When I was going through my divorce, my Dad, a corporate attorney, told me the following; “Everybody wins and everybody loses.” At the time, I was too caught up in the war to be able to grasp the meaning of that wisdom. Like me, most people going through a legal divorce become so intent on “winning” that they lose sight of how to most effectively “play the game.”
Remember the simple advice that we all grew up with; “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game?” Taking skillful charge of playing the divorce “game” can make the difference between a legal nightmare and emotional catastrophe and a successful resolution.
Although there are no easy answers for life’s major problems, of which divorce is certainly one, there are some simple ways that can be used to enhance the possibilities for achieving a constructive outcome.
As a major life transition, divorce is one of the most stressful and disorienting events a person can face. It involves a myriad of losses; loss of the future as planned, loss of financial stability, loss of identity as a coupled person, and loss of a best friend, to name a few.
Given this degree of life disruption, powerful feelings of anger, grief, sadness, and fear about the end of the marriage are common. As a form of retaliation, many people feel compelled to express these feelings. If every effort is not made to prevent the onslaught of these feelings during the divorce, the process can be severely impeded.
Compounding these overwhelming emotions is the reality that more often than not, divorcing couples have not successfully developed the ability to resolve their conflicts. Indeed, this inability has probably contributed positively to the corrosion of the marriage and the misery of both parties.
Highly reactive divorcing couples – those quick to argue, be angry, and blame – need more than just run-of-the-mill relationship advice to solve matters of custody and division of assets. When destructive emotions are at the heart of their relationship, only effective communication will fix what ails it. To achieve successful divorce negotiations, individuals need to get control of their emotions so they can stop making things worse.
It’s been known that a small to moderate amount of stress keeps people alert and interested, actually increasing their self-control and performance on a task. It is also true that past a moderate point of stress and self-control performance begins to drop. At high enough levels of arousal, one begins to focus on escaping from the high state of negative emotions. Once in a mind-set of escape, one is considered out of control and focused on reducing the negative tension.
This brief explanation can be used to describe what happens to divorcing couples when they are attempting to resolve issues during the throes of acrimonious negotiations. Once they reach the point of being out of control and cannot hold their tongues, they are no longer focused on longer-term goals and are unable to make effective decisions. Their sole function is to escape the unpleasant situation by doing something that will hurt the other person, thus escalating and worsening the conflicts between them.
It is easy to recognize two warring parties. Either one party becomes resigned to being treated badly or both people treat each other badly. Negativity begets negativity. Either way, the emotions are very high and the individuals’ thinking and reasoning abilities are compromised. Without the ability to contain these emotions, communication becomes ineffective.
The following are some practical tips that will help people to restore their communication and get the derailed negotiations back on track.
In the heat of the moment it is difficult to remind oneself that they may regret something they are about to say. However, acting impulsively on raw emotions, particularly anger, during the divorce process is a dangerous dance that will likely produce a destructive, possibly disastrous, outcome. Once those emotions are out there, they cannot be taken back. The result? Dead bodies in the wake.
Throughout the negotiations, each party must take mindful responsibility for what they are saying. If the outcome is to be beneficial, the communication must be purposeful and precise, not uncontrolled. Taking a second to think before speaking may be the crucial difference between satisfaction with resolve and regret.