Collaborative Practice Marin
Family Events in Separating and Divorcing Families—Possible Islands of Connection

As spring arrives, you will be thinking about the many family occasions, holidays and events that need to be planned.   Easter/Passover celebrations, graduations, weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and birthdays fill your calendar.  However, if you have recently separated, this year is not like other years.  Notice how you are feeling as you read this – is there a pit in your stomach, an ache in your heart, a clenched jaw in reaction to your feelings about the changes in your family?  Perhaps your children’s faces come to mind, as you recall the past events that were fun and easy.  Perhaps you are recalling how you have imagined these family events would unfold?

Many other families have lived through these difficult moments.  We have learned from the many families before you who have approached these changes and reported on how they turned out.  The good news is that with careful planning, parents can craft these events so that they can be at least ‘doable’ for your children and yourselves, or even better.

Consider a specific event coming up, for example, a high school graduation of one of your children.  There may have been older siblings who have graduated, and the whole family has a memory of the events and how the family celebrated this important moment in the graduate’s life.  It is very important now to imagine how you want this experience to be for your son or daughter now, when you and your spouse have separated.  Do you imagine it being warm, easy and focused on this important milestone and your child’s accomplishment?  Do you visualize building memories of shared meals, taking pictures of your cap and gown clad child with proud siblings and family?

It is possible to keep your intention as your guide in planning this day and event, even though it is different from “last time” or from what you had previously imagined.  It is possible to hold on to your best intentions even while you may feel sad or angry or disappointed.  Separations and divorces create feelings of grief about what has been lost or changed.  The feelings are normal.  And yet you know that these important moments in a family’s life are powerful and will be remembered.  So can you rise above your own emotions to create the day you want for your child?

You and your spouse can work together with your coaches to plan these events to be as positive as possible.  It may take some work to sort through which birthday or holiday traditions can be kept or changed, and whether new ones can be created.  You can do your best to be both flexible and realistic about what you can tolerate emotionally.  For example, one caring parent realized that sharing eight hours with her spouse at Christmas was too difficult, but two hours of opening presents and sharing the traditional breakfast would have been possible.

Your children will have their own feelings and wishes.  They may say or act as if “things are the same,” expecting hugs and kisses between you and your spouse, and lots of pictures together as if it were the “old days.”    Ask your kids which parts of the holiday or family traditions are most important.  Let them know compassionately that you know things are different this year.  Let them know what is the same and what will be different. 

If this is the first year after a separation you might think about it as, “this year let’s try….. to make it easier.”  This takes the pressure off the parents and children to “know” how things will be next year.  Let your kids know you’ll be planning with the other parent and get back to them with some plans.  Most children I have talked to mostly want their parents not to fight and have the divorce dominate the event.

After checking in with the kids, let them know how you and your spouse would like to plan the event.   It helps to emphasize that you both are committed to having a successful and comfortable event.  If it is one child’s event (i.e., a performance, graduation, or bar/bat mitzvah), let your child know that this is their day, and that the focus will be on their accomplishment, not on the divorce.  Reassure them that they don’t need to worry about you.

Working with your Collaborative team on planning successful family events can help stabilize things for your children and build trust between you and your spouse for the many post-divorce family events yet to come.  The care, planning and thought that you put into making successful family events will help you begin to create new, different, and happy traditions that will build new, positive memories.

Elizabeth Salin, MFT, is a divorce coach and psychotherapist in San Rafael.

photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.

The Real Difference Between Understanding and Agreement

People often ask how the Collaborative team is able to support divorcing couples to work through their conflict.  As a divorce coach, working with trained collaborative attorneys and other professionals, I believe that one of the keys is helping people understand the power of understanding (and often empathy), as an alternative to the power of coercion.

It’s hard to come to a divorce conversation, with attorneys at the table, and listen to your spouse with whom you disagree.  How easy it is to become defensive, how tempting to criticize, or simply ignore what your spouse is saying.  You may fear that if you understand your spouse, your own position will be weakened, or your own sense of the strength of your own view will be diminished. 

So we work to help you make the distinction between understanding and agreeing.  We often say you can understand someone fully without having to accept the validity of anything that they are saying.  You don’t need to agree with the other, but you can understand what he or she is saying to you.  This actually is a giant and liberating step forward to be able to move through a disagreement.  It runs counter to the way in which we generally think about our conflicts.  It can feel like a big shift to recognize that two views can simultaneously exist, and that they do not cancel each other out.  Instead there is the possibility of an expansion of understanding, especially if both of you are willing to do this for each other.  And that mutual understanding paves the way for a respectful dialog about the decisions that you will be making during your divorce.

This sounds simple, but it really isn’t.  It takes a strong intention, and the commitment to the effort.  When you really step into someone else’s shoes, you may feel quite vulnerable, especially if you are in conflict.   When you are able to express and demonstrate to your spouse that you understand their view (even if you don’t agree with it), you may feel even more vulnerable.  It can feel like the act of understanding and the demonstration of that understanding to your spouse is risking giving up your position or that it might result in your spouse believing that even though you haven’t said it, that you agree he or she is right.

Another problem is that we believe that our own view is so accurate that if your spouse were to actually understand it, that it would be inevitable that she or he will conclude that their own view is wrong.  “If the other person just really heard and understood me, of course they would agree with me.”  It is hard to accept that a different perspective doesn’t necessarily mean that you are wrong.  This black and white thinking causes conversations to fall into a win-lose battle. 

So let’s imagine that you and your spouse commit to listen for understanding, not necessarily agreement.  It can be disappointing to feel that your spouse now has conveyed his understanding, but has not taken the obvious next step to surrender his or her view or agree that you are right.  Right and wrong has a huge hold over all of us, especially when we are in a conflict.  Holding two conflicting views simultaneously is not only intellectually challenging, but emotionally is even harder because we are so conditioned to believe that there is one right and one wrong in almost every conflict. 

So how do we help?  We know that it takes courage for you to authentically attempt to listen carefully in a new way, to step into your spouse’s shoes to understand, and to express your understanding without necessarily agreeing.  We know it also takes strength to listen to your spouse’s understanding of what you may say, without assuming that he or she is now convinced that you are right, and he is wrong.  We appreciate how hard it is to make this effort without knowing where it will lead.  We may encourage you to push beyond your comfort zone, but we respect your ability to know what is possible for you.  If you have been someone who always gives in, or accommodates, we will encourage you to strengthen your voice to speak your truth.  At the same time, we will honor the realities of both you and your spouse to keep the lines of communication open.  We may help you explore your version of “The Truth” as well as your spouse’s.  Our goal is to keep the process moving forward in a balanced way, to reach your agreements with mutual understanding.  Imagine, when your divorce is over, being able to understand your former spouse’s perspective, without feeling that you have to give up your own.  This is one step toward a healing in your post-divorce relationship that will pay dividends for years to come.

Collaboratively written by Ann Buscho,  Catherine Conner, and Gary Friedman


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About Collaborative Practice Marin

CPM is a community of legal, mental health and financial professionals working together to create client-centered processes for resolving conflict.  We are located in Marin County, California. 

Why Collaborative Divorce?

“Divorce is never easy but the collaborative process made mine bearable.  I had more control and therefore less stress and anxiety because I had an active role.”

~JF

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