Frustrated with the world of politics today? Unless you are reading this from your hospital bed, having just awakened from a long coma, I am going to guess the answer is yes. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, it’s likely that you have about had it with all of the acrimony and with the arguments being made by “the other side”. Probably the one thing we can all agree on is that everyone on “the other side” is quite disagreeable, both in their opinions and their manner of expressing their views. If you have bravely ventured out into the world of political discourse in an attempt to influence “the other side”, whether at a gathering of friends or family, or on some social media site, there is a pretty good chance you came away even more frustrated after the experience. Any naïve thoughts you may have had about the other person changing their mind likely hit a brick wall that, by the end of the exchange, had become, if anything, even stronger in its resistance. If “the other side” argued back at you there is a pretty good chance that your brick wall got fortified as well. You and “the other side” achieved the very opposite of what you both wanted to achieve, and you both were left in a state of frustration. As a divorce lawyer, I am struck by how similar all of this is to how most couples behave when they are in conflict. I am hoping there is something about watching these political arguments that may create a true learning opportunity for these couples. The reality that I just described; the dynamic that most arguments lead to chaos, frustration, and a deepening of divisions is an important insight. And what better time to learn it than when you are going through a divorce. Trust me, as someone who has “been through” numerous divorces, the maddening events that are playing out on the political stage, bear an amazing resemblance to conversations I have regularly observed in my office during the past three decades. Two people, seized with emotions, bent on getting another person to agree with them, stay awake at night thinking of great arguments to persuade their spouse that they are right, or worse, thinking of “good” attorneys who can do that for them. If you are in the middle of it (either politics or divorce), you are likely so caught up in your frustration with “the other side” that you have little insight about what you are doing that is actually making your life worse. However, if you are able to stand back, if only for a moment, both with the political arena and arguments with divorcing couple, it is fairly easy to see that all we are doing is pouring gas on a raging fire. Once you come to that realization, you may find yourself wondering what the alternative might be. Our inner voice immediately retorts that “we can’t just give in”, thinking, from the standpoint of our ego, that fight or flight are the only true options. Is there a third option? There is. It has different names, but the most common phrase that negotiators use is “interest-based bargaining.” I will skip that jargon and simply call this alternative “dialogue” for the moment. Dialogue, in the sense I am using it, is one of those ideas that is simple but not easy. It starts with the idea of letting go of arguments and changing minds and focusing instead on seeking common ground or at least a basis for common understanding. What I have observed, at least with divorcing couples, is that if we can reframe the discussion away from “arguments to change minds” and on to dialogues aimed at achieving common understanding, it is possible to achieve common goals. This type of dialogue is a central tenet of something called Collaborative Divorce. To learn more about Collaborative Divorce, go to www.collaborativelaw.org. In the meantime, watch what is happening on the political stage and see if there might be some valuable life lessons that will help us become a better nation, and better families. About the Author Ron Ousky, JD, is a Collaborative Attorney and mediator who has dedicated his practice to making sure that families facing conflict understand their options. He believes that families facing divorce are in a unique situation to make a better life for their families and he is dedicated to helping them find the resources to build a better future. For more information about his practice go to www.ousky.com
Children begin their lives constantly observing and emulating our use of language. A baby watches, listens and models her mother’s face saying “Ohhhh,” moving her own lips to form the shape of that sound. A toddler in his car seat repeats the word his parent blurted out when cut off suddenly in traffic, usually to the great chagrin of the parent. My 5-year-old granddaughter cocks her head seriously and says, “Well, actually, the most interesting thing is…..” just the way her mom does. Knowing they are listening, seeking to understand, and emulating how we talk, adults must be mindful of what we say and how we say it in the presence of children. This may be especially important during the life crisis of a divorce, when children are already feeling vulnerable and anxious. Similar to being cut off suddenly in traffic, negative emotions during a divorce can quickly heighten, along with the risk of blurting out words one will later regret. When under stress, the guard rails filtering words can become wobbly or fall off altogether. It’s not just angry, sarcastic, insulting words that children internalize, it is also the meaning of those words in the context of relationships. Children are deeply hurt and frightened when parents fight with each other, and not infrequently, will beg them to stop. What does it mean to them that the two most important adults in their lives are attacking each other this way? We live in an era when disrespect, insulting and belittling words and verbal abuse are regularly tweeted out in all caps. Sadly, this has the effect of normalizing unfiltered language. This is hard enough to manage as an adult but giving vent to verbal rage will never be anything but damaging to a child. So, what can parents do if they feel triggered? They need to slow it down. Two simple techniques to help create more mental and emotional space under stress are:
- Mindful breathing: taking at least four deep, slow belly breaths before responding; and
- Softening your eyes: focusing on relaxing the muscles around your eyes so they fall back into their sockets.
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.
In parts 1 and 2, we defined vortex as: 1) a whirling mass of water or air that sucks everything near it towards its center; 2) a place or situation regarded as drawing into its center all that it surrounds, and hence, being inescapable or destructible. As discussed in previous months, the “divortex” can be avoided by choosing the Collaborative Process. Prior articles describe what Collaboration is – it is a process that avoids court and may use a team of experts to help clients create the best settlement option possible. The professionals on a team are, generally speaking, the two attorneys, a neutral financial professional, a neutral child specialist, and a neutral divorce coach. Although the inclusion of financial and mental health professionals in the divorce process is nothing new, the manner in which they are used in the Collaborative process is unique. The attorneys’ roles are different in Collaboration, as well. While each spouse retains his or her own attorney, the attorneys work together to help the clients achieve an outcome that works for the entire family. The attorneys give legal advice to their individual clients, but more importantly, they help their clients realize what their interests and goals are. The objective of Collaboration is to get to a place where everyone is OK (a win-win) rather than a win-lose. The attorneys are trained in the Collaborative model and interest-based negotiation. A financial neutral helps the divorcing couple with property division and cash flow. Financial neutrals are financial experts and are CPAs, CDFAs, and CFSs who are trained in the Collaborative process and who understand the legal process. A child specialist is a neutral who helps the couple with creating a comprehensive and viable parenting plan. The child specialist is a therapist who is also trained in the Collaborative process. The child specialist is the voice of the children and not only helps the children during the divorce process, but helps parents help their children during this transition. A divorce coach is also a therapist and a neutral in this process. The coach’s role is to the help the couple communicate better. It is important for each spouse to have a voice in this process and the coach can help with that. In high conflict cases, a coach helps the process move along more smoothly. Although it seems like there are a lot of professionals involved in Collaboration, every professional has a specific role. In a non-collaborative case, the attorneys are acting as financial advisor, child specialist, and coach. And while attorneys can help with those pieces of the case, attorneys are not experts in those areas. In the Collaborative process, you get the best advice from the various professionals who are trained to help you reach a settlement. Consequently, a Collaborative team CAN help you avoid the divortex!
Remember hearing that as a child? I do. I said it. I believed it. And then I didn’t. Names DO hurt, even if they aren’t “really bad, mean names.” They can burn a memory into your brain that can haunt you. My son, who is six, is one of the younger children in his 1st grade class. Next to his 2nd grade soccer buddies, he’s a bit vertically challenged, although he’s considered “average” in height. Nonetheless, when he came home in tears the other day because an older child called him “shorty,” he undoubtedly felt the sting of name-calling. Welcome to the real world, my sweet, darling son! We have all experienced it, to some extent, and it stinks. Rather than utter that renowned phrase to my son, my collaboratively-trained lawyer brain went into “better-get-more-information” mode. The conversation went like this: Me: How did that make you feel when he said that? Son: Sad. Me: Mmmmm….I can see that… Son: And angry… Me: Definitely! (Pause). So, what happened next? Son: (without missing a beat) I grabbed the ball out of his hands, dribbled it down the court, and made a basket. Me: (Stunned!) Wow! That is AMAZING! (Beaming with pride…that’s my boy!) So, my son “shows up” this kid by making a basket, yet he was still upset (hours?) later and recalls the name-calling rather than his awesome basket?! This certainly illustrates words have a HUGE impact on others, whether we realize it or not. It doesn’t have to be name-calling, either. It can be just the language we use and the way we say it. The tone in our voice can turn an otherwise innocuous comment into a heated argument. So…STOP. Take a DEEP breath (and maybe throw a stick at some THING). THINK before you speak, and CHOOSE your words carefully. Then go shoot some hoops.
This is the second of our two part blog series on unsupportive families during divorce. The first dealt with the challenges of when family is having a difficult time letting an ex go, which can be read here. Here we discuss a second type of unsupportive family, when family may not be supportive to your grief if the ex-spouse was never well liked anyhow or if the marriage was difficult in terms of fighting or abuse. If you are grieving from a divorce after a tumultuous marriage, it may be difficult for family and friends to understand your grief. Comments of “you are better off” or “we never liked them anyway” are frequently heard, and the lack of support can complicate the healing process. Normally we rely on our friends and family as a key support system through divorce, they listen, share stories, and provide support in so many ways, however, when friends and family choose to bash the ex, the pain and grief over the marriage doesn’t feel validated. It’s makes a person feel like they shouldn’t be hurting, it has them questioning their feelings, and quite often like they need to hide their feelings from their loved ones. It can be challenging for people on the outside to understand how highly conflicted relationships can be difficult to move on from. It’s hard for them to get past the “you’re better off” stage, when in fact the divorcee is likely not only grieving the loss of their marriage, but grieving what could have been, wishing things would have been different, or perhaps regretting particular conflicts. It is important not to let unsupportive family or friends invalidate feelings of anguish after divorce. Perhaps they do not fully understand your relationship, or haven’t stopped to consider that you are still heartbroken regardless of the circumstances of the marriage. You may need to confront an unsupportive family member or friend to remind them that their lack of support, however it is intentioned, is not helping you to heal. Be open to them about the type of support that you do need. Recognize that different people may support you in different ways. Your best friend may be an excellent listener and a good shoulder to cry on, while your sister is better suited to help you get your finances or belongings in order. It’s important to remember this about people in order to have realistic expectations. If you are having a particularly down day, call someone who will support your feelings, not someone who thinks this is an opportunity to commence the ex-bashing. Keep an open mind though, the best support may come from someone you’d least expect. Finally, realize that friends and family simply cannot offer all of the support that you may need. Counseling and divorce support groups are excellent resources. In a group setting you will find others experiencing similar feelings and yours may be validated. Together you can cope, heal, and grow from your divorce. There’s a quote from an unnamed father that reads, “One of the hardest things you will ever do, my dear, is grieve the loss of someone who is still alive.” We tend to agree.
As many know, because Minnesota is a no fault divorce state, one spouse not being ready does not need to stop the process from moving forward. The ready spouse can file for divorce and the process moves on in court with little control of the reluctant spouse. A potential client recently came in for a consult and, as often is the case, her husband was struggling to move forward in the process. They were at very different points on the divorce readiness scale – she was ready, he was not. This is quite typical. The other spouse is sometimes called “reluctant” or “in denial.” When one spouse is looking for a non-adversarial, out-of-court alternative (like mediation or collaborative divorce), there is more of a need to bring that other spouse along. The reluctant spouse really can delay the process and interfere with the non-reluctant spouse’s desire to divorce. This potential client said something very interesting to me. She said, “I know I am committed to collaborative divorce, but I am learning that this does not have to be a collaborative decision.” This realization was profound. She realized that she could control the process (with her husband’s agreement), even if her husband never agrees with the decision to divorce. It is common during the divorce process to have spouses be at different comfort levels with the decision to divorce. These levels of readiness can change throughout the process and even vary greatly from one meeting to another. The challenge often lies with helping the reluctant spouse commit to a collaborative process, while acknowledging his or her disagreement with the process. A good collaborative attorney can strategize ways to bring the reluctant spouse into the process and help move things forward. Ways to teach him or her about the divorce options and lay out the pros and cons of different processes for divorce. To learn more, contact Kimberly Miller.
My husband and I were taking our kids to swimming lessons when we saw a man and woman standing outside the facility arguing. The anger and negative energy were palpable. While still in the parking lot, we met up with another family we know, and we exchanged uncomfortable glances as the conversation between this couple became more heated. “Awkward,” my friend whispered. As we approached, I could hear what they were arguing about, and the expletives were flying (this is a family place, mind you, and my kids were five and two at the time – yikes!) The woman was saying, “I don’t give a $*&^ what you think. You can’t have that #$&* sleep over when it’s your weekend with our son. You are such an ^*&+@! We aren’t even divorced yet.” My five year old glanced up at me with an odd look on his face. Oh boy. I wondered if they had attorneys and what process they were using. Even though I see this sort of conflict on a regular basis, it was very uncomfortable to witness. I’m not sure if my discomfort was because I couldn’t do anything about their conflict (I was there as a mom, not a lawyer) or because my children were in earshot. For a fleeting moment I did, however, consider going up to them. I felt compelled to inform them there is a better way to deal with this “stuff” and that a child specialist and divorce coach could get them to a better place regarding “adult sleepovers.” That was the lawyer in me. Since we were running a bit behind, however, the mom in me picked up my two-year-old and hurried my son through the door. Either way, I felt bad for this couple, and even worse for their child. I wondered how old their son was and if they had made a scene near the pool when they decided to “take it outside.” I will never know how their divorce turned out. I can only hope that things cooled down at some point so they could focus on co-parenting their child. It’s understandable that emotions are highly charged during a divorce, which is the reason a divorce coach and child specialist are incredibly helpful during the process, as well as a therapist or counselor. Stop. Breathe. Think. And talk to a mental health professional.
Making online connections is easier than ever with modern social media apps. It is not necessary to know someone at all, let alone to know them well, in order to see their profiles and get an idea of who they are and what kind of life they lead. In times before this technology, community life and networking were very different. Getting to know someone happened face to face, and gossip was spread by word of mouth. With everyone having technology in their pockets these days, deciding who is relevant to your life seems like an easy task. The everyday interactions we have with people while out and about are often with perfect strangers, and not many of us put much effort into these encounters. Treating any person you meet with respect and dignity is a basic human courtesy, but in the midst of our busy schedules, we often forget this. In All I really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarden, author Robert Fulghum sums up relationships in communities like this:
“Without realizing it, we fill important places in each other’s lives. It’s that way with the guy at the corner grocery, the mechanic at the local garage, the family doctor, teachers, neighbors, coworkers. Good people who are always “there,” who can be relied upon in small, important ways…. And, of course, we fill that role ourselves. There are those who depend on us, watch us, learn from us, take from us. And we never know.”If you assume your neighbor is not relevant to you, you may never realize who they actually are. Paying attention to the real people that live down the street is just as important – more important – as curating an impressive list of LinkedIn connections or Facebook friends. Consider making a connection with the person behind the online profile.
After dinner one evening, my two-year-old was playing with her brother’s indominus rex (she likes dinosaurs). She climbed up to her bathroom sink, grabbed her toothbrush, climbed down, plopped herself down on the floor, and…much to my dismay…brushed the dino’s teeth. Of course, she was NOT happy when I interrupted her for a diaper change. “No. Not today,” she said, shaking her head at me. I told her we absolutely needed to change her diaper…now. “No! Not NOW,” she said and glared at me. As I tried to wrestle indominus out of her hands, she wriggled back and forth and, yes, threw a tantrum (she’s INCREDIBLY strong!). In typical mother-knows-best voice (and using her first, middle, and last names) I said, “We need to change your diaper NOW, so your bottom doesn’t get sore!” “NOOOOOOO!!!” she shrieked, “I WANT TO BWUSH DA DINOSAUR’S TEEF! RIGHT NOWWWWWW!” Her face was red and scrunched up. Oh boy. I paused, took a deep breath, and I said as calmly yet cheerfully as I could, “I can see that you really, REALLY want to brush the dinosaur’s teeth.” Pause. “You REALLLLLLY want to brush that dino’s teeth.” Another pause. She stopped wriggling, her face softened, and she looked at me. In a quieter voice I said, “I know you want to brush his teeth. So let’s change your diaper so you can keep brushing the dino’s teeth.” Pause. “O.K., Mama,” she said, as she got up and reached for my hand. We walked into her room to change her diaper. Although she is just a tot, my daughter, like everyone, wants to feel heard. She and I had competing interests: she needed her diaper changed (my task/interest), and she wanted to play (her task/interest). The diaper change needed to come first. And it did, once she felt like I heard and understood her. People going through a divorce need to be heard, too. It’s easy to get into power struggles and the he said, she said “stuff.” Go ahead and say it. And then be ready to listen to your spouse say it. Really try to hear what your spouse is saying. Then, understand. You don’t have to agree, but to resolve the issues in your divorce, you both need to hear and understand each other.
“Seek first to understand, and then be understood.” – Stephen Covey