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 Part 1, vortex was defined 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. The second definition provides a visual for what many think a divorce “looks like.” While the end of a marriage is emotionally tumultuous and devastating, the actual legal process of uncoupling does not have to be. But, it is critical that you choose a process that promotes healing. The Collaborative Process does just that. Collaboration is a holistic approach to divorce. It can be utilized by couples who are ending either a marriage or significant relationship, or who have a child or children together. Although some people question whether it is an appropriate process when domestic abuse or mental health/chemical dependency issues are present, many others think it can (and should) at least be attempted. If you don’t want to be another “divorce horror story,” the Collaborative Process will likely be a great fit. Collaboration focuses on the future (i.e., the relationship of co-parenting in two homes) rather than the past (i.e. the vilification of one spouse); is a win-win for both partners (rather than a court-imposed win-lose); and emphasizes the well-being of the entire family. You don’t air your dirty laundry in court, and you aren’t (literally) judged. In fact, you never set foot in a courtroom. The negotiation model is interest-based/win-win, rather than positional/win-lose. You pay attorneys to help you solve problems, not argue and keep you stuck in the past. Every family is unique, so every family deserves a unique solution. And if you have young children, please keep in mind they need you present and available. You can’t be present when you are fighting the other parent in court. In Part 3, we will discuss the various professionals in the Collaborative Process and how their expertise 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.
My family is going through Olympic withdrawal. Well, O.K., not really. But we watched the events we were interested in and rooted for Team U.S.A. Of course, Michael Phelps stole the show, and Ryan Lochte stole the…well, let’s not go there. At any rate, it was interesting. What continues to stick with me, though, is the catchy phrase in one of the commercials (I don’t remember which commercial) but it’s from Maya Angelou’s “Human Family” poem. As in the commercial, the poem ends with, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” This phrase is repeated twice in both the poem and the commercial. The rhythm is undeniable, and the words unforgettable. The truth is…we are. This made me think back to one of my sociology classes in college, and those human traits that are universal, regardless of the country, village, or tribe in which a person lives: a smile represents happiness; crying signals sadness; and we all need food, water, sunlight, and air to survive. As the poem goes, “In minor ways we differ; in major, we’re the same.” Certainly, in our families we are, to some extent, the same. So, when the “leaders” of a family decide to part ways, their differences should be relatively minor, right? Sadly, depending on the divorce process the couple uses, those minor differences could blow up and out of control. It doesn’t have to be that way. In the Collaborative divorce process, the goal is to find common ground and focus on the items the divorcing couple agrees on (the “alike” part). “Keep the children out of the middle.” Check. “Let the children attend the same school.” Check. “Make sure everyone’s needs are met.” Check. We focus on similarities, needs, and “alikeness”, and therefore interests, rather than differences and positions. We aren’t that different. At least we aren’t that different in major ways. Unique, we are. So, let’s not invent imaginary differences, which can create major conflict. That takes so much negative energy. Using a process that focuses on the positive, the “alikeness” of the two people ending the marriage is certainly more, well, human.
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.
In the early days of separation and divorce you may find the idea of growing from your divorce difficult to believe. You may be in a state of depression or denial wondering how your life will carry on, much less that you will grow from this life change. It may be difficult to find the silver lining, yet the simple truth is that you can (and will) grow from this. You may or may not have had much of a choice in whether or not you are getting a divorce, but you DO have a choice whether to grow up or grow down through this process. In a bad or difficult marriage it is easy to see how a person might grow from getting a divorce, but all divorces bring the opportunity for growth. Your divorce will likely change the way you view the world. Your life may be functioning completely different than before. Maybe you are having to look for a new career or add a part time job to make ends meet, or maybe you’ve been out of the workforce for years and your divorce is forcing you back in. Maybe you’ve had to move to an apartment or back in with your parents or a friend. Maybe your kids are at a new school as a result of your divorce. Maybe your entire social circle has now changed. It’s how you view these changes and react to your new normal, that promotes growth. Growth from your divorce can appear in a number of ways. Emotionally, spiritually, physically, etc. Even something as simple as learning a new skill that your spouse had always managed like trimming the shrubs, or online bill pay. Spiritually your faith might deepen or may struggle as you get through some trying times. Emotional growth may take a bit longer. There may be some dark and difficult days before you start to grow emotionally, but slowly it will happen. Your priorities will change and grow. If you have shared custody with your children you will likely start to value your time together all that much more. Some things that were priorities during your marriage may no longer hold a significance to you. Growth after divorce becomes a way to cope. Growth after divorce becomes a way to survive. Growth after divorce becomes empowerment. Growth after divorce becomes a new, better you.
Nearly every celebrity seems to have a divorce under their belt, but what about our local public figures – our children’s teachers, our mayors, city councilmen – how does the pubic feel about “those” public figures when they are facing divorce? About midway through the year I had noticed my daughter’s teacher’s name on Facebook (we have mutual friends) going from FIRST MARRIED to FIRST MARRIED MAIDEN, and I thought a divorce must be imminent. Admittedly my first thought was how a divorce might affect her teaching abilities for MY child. Selfish? Perhaps. Or are those type of reactions expected with public careers? Her private life is certainly none of my business, but is it easy to check your feelings at the door? Certainly not. The University of Minnesota is currently doing a study on the impact of divorce on a person’s career. Those results will be interesting to see, especially as there are careers can have a big impact on the public sector. Some may say that their divorce was the best thing that ever happened to their career. Perhaps work was a necessary distraction as their marriage crumbled at home. But on the other hand some people admit that they simply could not focus at work with their marriage on the rocks. Sometimes people can attribute their careers to actually being the CAUSE of their divorce. A husband that travels all week, a wife who tends bar on the weekends, a stay at home parent who never gets a break, and more often than not, simply the demands and stress of a person’s career can tear apart a marriage. Some careers are statistically at a higher risk for divorce, almost as if divorce is beyond their control. A few months later as school was coming to a close I noticed my daughter’s teachers name on social media is now: FIRST MAIDEN. Admittedly, my feelings changed from worrying about the affect her divorce would have on my own daughter to feeling horribly sympathetic towards her and her own children. As I leaned more I realized her husband holds a local political office and I began to wonder about the effects the divorce may have on his political career. It’s important to remember that everyone is human, divorce does not define a person, and even if you feel like your divorce is in the spotlight, remember that this too shall pass. Please share your thoughts about public divorces in the comment section below.
In an election year, we are exposed to an abundance of rhetoric. As candidates debate and advertise to convince people to vote for them, I listen for words reflecting respect, dignity, the ability to listen deeply and the capacity to work effectively with those who may hold different beliefs. High conflict resulting in governmental gridlock puts people at risk, especially those who are most vulnerable. Yet listening to potential leaders, I hear repeated versions of “I will never compromise.” Though this may be intended to project strength and resolution, does it not also sound rigid and contentious? What human values does this type of rhetoric represent? How expensive in time, money and emotional resources does endless gridlock become for the people depending on resolution? Divorcing parents are faced with the necessity to make many decisions affecting the future of their family. Their children are the most vulnerable family members, counting on their parents to work things out. What happens to children when their parents disagree and then refuse to compromise? When parents become rigid and disrespectful of each other, how does the ensuing gridlock impact their children? How expensive in time, money and emotional resources does this process become? Collaborative Practice is a method of alternative dispute resolution incorporating the values of respect, honesty and fairness. From the beginning of the process, clients are supported by their attorneys and by neutral professionals on their team to engage in interest-based negotiation to ensure both parents’ true concerns are heard, rather than positional negotiation that can easily lead to heightened conflict and expensive gridlock. For more information about how Collaborative Practice might work for your family, please check out the website of the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota.
Some time ago I wrote about The Four Agreements from a book by the same name by Don Miguel Ruiz. Ruiz believes we can stay out of conflict if each person makes the following agreements with him or herself: 1. I will be impeccable with my word. 2. I will not personalize anything the other person says, does, thinks, feels or believes. 3. I will make no assumptions. 4. I will do my best each day with the energy I have been given. The Second Agreement frequently needs to be reinforced in my work with families. To successfully make the transition from married couple to co-parents, parents must learn not to reflexively react to each others’ negative emotional states and behaviors. This is a complicated task. Establishing close human relationships requires us to be sensitive to the feelings of others, and to form attachments. Early childhood development experts often refer to the creation of healthy attachment between an infant and caregiver as the “dance of empathy.” Though attachment begins in infancy with attuned parenting , it continues throughout a lifetime. Empathy is a building block of positive relationships. However, empathy without clear boundaries can morph into co-dependence. When relationships become co-dependent, a person’s emotional state becomes enmeshed with the emotional state of the other. If the other expresses anger, his or her partner feels attacked and defensive. If the other expresses sadness, his or her partner feels blame and shame. The partner personalizes and thus assumes responsibility for the thoughts, feelings and actions of the other, and organizes his or her own thoughts, feelings and actions around the impossible task of changing the other. Ruiz reminds us that each person has a choice about how he or she will think, feel and act in response to a given situation. The only power to change comes from within. Recognizing this reality allows one to detach from personalizing and reflexively reacting to the behavior of the other, and by doing so, staying out of conflict with the other. It can be hard work, but setting the goal of establishing new and healthy emotional boundaries during and after a divorce sets the stage for effective co-parenting in the future.
What can an orange possibly help us with in our collaborative divorce or any divorce process for that matter? You may have heard about interest based negotiations vs. position based negotiations. When I am working as a financial neutral or mediator with divorcing couples, I use an orange to demonstrate these two different approaches. I place an orange on the table and then say to the couple; here we have one orange for the two of you. How are you going to decide who gets the orange? Most people will say cut it in half. While this certainly works, it may not be the best approach. Here is why. I then tell them each why they want the orange. One wants it to eat because they are hungry. The other wants the orange peel for baking. Now if we were to cut it in half as most people will say they both only get half of what they need. It is only when they state why the orange is important to them that an agreement can be reached. When negotiating divorce issues think of the orange and remember to talk about your interests instead of locking into a position. The quicker you get to the interests you will be that much closer to an agreement. Not only is emotion and conflict minimized you also get more of what you need/want. Think orange.