I am an advocate of marriage. My work as a therapist, my publications and my collaborative dialogue skill-building website generally aim to help spouses grow the kind of relationship they had in mind when they vowed at their wedding to cherish each other forever.
At the same time, I am a realist. More or less half of folks who marry end up divorced. In divorce as in marriage, friendly trumps fighting for creating positive outcomes for everyone. A collaborative divorce process speeds up the inevitable grief at loss of what was and sets the stage for a better future.
Here's therefore eight guidelines for keeping the marriage disengagement process, and similarly the break-up of any long-term relationship, personal or at work, collaborative.
Guideline #1: Find a non-blaming way to understand what happened.
Divorce and relationship endings of all types tend to create emotional distress. The process is often a painful one. Negative emotions like anger, resentment, disappointment, shame, guilt, and anxiety can tempt folks to want to dump blame on the other and to resort to punishment. Yet blame and impulses to punish or get revenge back will not heal anyone's emotional pain, relieve shame, or ease resentments. They just add to the emotional damage of everyone involved.
The alternative to going to war with fighting, accusations, blame and attempts to use the courts to get even begins with building an honest understanding of what each of you did that led to your divorce.
Claire ackowledged that she married too young, and had her children before she was ready. Eddie, her husband, said that while he understand that she felt too young, he became increasingly frustrated when she went out and about like a teenager, leaving him to handle the children and home management as well as his fulltime job.
Claire and Eddie agreed that divorce would give them both a fresh start. While Eddie would still be the main parent, parenting would feel easier without the continually provocative presence of a non-contributing wife. Claire wanted to feel free.
Aim to find an understanding that is descriptive rather than judgmental. Seek to understand the unraveling of the marriage and its gradual failure to thrive in terms of
a) stresses that you faced (e.g., job loss, illnesses, deaths in the family, addictions, infidelities, chronic mental health issues, major differences in life-path visions, etc),
b) differing developmental life stages (adolescent, pre-career adult, retired adult, etc),
c) skill deficits (anger management issues, poor listening skills, argumentative instead of collaborative, shared decision-making etc) that impeded your ability to function together as a couple in the face of these challenges.
The following video from my relationship ed program PowerOfTwoMarriage.com illustrates the skill of making decisions collaboratively.
Claire and Eddie agreed that they had never learned to make decisions together. They each felt like they were the one carrying the bulk of the load, doing more than their share. They felt no sense of partnership, in part because they each made decisions on their own about they wanted to do (in Claire's case) and what needed to be done (in Eddie's case).
While coming to this kind of understanding on your own, reviewing your marriage together to build a blame-free narrative is ideal. A trusted friend, family member, religious counselor or therapy professional may be able to help you. Look back at the history of how your marriage slipped from loving to anger and distance, identifying especially the key factors that undermined the love bond for each of you.
Eddie and Claire agreed that the arrival of their children when Claire unexpectedly became pregnant the first year of their marriage brought a host of additional responsibilities to their household that they never succeeded in addressing together.
Claire rebelled internally at having to do childcare. She had grown up in a family of twelve children. As the youngest, Claire had been sent to live in her older sibilings' homes to help out as a nanny. The last thing she wanted to do as a young adult was nannying again, even of her own children.
To accomplish the goal of understanding together what went wrong in the marriage, aim to use your very best cooperative talking-together skills, talking quietly about what happened that led one or both of you to choose to leave the marriage.
Whether you are the one who is leaving or who is being left, explain your concerns. Listen to your partner's concerns with a genuine determination to sustain a stance of empathy. Listen to learn rather than to argue or dismiss your partner's perspective as wrong.
Claire and Eddie actually talked better about divorcing than they ever had done talking about their marriage. They both were relieved at the opportunity to escape from a situation that, for different reasons for each of them, felt unworkable to them both.
Before completing this discussion it can be helpful to look for areas of potential pathways other than divorce that could be responsive to both of your concerns. If at least one of you would prefer to see if the marriage can be saved, consider agreeing to a finite period of time during which you will both attempt to mend the marital schism by seeking professional help with a couples counselor or a marriage education course.
If the final outcome is still a decision by at least one of you to end the marriage, pick up your dignity and move on with your life.
Since the divorce, Eddie has taken full responsibility for the children. His parents help with childcare when he is at work. He feels liberated by the divorce, greatly enjoys seeing his two children thriving in the calm of their three-person home, and eventually will choose a new life partner.
Claire's relief at no longer being locked into roles she did not want was huge. Her visits with the children have gradually become more frequent, though they relate to her more as a fun big sister than as a parent.
Guideline #2: Focus on discovering your own mistakes and how to rectify them.
Mistakes are for learning. Instead of waiting until after the divorce to learn what the rupture of your marriage can teach you, start immediately after one of you has first said the d-word.
Look at all the ways in which you have been a less-than cooperative, considerate and loving partner. Look at your mistaken habits of suppressing information about your concerns instead of sharing these concerns with your spouse. Look at when you have resorted to blaming, criticizing, telling the other what you think they should do, dismissing your partner's attempts to explain his or her concerns, becoming excessively emotional, and/or expressing insufficient positive feelings like appreciation and affection. Look at what you could have done instead of either holding back from discussing what was troubling you in the marriage or bludgeoning your spouse with angry pronouncements.
Notice also to what extent you paid serious attention to your spouse's concerns. How well did you listen when your spouse expressed distress? Were you dismissive or did you seriously digest what you heard? To what extent did you focus your attention on yourself only? Or allow yourself to focus on others outside of the marriage? Mistakes are for learning.
Focusing on yourself, on the mistakes you've made, and how you can grow beyond these mistakes makes you a winner no matter what the outcome of the marriage disengagement process.
Most divorcing couples handle the divorce with the same mistaken strategies that ruined their marriage. Learn and use the skills that were missing in your marriage relationship if you want the divorce settlement process to stay cooperative.
Guideline #4: In the settlement agreement, aim for somewhere between fairness and generosity.
Aiming to get more than your fair share can be tempting, especially if you feel you have been wronged, and if you have a spouse who tends to be overly generous. As my mother used to say, two wrongs don't make a right.
At the same time, excessive altruism sets up for resentments down the line.
I have seen with divorcing couples time and time again that agreements based on selfishness, stinginess, or overly generous settlements tend to come back to bite you both.
Guideline #5: Choose your legal advisors carefully for a proven track record in mediated settlements.
The adversarial court system results in everyone losing except the lawyers. Check if your legal advisor has a history of going to court or of successfully helping clients to negotiate a mutually fair settlement.
Find a divorce mediator you both trust to be a skillful guide in collaborative conflict resolution and the process will incur dramatically less costs, emotional and financial.
Guideline #6: Find a trusted person with whom you can talk through your feelings of hurt, shame and guilt, anger, sadness and fear.
These feelings are inevitable. Talking them through with a trusted person can help you to move through and beyond them, much like talking through feelings of grief after a loved one's death can help you cross the river of feelings and emerge safely on the other side.
If you do not talk them through until you reach a state of acceptance and calm, you will be at risk for "acting out" the feelings through self-defeating hostile actions like drawing out the settlement process or making it needlessly warlike in an attempt to get even.
Guideline #7: Treat divorce as a gradual process, not a one-time action.
Give yourself time to work your way gradually through a full disengagement process. Divorce is like a large, round and bitter pie with many slices that need to be digested.
With regard to the order of which pieces to digest first, before you forge a legal settlement agreement it's generally better first to have divorced emotionally. Once you have accepted that the marriage is over, learned from your mistakes, and reached a point of willingness to let your spouse go his/her own way, it will be far easier to negotiate the divorce settlement in a collaborative way. At that point it will be easier to sustain a friendly stance as you figure out how to deal with separate parenting of the children, separate the finances and other assets, sort out friend and family relationships, and established separate domiciles.
The legal piece then can proceed as a cooperative rubberstamp on the prior collaboratively negotiated issues instead of becoming a mutually destructive battlefield.
Guideline #8: Remember that there is life after divorce.
Divorce can be experienced via many alternative meanings. It can mean shame and failure, but it can also bring relief from old antagonisms, a chance to heal long-standing wounds, an opportunity for learning and growth, a fresh start and a new and improved life situation. The choice is yours.
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Denver, has authored multiple books on the process of psychotherapy and the skills for marriage success. Her current project is an online relationship communication skills program called PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.
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