In my community, law enforcement agencies are holding regular meetings to teach citizens how to survive an active shooter event (aka when a person or persons start shooting other people at work, school or other public places). There is a good reason for this. A 2013 FBI investigation revealed that these types of random mass shootings have been happening more frequently. From 2000-2007, there were an average of 6.4 active shooter events per year. From 2008-2013, the annual average more than doubled to 16.4. And most events (60%) were over before law enforcement arrived on the scene. That might explain the trend of teaching citizens how to maximize their own chance for survival. If you find yourself in this situation, you’ll probably have to save yourself.
At the outset of the training, we learned the science behind the way most people react during high stress events. Not surprisingly, I recognized the behaviors as common to many divorcing individuals. After all, divorce has long been recognized as one of our most stressful life events, second only to the death of a spouse.
Our Civilian Response to Active Shooter Event training was based on a book written by Amanda Ripley in 2008; “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – And Why.” Ripley outlines the three stages of response when a disaster occurs: Denial, Deliberation, and The Decisive Moment.
Denial. Literally, in the first moments of a disaster, people tend to deny the implications of the event or that it is even happening. Hearing gunfire, people often report that they are hearing fireworks or firecrackers. This is an example of how our brains try to interpret information within the context of our everyday experiences. It’s a phenomenon called normalcy bias and it tends to make us underestimate the likelihood and the effects of a disaster as it is happening.
During a divorce, especially at the outset, it is not unusual to be in denial. The greater the shock of the divorce, the more likely that you will try to deny it. You will try to normalize the divorce news. Having known yourself as a married person for so long, it's difficult to imagine yourself as unmarried. Thinking about the impact on your children can be paralyzing. Because of the brain’s natural bias toward normalizing, you will tend to minimize the fact of a divorce or the impact it will have. Many try to ignore the divorce request and hope it will go away. In an active shooter event, your chances of survival are much greater if you quickly accept the reality of the situation and move into the next phase. It's the same with a divorce.
You'll be facing extreme emotional duress. While you’re trying to think of a plan, your body is in pure survival mode and has already started to react by rapidly processing only three options: fight, flight, or freeze.
Deliberation. Now that you know you are under fire, this is the time to figure out what you’re going to do. If you haven’t planned in advance (remember your fire drills? tornado drills?), then you’ll need to formulate your plan in the heat of the moment, as shots ring out.
To make matters worse, you'll be facing extreme emotional duress. While you’re trying to think of a plan, your body is in pure survival mode and has already started to react by rapidly processing only three options: fight, flight, or freeze. It’s like being in a car accident. Common effects are tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision), audio exclusion (loss of hearing), time dilations (slow motion), reduced motor skills, and out of body experiences.
To optimize your chance of survival, you’ve got to combat your body’s automatic reaction so that you can engage your brain. Our trainers recommended three things to manage the stress: 1) using willpower (and deep breathing) to negate your rapidly rising blood pressure and restore your senses, 2) taking good care of yourself with healthy diet, sleeping and exercise habits, and 3) taking action. “Freezing is almost always the wrong response. It leads to a feeling of helplessness. When people feel helpless, their stress levels increase, which further hinders functioning.” Avoid | Deny | Defend ™ website.
Let’s face it. No one does a divorce drill. The partner who initiates the divorce might have a plan, but not always. And the one who gets surprised with a divorce never has a plan. In most cases, the body’s automatic response kicks in and people stare wide-eyed at the only three reactions their body has already started processing: fight, flight or freeze.
In a divorce scenario, it’s just as important to work through the body’s primal reaction and take the steps necessary to engage your brain so that you can consider alternatives and come up with a plan. In an active shooter event, your probability of survival is greatly reduced if “hide and hope” is your plan. It’s no different in a divorce. Take a few deep breaths and start assessing your situation immediately. Educate yourself about the divorce process, the law, and your options. Consult with experienced professionals such as clergy, lawyers, accountants and family/child counselors.
The Decisive Moment. Now comes the time to make a decision and act. Failing to decide and then act will drastically reduce your chance of survival. So will taking too long to decide and act.
It's possible to become paralyzed in one of the first two stages. Either you've allowed your body’s automatic response of fight, flight or freeze to override rational thought or you're are unable to assess your options and complete a plan. When that happens, the time and expense of a divorce rises exponentially and the collateral damage can be tremendous.
Sometimes, there is another barrier to The Decisive Moment. You might find yourself becoming hyper-rational, devoid of emotion, buried in the details, and spending a lot of time exploring every option in depth, and then doing it some more. You are unable to make a decision. We call that analysis paralysis. It’s a very common occurrence when there is no good option, when you are forced to choose between bad options, which is often the case in a divorce. Avoiding The Decisive Moment is the equivalent of a “hide and hope” strategy. At these times, all you can do is make the best play from the terrible hand you’ve been dealt. It will increase your chance of saving yourself.
Authored by Cynthia L. Patton, Esq. This blog post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. You should consult your own attorney for specific legal advice.