It is often said that a divorce is 95% emotional and only 5% legal. A divorce is a life crisis, with intense emotional reactions, such as anger, fear, guilt, and despair. In the midst of this emotional soup, you must make huge decisions regarding your finances and your children. While emotions are normal and expected, if not monitored and managed they can derail your divorce process. Arguing during a divorce is both destructive and pointless. Anger itself is not wrong or bad, but what you do with the anger is what matters. The attack-defend model will not work. With professionals in the room, fighting is also very costly in both time and money. Here are some ideas to help you deescalate.
- Take your time. Rushing into and through a divorce is usually a mistake as emotions easily hijack your good judgement. Once the decision to divorce is made, take the time to digest what is happening, especially if you didn’t want the divorce. Use the time for self-care, and get emotional support from family, friends or a mental health professional. Even if you want the divorce, allow yourself and your soon-to-be ex some time to feel emotionally ready for the legal process.
- Speak respectfully, even if your spouse does not. Use “I statements” and avoid words like “always,” “never,” and “yes, but…” It may be difficult to avoid the triggers that lead to escalation of conflict. Monitor your own voice and body language, speaking calmly and quietly. Avoid language of blame, criticism, threats and insults, and if you (or your spouse) find this difficult, simply call for a break. “This isn’t a good time for us to talk about this. Let’s get back to it when we have each had some time to cool down.”
- Agree to treat each other with respect, even when disagreeing. If necessary, set a boundary to end the conversation if you feel it is no longer respectful. You may need to limit your conversations by meeting in a coffee shop, or communicating by email. Never, ever bring your children into the conflict.
- Focus on the future. In a divorce, rehashing the same arguments that ended the marriage will be unproductive, hurtful and could lead to an impasse. If you feel that getting to the heart of the conflict will help clear the air, or strengthen your future relationship, especially if you have children, then perhaps a mental health professional can facilitate the conversation before you get into legal discussions.
- Listen to your spouse with an open heart and curiosity. Focus on one thing at a time; don’t bring other issues into the discussion. People tend to escalate when they don’t feel heard. Listening to your spouse does not mean you agree with what your spouse is saying. Ask questions to clarify issues and convey your interest. Listening to understand and reflect back what you understand (in a non-judgmental way) will help your spouse deescalate. People shout and repeat themselves when they don’t feel heard. Let your spouse know that you are listening attentively, even if you don’t agree with what he/she is saying. Understanding is not the same as agreeing.
- Conflict often escalates when one’s wants or needs are not being met. Ask yourself, “What do I really want here? What do I need?” “What does my spouse want, and need?” When you are able to say what you want and need, and are able to reflect your understanding of what your partner wants and needs, you may find common ground and be able to develop win-win solutions. This may require you to think through your priorities, what really matters to you, and where there is room for compromise.
- Take ownership of your part in the conflict, and apologize if necessary. “I’m sorry you feel that way” is not an apology. A non-defensive apology will deescalate a conflict quickly. You may not have intended to hurt, insult, or goad your partner, but if your partner feels that way, the conflict will grow worse. A good apology conveys your awareness of what you did that crossed a line, and how it affected your spouse. A real apology expresses genuine remorse, and a sincere commitment to change the behavior that offended or hurt your spouse.
- Compromise when you can. This builds goodwill and increases trust. Remember what is most important and focus on those things.
- Breathe. Conflict raises your fight-flight reactions, depriving your brain’s frontal lobes of the oxygen needed to think rationally and clearly. Keep breathing and notice that your body will calm down, your pulse will slow, and your muscles will relax.
Divorce is a painful process. There are many ways things can go wrong in a divorce, and there are many ways to avoid those risks. It comes down to mutual respect, a commitment to non-defensive communication, and constructive problem-solving.
Ann Buscho, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a Divorce Coach in Marin County.
Photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.