Passivity when divorcing can be costly in many ways.

In India, there are a lot of monkeys. To catch one, residents anchor a bottle to the ground. The neck of the bottle is just large enough for a monkey’s hand to fit through. Then, they put a small banana in the bottle, sit back and wait.

Pretty soon a monkey comes by and sees the banana. She reaches her hand into the bottle and grabs it. But then, she discovers she can’t get her hand out of the bottle while holding onto the banana. The monkey chatters and squeals as the person who set the trap walks up to the monkey and places a burlap sack over him. Caught!

The monkey could, of course, could escape by letting go of the banana and running. Some do. But most of the monkeys hang on to the banana until a sack goes over their head. Why? Because the banana has value to the monkey and the monkey is unwilling to let go of that value–so unwilling that she’ll willing to be captured and possibly lose her life.

People—including those in high conflict relationships (often with people who have borderline or narcissistic personality disorder) do the same thing (metaphorically, of course), even as they end the relationship. While they may have learned all about their partner’s distorted thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, they have little insight into themselves and the “bananas” they’re holding onto. This can get them into big trouble.

The Nightmare Divorce

In the excellent book Betrayal Bonds: Breaking Free of Exploitave Relationships by Patrick Carnes, Carnes tells the story of Tom, who was divorced from his high conflict ex-wife, Barbara, with whom he had three children. Barbara was the typical nightmare abusive ex-spouse. Despite the fact that her affair contributed to ending the marriage, she blamed him for the divorce.

She began a distortion campaign against Tom, poisioning his relationship with others (including their children). She painted herself as the victim of his abusive ways. Yet Tom was hesitant to take an assertive stance in court and with Barbara because he “had a profound need to be fair.”

He was willing to pay the price, probably because he thought of himself as a “good guy,” he had lingering feelings for Barbara (despite the fact her actions filled him with anger and despair that his life was ruined), and he didn’t want his children to think badly of him. So he passively signed away so many things financially that his secretary joked that she wished she could be married to him for a little while.

Tom paid in many ways, Carnes says. Tom spent hours with Barbara on the phone and listened to her complaining, raging, cajoling, or asking for advice. She appeared at his new house (with her new boyfriend) without calling first on some pretense. To friends, he acted giving to Barbara in ways that seemed absolutely self-destructive.

Carnes writes, “Sam, Tom’s therapist, pressed Tom to accept that this chaos was not about Barbara alone. True, she did awful things, but Tom participated as well. The two of them had a deep negativeattachment toward each other. Tom was as hooked on to her as much as she was to him. ‘Barbara is no longer your wife and yet she is not your ex either,” said Sam. ‘So what is she then? Tom snapped. Sam smiled back and said, ‘Barbara is your addiction.'”

What Are Tom’s Bananas?

There may be many. But here are three:

1. Much of Tom’s identity is wrapped up in being a nice guy. Being called “selfish” is a trigger that touches on Tom’s feelings of worthlessness. Getting other people’s approval is the one thing that makes him feel good about himself. That makes him easy to manipulate by people who don’t have his best interests at heart.

2. Guilt. People in high conflict relationships often think they should have been able to do something to make things work (even though professionals often don’t know how to handle HCPs). As long as Tom holds on to guilt—whether it’s truly earned or unearned–it will lead him down the wrong path.

3. Tom believes that love means rescuing people from the consequences of their own actions. Feeling love for people who may have acted abusively toward you is actually a common feeling of people with high conflict loved ones. Rather than debate what love is or its appropriateness in these kinds of situations, I’ll just make this point: part of loving someone is holding them accountable, especially for the way they treat you.