive worries about real-life problems;
  3. the person attempts to ignore or suppress such thoughts, impulses or images or to neutralize them with some other thought or action;
  4. the person recognizes that the obsessional thoughts, impulses or images are a product of his or her own mind (not imposed from without as in thought insertion).

Compulsions as defined by (1) and (2):

  1. repetitive behaviors (e.g., hand washing, ordering, checking) or mental acts (e.g., praying, counting, repeating words silently) that the person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly
  2. the behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or reducing distress or preventing some dreaded event or situation; however, these behaviors or mental acts either are not connected in a realistic way with what they are designed to neutralize or prevent or are clearly excessive

B. At some point during the course of the disorder, the person has recognized that the obsessions or compulsions are excessive or unreasonable.
C. The obsessions or compulsions cause marked distress, are time-consuming (take more than 1 hour a day) or significantly interfere with the person's normal routine, occupational (or academic) functioning or usual social activities or relationships.

Borderline Personality Disorder

The essential features of a personality disorder are impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits. People with borderline personality disorder meet the following criteria:

A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:

  1. Impairments in self-functioning (a or b):
    1. Identity: Markedly impoverished, poorly developed or unstable self-image, often associated with excessive self-criticism; chronic feelings of emptiness; dissociative states under stress.
    2. Self-direction: Instability in goals, aspirations, values or career plans and:
  2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):
    1. Empathy: Compromised ability to recognize the feelings and needs of others associated with interpersonal hypersensitivity (i.e., prone to feel slighted or insulted); perceptions of others selectively biased toward negative attributes or vulnerabilities.
    2. Intimacy: Intense, unstable and conflicted close relationships marked by mistrust, neediness and anxious preoccupation with real or imagined abandonment; close relationships often viewed in extremes of idealization and devaluation and alternating between over involvement and withdrawal.

B. Pathological personality traits in the following domains:

  1. Negative effectivity, characterized by:
    1. Emotional liability: Unstable emotional experiences and frequent mood changes; emotions that are easily aroused, intense and/or out of proportion to events and circumstances.
    2. Anxiousness: Intense feelings of nervousness, tenseness or panic, often in reaction to interpersonal stresses; worry about the negative effects of past unpleasant experiences and future negative possibilities; feeling fearful, apprehensive or threatened by uncertainty; fears of falling apart or losing control.
    3. Separation insecurity: Fears of rejection by—and/or separation from—significant others, associated with fears of excessive dependency and complete loss of autonomy.
    4. Depressivity: Frequent feelings of being down, miserable and/or hopeless; difficulty recovering from such moods; pessimism about the future; pervasive shame; feeling of inferior self-worth; thoughts of suicide and suicidal behavior.
  2. Disinhibition characterized by:
    1. Impulsivity: Acting on the spur of the moment in response to immediate stimuli; acting on a momentary basis without a plan or consideration of outcomes; difficulty establishing or following plans; a sense of urgency and self-harming behavior under emotional distress.
    2. Risk-taking: Engagement in dangerous, risky and potentially self-damaging activities, unnecessarily and without regard to consequences; lack of concern for one's limitations and denial of the reality of personal danger.
  3. Antagonism characterized by:
    1. Hostility: Persistent or frequent angry feelings; anger or irritability in response to minor slights and insults.

Paranoid Personality Disorder

Paranoid personality disorder is marked by a pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others such that their motives are interpreted as malevolent. Paranoid personality disorder begins in early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by four or more of the following:

  1. suspects without sufficient basis, that others are exploiting, harming or deceiving him or her;
  2. is preoccupied with unjustified doubts about the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends or associates;
  3. is reluctant to confide in others because of unwarranted fear that the information will be used maliciously against him or her;
  4. reads hidden demeaning or threatening meanings into benign remarks or events;
  5. persistently bears grudges, i.e., is unforgiving of insults, injuries or slights;
  6. perceives attacks on his or her character or reputation that are not apparent to others and is quick to react angrily or to counterattack;
  7. has recurrent suspicions, without justification, regarding fidelity of spouse or sexual partner.

Dependent Personality Disorder

A pervasive and excessive need to be taken care of that leads to submissive and clinging behavior and fears of separation, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

  1. has difficulty making everyday decisions without an excessive amount of advice and reassurance from others.
  2. needs others to assume responsibility for most major areas of his or her life;
  3. has difficulty expressing disagreement with others because of fear of loss of support or approval;
  4. has difficulty initiating projects or doing things on his or her own (because of a lack of self-confidence in judgment or abilities rather than a lack of motivation or energy);
  5. goes to excessive lengths to obtain nurturance and support from others to the point of volunteering to do things that are unpleasant;
  6. feels uncomfortable or helpless when alone because of exaggerated fears of being unable to care for himself or herself;
  7. urgently seeks another relationship as a source of care and support when a close relationship ends;
  8. is unrealistically preoccupied with fears of being left to take care of himself or herself.

Divorce Stories

As a divorce attorney and psychologically-trained mediator, I hear all kinds of divorce stories. I have decided to share some of these stories with you. Naturally, I have changed the names and some of the details to protect the privacy of my clients. The purpose of sharing these divorce stories with you is to let you know that you are not alone.

Mistakes Not to Make

My new client’s name was Andrea, a young mother of two children. She had just found out that her husband was having an affair with her “best” friend. Hurt and angry, she made every mistake in the book starting at the beginning of her divorce.

She removed the entire $260,000 from the joint savings account with her husband. Since he was out of the house temporarily, she refused to let him see their children. She told him she was going to get sole custody of their children, and she had gone on a shopping spree for expensive items on their joint credit card. Her anger was normal under the circumstances.

However, her behavior was all but guaranteed to have the following results. Her Husband would hire a lawyer who would immediately go to court to seek

  • Return of the savings
  • Custody and visitation with the children
  • Credit for the expensive shopping spree
  • She would spend, along with her Husband, over $150,000 of the family money on lawyers’ fees.

When she came to me for a consultation, I explained why she should return half of the money to their joint account and let her husband see the children so that he wasn’t pushed into seeking custody. The couple could possibly work in mediation to obtain a divorce together. In changing her approach and behavior towards her husband, Andrea was able to act in a non self-destructive way and avoid a protracted adversarial process. She could deal with her anger in therapy instead. The use of psychology in this case had a positive effect on the outcome for all involved.

Case Example of Sociopath

Jill and Frank were married for 14 years. He was a successful builder and owned a garden center. She taught in the local public school. They had one child, Suzanne, aged 9. They lived in a New York suburb in a house that was being constructed by Frank’s company.

When Jill discovered that her Husband was having an affair with the babysitter and using cocaine, she decided to end her marriage. She announced to Frank that she wanted sole custody of their daughter.

Frank’s response was to stop construction on the house, leaving Jill with a hole in the roof, a wet floor when it rained and a kitchen that was not usable and still had to be completed. He moved into a house down the block that he had built for his mother.

The morning after her Husband moved out, Jill went to drive their daughter to school and her car wouldn’t start. She noticed that the gas gauge was on empty. Since she had filled the tank the day before, she realized that her Husband must have drained the gas tank by siphoning off the gas.

Frank then showed up and took their daughter to school on his motorcycle without her helmet, against Jill’s wishes. After school, he picked up Suzanne and took her to the house where he was living instead of returning her to her mother.

Helping Jill as her attorney required an understanding that her husband was a sociopath. He had no sense of responsibility or guilt.

One tool for Jill was to keep Frank ignorant about what she wanted (custody and the house). If she told him, she would lose her leverage and he would sadistically manipulate her and their daughter. So instead, Jill told Frank that he could have custody of their daughter because she was going back to school. Jill also managed to obtain her Husband’s business records that he had left in the house. The records showed that he was hiding a large cash income and that his business was worth a lot more than he stated on his tax returns.

Frank did not really want his daughter living with him, as it would encroach on his lifestyle. When the forensic accountant evaluated his business and actual spending, Jill was able to prove that the value of his business was far greater than he admitted. This allowed Jill to settle the case on far more favorable terms than she would have if she had played it straight and followed her initial instincts.

Case Example of Depression

Ellen was married to Robert. Things seemed all right for several years. Then Ellen noticed that her husband was sleeping late in the mornings. He was sort of irritable and did not want to make plans with their friends. When she wanted to talk, he walked into the other room. He often looked glum and when she asked what was wrong, he said "nothing." After while, Ellen felt that her husband was depressed and suggested that he go to a therapist, which he refused to do.

This state of affairs continued and got more pronounced over the next couple of years. Ellen felt as though she were living alone and finally suggested a divorce. To her surprise, her husband did not object or seem to want to discuss it. The consequences of untreated depression led to their divorce. The marriage and his health might have been saved by medicine and therapeutic intervention. Often, this does not take place because of denial by the person involved.

Case Example of Anxiety

Candy and Roger were married. After a while, Candy began to notice that her husband was rather impatient. It bothered him when food accumulated in the refrigerator or the lights were left on in the apartment. When they left the house, he often had to go back in to check that the stove was turned off. If she was not exactly on time for an appointment, he got very angry. This behavior got worse to the point that it was intolerable. When she complained Roger just yelled at her and told her she was too demanding. After several years of this, Candy decided that she could not live under these conditions and decided to end her marriage.

Roger suffered with untreated obsessive compulsive disorder, which can often be helped with therapy and medication. But Roger refused both and the result was the end of their marriage. Understanding his pathology made it easier to deal with him in mediating a settlement that was favorable for his wife.

Case Example of Sociopath and Narcissist

Dan quit his job and stayed home for three years while his wife, Elaine, continued to work. Dan borrowed money from his pension, promising Elaine he would put the money back, but he never did. He asked his wife for passwords to their accounts so he could “organize” their finances. She is afraid of what he might do if she gave them to him.

When she told me this, I could see the warning signs and told her that she needed to serve him to prevent him from transferring money to deprive her of her entitlement to property. She needed to protect herself from his irresponsibility and prevent him from receiving spousal support for his laziness. She is the victim of two character disorders for which her husband refused to go for therapy. In going to court we were able to prove that her husband was irresponsible about money and taking advantage of her when he had a profession and could very well work and earn a living.

Case Example of Sociopath

Margaret described her husband of 18 years as "abusive and controlling." He handled all the money and never let her see their assets or income. He was in finance, and she was a teacher. When she tried to get information from him, he was rude and dismissive, saying "you don't need to know; I take care of everything."

When she came to me for help, I told her this was a pattern I see all too often in marriages that are not working. I had to work with her behind the scenes, along with a forensic accountant and private investigator, to gather sufficient facts and information to formulate a picture of the couple’s actual assets and income in order to protect Margaret’s rights in the divorce proceeding.

Discovering what a client is entitled to in an impending divorce can be an extensive process and needs to be performed by highly experienced professionals. It requires an attorney with sophisticated knowledge of finance and the tools to discover the truth. In this instance, we assembled an “A” team and were able to get to the bottom of everything. Margaret received her full share of the marital property she was entitled to as well as spousal support and reimbursement of her legal fees.

Margaret’s case is typical of the type of issues encountered in cases where one spouse is withholding vital information and hindering the other spouse from obtaining the maximum desired outcome.

Do any of these stories sound like you? Have they gotten your attention? Would you like to learn more about my highly successful psychologically infused divorce mediation process?

If so, call me. I will answer all your questions 212.734.1551.

Warm regards,

    “No words can express what you have done for our family!”
    “No words can express what you have done for our family!”
    - Ken
    “Brenner divorce method really works!!”
    I had read about Lois’ unusual divorce method in one of her blog posts. It was refreshing to see someone was working with the psychological issues in divorce. My husband is bipolar and getting him to agree to a divorce and commit to the process was tough. When we met with Lois she really understood him. She immediately identified his mental health issues, and because she has a psych background, she was empathetic to his needs and was skillful at guiding him through her divorce mediation process. It took a while but she really got us to a point where we could actually discuss things without my husband blowing up. Her method is unique and it really helped in our situation. She actually recommended a great psychiatrist who changed my husband’s meds at her urging (she has a medical degree too), and my husband is coping much better. We can’t thank her enough for her compassion and advice! If you need a divorce attorney, especially if mental illness is a part of the fabric of your marriage, go see Lois! Thanks Lois 
    - Beena T.
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    Amazing, Skillful Mediator!!!! We went to see Lois Brenner for a mediation consultation. We had pretty much decided our marriage was over. We just wanted to end things fair and amicably. Lois Brenner spent so much time with us, and gave us great insight as to how the process would help us, we hired her on the spot. Our sessions thereafter were stealth. She organized us, helped us identify and address all the issues. She showed us how to communicate effectively throughout the process. We were able to address all our issues, especially property and finances, arrive at a comfortable settlement agreement, and now we are waiting for the judge to sign our divorce. What an extraordinary process. I highly recommend Lois Brenner and mediation. She’s super, and mediation really works.
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    Everything you said about mediation was true. My husband and I really connected in a positive way working out the details of our divorce in mediation with you. The arguing was endless but we finally heard each other. You have a lot of patience. The property discussions made everything so emotional. You kept us focused and stopped us from rehashing the past. We tell everyone about you. Hopefully none of our friends will divorce but if they do we will tell them they need you.
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    When my daughter was sideswiped and served with a summons by her husband we called Lois Brenner. I had met Lois when she was giving a seminar on Marriage and Finances. I thought she was really smart. I never dreamt I would be calling her to help my daughter. When we went to see her she put our minds at ease. We immediately knew she was the attorney for us. She managed to negotiate a really good settlement with my son-in-law’s attorney. She was tough and always returned our phone calls and responded immediately to our emails. We even heard from her on weekends!! She was determined to keep us out of court and guided us every step of the way. She was our Angel!!! Mary B.
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