Empathy is the word for the capacity to understand another person’s perspective or experience without necessarily agreeing with it. Empathy allows humans to be in synch and resonate with each other in spite of differences. There is plentiful scientific and anecdotal evidence that humans crave the sense of being understood. Feeling recognized and understood is one aspect of dignity and the belief that one has inherent worth as a human being. From my experience, I would like to share a few examples of how empathy can lead to wise decisions during a separation or divorce. A young woman with whom I have a professional relationship recently told me that the nesting arrangement she and her spouse were using to ease their children’s transition during their divorce had become too difficult to maintain. She essentially felt homeless and ungrounded, moving from the homestead to a shared apartment when on and off duty with the kids. Her take-away from this experience was deep empathy for the task children face when needing to transition from one home to the other. She said, “I completely get why we need to each have all the things our children will need to be comfortable in both homes, and why we should not ask them to pack suitcases for a transition. They will need our patience and understanding as they get used to this.” Some parents with whom I worked on a parenting plan had empathy for the difficulty extended family members were experiencing as the holidays approached. They recognized that people with whom they had been close didn’t know how to act, or whether to invite soon-to-be former spouses to events or holiday gatherings involving the kids. In one case, a parent had misinterpreted silence as rejection, only to find that it was borne of confusion and sadness. These parents decided to send a We Statement to both extended families, describing the respectful, collaborative process they were using in their divorce and the hard work they were doing to transition from a married couple to effective co-parents. They said they welcomed questions and hoped for loving support for their children and for them as they made this transition. My third story of empathy involves a teen and his parents. He worried that his mom’s feelings would be hurt because he wanted to continue working out at the home gym in his dad’s house, and not with the equipment his mom had purchased while expressing the wish that work-outs could occur in both homes. He appreciated her gesture, but knew that his dad was experienced in spotting him and managing the work-out sessions, and his mom was not. He understood that his mom wanted something special to do with him too, and we came up with a plan for his mom to give him cooking lessons (another interest of his) because she was a wonderful cook. His parents also showed empathy for their son’s dilemma, and when given this feedback told him he was free to spend time at either home to enjoy special activities even if it wasn’t that parent’s official parenting time. The ability to be open and responsive to how another person thinks or feels is one of the gifts of being human. It is also a healing force during times of distress and crisis. Being empathetic demonstrates strength, and experiencing empathy is one of the foundations of resilience for kids.
Divorce has a way of completely upsetting one’s expectations for the future. One day things are moving along just fine, and the next you are making decisions that will impact the rest of your life. One of the big decisions is whether or not to keep the family home. It may really be two questions: “Should I keep the house?” and “Can I keep the house?”. Let’s consider both in turn. Whether you “should” keep the home is more of an emotional question. What does the home represent to you? Often it is an emotional safe haven full of good memories that you have spent years getting just right. It could also be an emotional roadblock to moving forward with your life. “Can I keep the house?” is more of a financial question. Will your income post-divorce allow you to maintain the house? Will taking the house in the divorce mean forgoing other marital assets such as retirement accounts, that may be more valuable in the long run? Perhaps keeping the house will require keeping your ex-spouse as co-owner, do you want that? Due to its functionality, your house is an asset different from a stock or retirement account. So, in many cases, the decision is a compromise focused on the question: “How long should I stay in the house?”. If you are unsure of the best way to handle the house, there are 3 exercises that you should go through to determine your best decision or when you should expect to sell.
- Develop a post-divorce budget to see if you can afford to keep the home. Perhaps with child support it may make sense to stay. When the kids go, the house may need to go as well.
- Run a retirement projection to see how keeping the home will impact your retirement and other financial goals.
- Finally, list the benefits and tradeoffs of keeping the home. The benefits may be proximity to work and school. A tradeoff may be that you are now in charge of the upkeep.