Collaborative Practice Marin
How to Deescalate Conflict in a Divorce


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Compromise when you can. This builds goodwill and increases trust. Remember what is most important and focus on those things.
  9. 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.



Why, and When, Should We Create a Collaborative Pre-marital Agreement ("Pre-Nup")


               When couples marry in California, there are laws that automatically apply to their assets and income. For instance, income received as a result of either spouse’s labor, skill and efforts is community property and belongs to the marital partnership. Assets owned prior to marriage or received during marriage as a gift or inheritance is separate property unless it increases in value during the marriage due to either spouse’s efforts.

               These default rules can be changed in a premarital agreement. The process for creating such a contract is an important consideration. The relationship needs to be valued and the communication about financial topics facilitated to encourage open and heart felt discussions about the terms to be included. Instead of having a proposed premarital agreement prepared by one client’s attorney and delivered to the other client, in a collaborative process the couples and both attorneys work together to develop a Premarital Agreement. The process should be commenced well before the intended wedding date to assure the topics can be considered thoughtfully without any pressure related to timing.

               Collaborative practitioners begin the premarital agreement process with a meeting between the prospective spouses and drafting attorneys where we learn together about the clients’ personal and professional backgrounds, as well as their goals for their marriage as a couple and as individuals. Full disclosure of all assets, obligations and income is required regardless of process. During the meeting, we review each person’s financial information and ask questions to ensure understanding. A review of what California law provides is given so those rights and responsibilities are known. Then we identify topics to be included in the document and brainstorm options for solutions. After all possible options are identified, each is evaluated to determine viability and connection to the clients’ marital goals and interests. If consensus about the terms is reached, the attorneys will then prepare a draft agreement for review. If the couple needs time to further reflect on the options together, another meeting is scheduled to hear the results of this conversation. After the draft is read by all, there is a final discussion to confirm the document is understood and consistent with the couple’s intent.


Susan Stephens Coats is certified as a Specialist in Family Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization.  http://www.collaborativepracticemarin.org/members/Coats


Photo Credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.


When Do I Introduce My Kids to My New Girlfriend/Boyfriend?

You are getting a divorce and you want to move on with your life.  You are eager to introduce your kids to your new partner, and you are wondering when is the right time. 

This is one of those questions of “What is in the children’s best interest?”  It is important to think about the child’s needs and perspective here, over your own wants and needs.

Your child(ren) are going through an unsettled time of change and transition, and they need time to process their feelings of grief and loss of the family (and maybe also the home).  They will need to work through the Elizabeth Kubler Ross “Five Stages of Grief,” denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. 

Over the next year your child(ren) will need time to re-establish stable relationships with each parent, separate from the other parent.  Some research suggests that a well-adjusted child needs one-two years to readjust after the divorce is finalized.   Children who were having a hard time before the divorce will likely need more time to adjust to the new family “under two roofs.” 

It is also important to look at this question from an attachment point of view.  How stable and long term is this new relationship?  If there is a chance of a breakup, it is unfair and unhealthy to ask the children to attach to someone only to have that person leave your life, and therefore also your children’s. 

While there is no magic number of months, waiting until the dust settles for the children and until the new relationship is committed and stable is a good idea before introducing a child to a new partner.  This can often take many months, and more often a year or two.  So patience is the name of the game in this situation.  If you try to force the meeting prematurely, you many end up creating a very difficult and stressed relationship between your new partner and your children.  Talk with your Divorce Coach or Child Specialist about when the right time would be for your children to meet your new partner.

Stefan Benton is a Divorce Coach in Marin County.  www.sbentonmft.com

Photo Credit:  Ann Buscho, Ph.D.


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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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