3.1 Managing Emotions


Separation can be emotionally difficult for more tips on how to deal with these emotions see Family Law in BC’s Coping with Separation Handbook.


At the end of a relationship, it is normal to feel a range of negative emotions: sadness, anger, resentment, guilt etc. We all have a constant stream of feelings bubbling inside. Usually, we cannot choose how we feel, but we can choose how we respond to those feelings. Sometimes we make the wrong choice and we regret it. If you have ever said something you did not mean when you were upset, you know how emotions can affect your behavior and decisions.

There are two sides of separation – an emotional side and a legal side. The problem is, the two sides are like water and oil – they do not mix. If you are not able to manage your emotions they will cloud your judgment and you will make bad decisions. When the stakes are high and you are dealing with your separation, you cannot afford to let emotions affect your ability to reach a positive outcome.

We are all conditioned to respond to certain triggers in our environment. Someone cuts you off in traffic – you honk. Someone tells a joke – you laugh. How often do you stop and think “should I honk?” or “should I laugh?” Most of the time, we react instinctively to what is happening around us. We do and say things automatically, without thinking. The hardest part of controlling your emotions is training yourself to stop and think before you react.  

You should not, however, ignore your emotions. They are very real and very healthy responses to stressful events in your life. But remember, there is a time and place to express your emotions. While you are in negotiation with a former spouse is not one of those times.  Letting your emotions take hold of you could result in a situation that is not in your or your family’s best interest.

Managing your emotions is a challenge, but with some guidance and practice, you can do it. Next, you will discover some tools that will help you succeed in keeping a healthy control of your emotions. This section is going to give you the tools you need to succeed.

Dealing with powerful emotions can be overwhelming.

Make sure to review the section in Chapter 1 - Taking Care of Yourself.


5 Strategies to Avoid Getting Emotionally Stuck

If you get emotionally stuck, you are prevented from making rational decisions and communicating effectively. That’s a problem you don’t want to have.  These 5 strategies will help you avoid emotional roadblocks.

1. Be Prepared

Consider this scenario… 

Two people are fighting over child custody. In court, one claims that the other cannot afford to put food on the table for the child.

VERSION 1: The comment is unexpected. It causes that person to get angry. In response, some nasty things are said in court about the other parent.


VERSION 2: The comment was expected. That person maintained control and provided the court with a strong response about parenting responsibility.

Who seemed more reasonable?

When you face the unexpected, it’s easy for your emotions to betray you. This is especially true during a divorce or separation when the stakes are at their highest. Change is stressful and the kind of changes that you will be working out are very stressful.

Separating means new situations that you probably had not planned for. There are going to be some new roles and responsibilities for both of you. New ideas will be suggested. It’s hard to respond to changes that you have not thought about or ideas that were never considered before. It might feel that all these new things are being thrown at you.

For all of these reasons, you need to do a lot of preparation before you begin to work things out. You need to think about what you want – for all of the key issues. You also need to think about what your former spouse might want. And, you have to try to think about what is best for your family. That’s a lot to consider on your own. It takes preparation.

As you consider the key issues and how things might go, also think about your emotions. What makes you upset? What might cause you to be emotional? Write down the toughest, most upsetting questions or topics that might come up. Think about how you could answer in a calm way. Practice your answers to those questions. Be ready to respond politely and calmly, no matter how aggressively the other party is behaving.

2. Avoid Conflict and Stress

Often you cannot avoid a confrontation or a difficult subject, but sometimes you can.

You can be strategic with your communications. For example, you might create an agenda where, in the first meetings to settle things, you will only talk about the key issues with the least conflict.

It’s probably not worth bringing up an emotional topic that would lead to a break-down in communication. Especially at the start, you want the communications to begin by reaching agreement, not by becoming trapped in a bitter conflict.

It’s probably not worth bringing up the baggage of the past to arrive at a conflict in the present. Sometimes you might need to ask yourself: “Is it worth it?”

If seeing your former spouse gets you worked up, perhaps you can agree to discuss things by telephone – or even by email, if that works for you. Think about what you can do to avoid conflict and stress.

In addition, in your own life, try to focus on reducing the stresses that you have control over. For example if being late stresses you out, reduce this stress by waking up a little earlier in the morning or packing your bag the night before. If you are someone that edgy if you don’t eat on time, be prepared and make sure you get the nutrition you need.

Sometimes to make progress in a negotiation, you might have to let go of things that have upset you. That is part of being a mature participant in a challenging process.

3. Refocus and Stay Active

Dwelling on negative emotions is not healthy. Instead, find something else to think or do. Distract your attention and refocus. For example, try out a new hobby or take a class you always wanted to. Simple things like going for a walk, calling a friend or even diving into a TV show can make a real difference. Clearing your head by focusing on other things can help you avoid a downward emotional spiral.  Staying active is a great way to release pent up emotions.  One of the ways to refocus is to get active. Go for a bike ride, hit the gym or swim some laps. Get your body moving. It’s true what they say: healthy body – healthy mind.

4. Talk to People You Trust

Sometimes when you are in a safe environment with people you trust you can deal with them before going into a stressful situation like trial. Talk to friends and family and let them know how you feel about what is happening. Express yourself and your feelings freely and have them help you cope with your feelings by discussing them together. Letting your feelings out might help you deal with your emotions when they are triggered later on.

5. Get Help From a Professional Negotiator

Mediator’s Tip:

People make bad decisions when they are emotional.

Never make important decisions or sign anything when you are feeling strong emotions. 

When it comes to romance, they say that three is a crowd. But when it comes to negotiating complex issues, having a third person present can help settle deadlock. There are professionals who can facilitate tough discussions between you and your former spouse.

Mediators, collaborative lawyers and Family Justice Counsellors have specialized training in conflict resolution. Professionals like these can help lead your discussion and keep the conversation from boiling over.  Chapter 4 – Getting Help examines this topic in more detail.



5 Steps to Managing Your Emotions

Sometimes you can’t help but get emotional. But when it comes to working things out with your former spouse, you need to be working toward a positive agreement. Emotions can often get in the way of negotiating. Here is what you need to do to stay on track and handle those emotions.

1. Be aware and label your emotions

Do you feel yourself getting upset? Are your cheeks getting flushed and red? Recognize the signs that you are losing control and why it is happening to you. Label your emotions – whether you are mad or frustrated or happy. Being aware of how events are making you feel and putting a label on your feelings is the first step to dealing with them properly.

2. Stop what you are doing

When you feel emotions starting to buildup, pause. Take a moment to just breathe. Stop – before it is too late. Whatever is going on, it can wait. Take a moment for yourself now, so that your emotions do not escalate. If you are in a meeting, step away. If people are waiting for you to speak, ask for a moment to collect your thoughts. Give yourself the space and time to recover. You need a moment to think before you react intelligently.

3. Refocus on the task at hand

So far you have recognized and labelled your emotion. You know how you feel, and now you need to think about where you are in the process and remember your goals. Take a few deep breaths. Refocus on what it is that you need to accomplish at this particular point. If you are negotiating with your former spouse, or if you are in the courtroom asking for an order, keep your goals in sight and your emotions in your rear-view mirror. You can deal with your emotions later.

4. Choose how to react

Use your discretion. Is the other party trying to provoke you? Maybe you should ignore it. Is the other party asking a tough question that is upsetting you? Answer it diplomatically instead of increasing tensions. It only takes one person to de-escalate a conflict. Choose to be that person. React in a mature and reasonable manner.

5. Identify your triggers

Triggers, also called hot buttons, are what set you off. It can be a certain topic, word or behaviour that someone brings up or does that you have a strong emotional reaction to. For instance, just the mention of an event from your past such as a failed vacation can bring up feelings of anger. By identifying your triggers before they occur, you are better equipped to avoid them or prevent them from pushing you into emotional turmoil.  It’s good practice to identify your triggers by filling in the My Triggers Worksheet on the next page.  But before you do that let`s recap.



Dealing with your emotions and responding properly is hard for everyone. We have all said things we did not mean at one time or another. It is not something that you can master overnight. You are going to have to be disciplined and develop the habit of taking the necessary steps. If you get so caught up with what is happening around you that you forget what to do, just remember: “stop and refocus”. Do your best to put the steps into action as often as possible in the real world and see what kinds of results you get.

The next 2 worksheets are designed to help you manage your emotions. After you have completed the My Triggers Worksheet, complete the Managing Emotions Worksheet. It will give you a good sense of where you are at emotionally. This worksheet can help you deal with your emotions when you feel like they are getting away from you and are unsure what to do.