Collaborative Practice Marin
5 Common Experiences of Coping with the Aftermath of Divorce

 

Well. It’s done. The Collaborative paperwork is signed; the dissolution is complete. You can now safely say the words, “I’m divorced.” My guess is, this outcome is not exactly what you had in mind when you married your spouse all those years ago. The clinking of the champagne glasses on your wedding day once a blissful memory, now only conjures up heartache.

 As sadness creeps into the deepest part of your mind, only to be noticed by you, fear looms - what is next? Anger then races in to emotionally protect you against feeling pain. Thank you anger. It’s a lot easier having you around than pain.

 I don’t know your path or your journey to this moment in time. I don’t know your pain. However, I am here to tell you that you are not the first and you are not alone. As social beings, we all share common experiences, thoughts and ideas. Through these shared histories and ways of being, we can unite with others and feel less lonely, more understood, and accepted. Recognizing that our pain and lost dreams are not ours alone, and that others have walked a similar path, eases the journey to wellbeing. Working through your divorce collaboratively reassures you that you have maintained your respect for yourself and each other.

 To ease your journey, cognitive behavioral therapy lends a hand in helping us examine our thoughts, and testing their truth. Here are five common thoughts and experiences people have when coping with the aftermath of a divorce:

 #1: Life’s Scorecard: “I did everything right. I don’t deserve this.”

Many of us tell ourselves, “I followed all the rules. I was a good spouse. I did my part. My story wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.” And you are right. That wasn’t the plan, but somehow, this is how it turned out. We each have an internal scorecard. The way life “should be.” And while those “shoulds” provide us with dreams and aspirations, they can also set us up for a deep sense of failure when things don’t go as planned. Ask yourself, who decided the “should?” Many people divorce, for all sorts of reasons. You have chosen to divorce because you believe there is something better for you. That is your truth. Don’t get lost in a made up scorecard.

 #2: My sense of self has changed.

After a divorce, many people feel the need to reclaim or rebuild their identity. Shopping sprees, workouts, moving cities, changing the furniture. We turn to external sources to mirror the internal shift that is happening within in us. Who am I now? How do I make sense of my story? Exploring these shifts in self and naming your movement – both externally and internally, are healthy ways of realizing your new identity. Don’t be afraid – you are growing a new skin, and that is a beautiful thing.

 #3: Shifts in friendships.

As with any major life transition (babies, death, career change), your friendships will shift. Some will come out of the woodwork in this time of need and others will distance themselves. Those who seem to disappear may be uncomfortable with your divorce, or perhaps you have shifted. This can be an awkward and scary time as our social networks adjust. To fill the void of communicating with our friends, we fill in the missing communication with our own version. Instead of “mind reading,” fact check your sources. Talk to your friends. If they are who you thought they were, they will be authentic with you too.

 #4: Big feelings show up.

After a divorce, people go through cycles of feelings, such as depression, grief and anger. During the divorce process, you Divorce Coach can help.  After the divorce these emotions are still normal; however, if you have never felt them (or not to this degree) it can be scary. Do yourself a favor and talk to someone -  a divorce support group, a therapist or a trusted friend. This may be one of the hardest times of your life. Give yourself the best care possible and secure additional support from either an expert or other source.

 #5: Anxiety over the past, over the future.

People often ask, “What could I have done differently? What if this happens again?” These questions are normal and healthy. Your mind is trying to make sense of the divorce, and how to avoid repeating the trauma. Asking yourself questions, reflecting on the past, and owning your mistakes is how we grow. Being human is not about being perfect, or getting an A+ on that “scorecard.” It’s about coming into and accepting your authentic self by growing, maturing, and reflecting.

Erika Boissiere, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist, specializing in couples, relationships and marriage therapy. She is the founder of The Relationship Institute of San Francisco, http://www.trisf.com

Photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.

The Positive Outcomes of Divorce

For many, the word “divorce” conjures up negative thoughts and impressions. We gasp: “what about the kids? I thought they were happy? There go the holidays.” No one wants to be part of those statistics, but many of us are or will be. So, how do we surpass the social and psychological hurdles of this transition to realize the positive outcomes of a divorce?

The decision to end your relationship and get divorced is a difficult one. The process can be fraught with emotional stress and interpersonal conflict.  To make things worse, any positive attitudes one may have related to this change are often overshadowed and dismissed as inappropriate or unhealthy. However, cognitive behavioral therapy provides us a unique insight – balancing negative thoughts alongside positive thoughts is a sign of good mental health. 

If you are considering divorce or recently divorced, here is a glimpse of the bright side of your decision:

Positive Attribute #1: Positive modeling for your children

By choosing to end an unhappy relationship, you teach your children an important life lesson: people change. Although change can be difficult, it is an integral part of our natural and social world.  By being a positive model for change, you are teaching your children how to cope in tough situations and helping them understand the complex nature of relationships.

Positive Attribute #2: Your physical health will improve

Research shows that telomeres, small areas at the end of chromosome strings protecting your DNA molecules, shorten or die off as you age or when under stress. This shortening process is associated with premature aging, cancer and a higher risk of death. However, you can reverse this process and restore these vital cells through improved lifestyle changes and healthier relationship living,

Positive Attribute #3: You will learn about yourself

It is common for people to wonder “Why me?” when considering or going through a divorce. This process of self-reflection is a critical step in understanding your psychological make-up and to perhaps avoid the experience again. Entering counseling, talking to a trusted friend, or conducting your own soul searching are ways to truly connect with your deepest inner self and help you transition.

Positive Attribute #4: Your mood will fluctuate, but on your terms

Mood management is very hard for some and especially challenging if you are leaving a situation in which your mood was subject to the mood of another person. After a divorce, your mood may fluctuate – but at least it will be your mood yours to control, and yours only.

Positive Attribute #5: Self confidence

Divorce can be complicated, messy, and very emotionally taxing. Once you survive the transition, you will feel alive with the confidence that you made a decision to better your life. This esteem will lead to a sense of empowerment and deep self-knowledge that you are in control your happiness.

--Erika Boissiere, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist, specializing in couples, relationships and marriage therapy. She is the founder of The Relationship Institute of San Francisco, http://www.trisf.com


photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.

Why I Won’t Settle Disputes in Court

In the midst of parental separation feelings run high. If there are complicating factors such as violence, abuse and infidelity, those feelings typically run even higher. To add, if the decision to separate is more one-sided than mutual, the person being left can feel a sense of bewilderment if not abandonment. This too adds to the mix of bad feelings.

Parents in these circumstances are typically in a terrible place emotionally for determining the best parenting arrangement for their children. Knowingly or unknowingly, the children can become the battleground over which the parental score is settled.

As the parents unwittingly settle their score through the children, think one parent isn’t deserving of a relationship with the kids or think one cannot parent or will provide a negative influence and then seek to limit one’s relationship or time with them, the fight is on. The issues of the relationship which led to the separation worsen, further exposing the children to parental conflict. At the end of the day, parental conflict alone is the best predictor in terms of the outcome for children of separated parents. The greater the conflict the worse the outcome.

In a bid to win the day and determine an outcome, parents may turn to the court. In so doing each parent must convince the court that the other is the scoundrel. Each parent, reasonably defensive, must up their claim against the other to countermand the others claims. The court, thought of as an instrument for settling disputes and restoring peace becomes the very structure that creates further instability, chaos and hardening of bad feelings. Pity the children as the conflict inevitably intensifies.

Consider the following:

  • Court action to resolve family disputes typically inflames the conflict underlying parental disputes. Known as iatrogenic effects, this refers to the negative unintended consequences of a well intentioned act. In short, Court produces many iatrogenic effects where the unintended harm to parents and children is at times far worse than the benefit from the well intentioned outcome. Court decisions do not end conflict;
  • Family law lawyers with an emphasis on litigation, although likely well intentioned, are inherently in a conflict-of-interest as their income hinges on your degree of conflict. Generally, the greater your conflict, the greater their income. There is a lower risk for conflict-of-interest with settlement focused family law lawyers particularly those who do not practice litigation. If you use a family law lawyer, choose wisely and retain control of your case;
  • Those settlements reached between the parents themselves tend to last longer and are better followed than those outcomes imposed by a judge or arbitrator;
  • Less than 5% of all family court disputes go to trial, meaning almost all matters are settled along the way by alternative dispute resolution strategies. Given statistically your matter will likely settle in a process other than court, you may be better off to begin with that process from the start and if you have already started a court process, you can seek to divert it at anytime;
  • If you obtain a custody evaluation and go to trial, 80% of the time the Judge will order what has been recommended. In the remaining 20% of the time, it is not that the judge will reverse the recommendation of the assessor as that is a rare event; it is that the judge may make some modifications to the recommendations while keeping the intent intact. In other words, custody evaluations are quite determinative of the outcome of parenting disputes whether you like the evaluation or not. If you have an evaluation you don’t like, think twice about fighting that in court in lieu of negotiating your own final parenting plan with or without assistance – but likely with assistance;

The single best predictor in terms of the long term outcome for children of separated parents is the duration and intensity of ongoing conflict to which the children are exposed or privy. Court is not aimed at reducing conflict what-so-ever. Court is only aimed at making decisions which at times makes relationships and conflict worse;

Children are typically better served by parents willing to participate in dispute resolution processes that do not involve court and are clinically focused as opposed to legally (rights) focused;

Parenting conflicts are not legal matters. Parenting conflicts are reflections of personal and interpersonal problems which require personal and interpersonal solutions. While judges and lawyers are experts at law, they are not typically experts at parenting conflicts, child development, mental health, drug and/or alcohol concerns or domestic violence. Seek the expert with the appropriate expertise;

Court may only be really necessary to keep people safe from harm in the event of truly dangerous or abusive behavior or in situations where a parent is truly undermining a child’s relationship with the other parent with no hope of change. Not liking the other parent, having different values or preferences and challenges in communication are not addressed in court processes;

Concern about mental health, behavior and even drug/alcohol problems can be addressed in settlement focused clinical services outside of court.

In view of the above and with a desire to act in the best interest of children, seek services that are provided with a view to facilitating settlement. Approaches to facilitating co-parenting should have a clinical focus, meaning they are directed to the well being of the children through helping parents address issues that can lead to settlement. Children’s needs remain paramount. After all, we all want our children to grow up well.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW is a Social Worker and Collaborative professional in Ontario, Canada

www.yoursocialworker.coma href="http://www.yoursocialworker.com/">

photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.

How to Survive the Holidays during your Divorce

The holidays can be hard for families that are going through a divorce.  Many families have established traditions that they look forward to year after year.  These traditions may include extended family, travel, religious rituals, festive parties, decorating a tree or cooking special holiday foods.  Most parents want to make the holidays as celebratory and memorable as possible for their children and for themselves.  Finding joy and peace during a time of upheaval may not even feel possible.  Creating an atmosphere free from tension and conflict is a unique challenge during the time of a divorce when parents may have to share or divide some cherished traditions when the children are sharing their time with both parents.  Even such traditions as decorating the house might feel bittersweet when you are feeling emotionally fragile and full of uncertainty about the future.  It is even worse if you believe that your family home may not be your home next year.   The first year after separation is a year of change and adjustments, and the first holiday season after you and your spouse have separated can be especially difficult.  Here are some ideas that might make the holidays easier.

  1. Plan ahead!  Talk with your spouse about what kind of schedule will work during the holidays for you and for the kids.  Try to focus on what the children might prefer.  Perhaps you have already created a parenting plan with a holiday schedule, or if you have not done so, you might work with your divorce coach or mental health professional to develop a workable plan for this year.  The more carefully you plan, the more you, and your children, can enjoy the holidays.
  2. Consider whether you can share any part of the holiday season together with the children.  For some children, seeing their parents celebrating together can be reassuring, and for others it can be confusing.  Some divorcing parents would like to keep traditions going as a family, but if there is tension or conflict between them this is painful for the children.  For example, some families spend Halloween together, while others decide to alternate annually.  On Thanksgiving, you may celebrate on Thursday with the children one year, and on Friday the following year.  The Christmas holidays include a long school break, so give thought to how you would like to share that time, particularly if holiday travel is part of your tradition.
  3. Some families share Christmas by celebrating Christmas eve with one parent, and Christmas day with the other parent.  Other families simply alternate the holiday each year.  One family that finished their collaborative divorce agreed to celebrate together on Christmas morning, when the children opened their gifts and the family ate breakfast together.  The rest of the holiday was split between Mom’s and Dad’s.
  4. Like many families, you may be dealing with the financial stress of the divorce as you transition to supporting two households.  Remember that the children’s memories will not be of the gifts that you purchase—they will remember the warmth of the family time and activities, whether that is baking cookies, going for a bike ride, or watching a holiday show. 
  5. Take care of yourself.  These holidays will be different, and you will begin to create new traditions and rituals for yourself and your family.  When your children are with their other parent, do something you enjoy for yourself, perhaps with friends or family.  And remember that the holidays do get easier as you build new traditions and memories.

--Ann Buscho, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and Collaborative Coach in Marin County.  http://www.collaborativepracticemarin.org/members/Buscho 

This srticle was originally posted on December 13, 2013.  


How Can a Divorce Coach Help You in Your Divorce?

A divorce coach works with you to safeguard the process of divorce, centered on minimizing the emotional trauma for you, your spouse and your children.  You might talk about painful feelings with your coach, but this isn’t therapy.  Your divorce coach will guide you through the process with the goals of minimizing conflict and building respect and trust as you navigate your divorce.

Your divorce coach will help you recognize and manage your and your spouse’s personal “faultlines,”  while providing a neutral buffer to calm, protect, and support you both.   An emotional “faultline” is where you may feel shaky or where you feel most hurt.  While it is normal to feel grief, guilt, anger, helplessness, or confusion,  when faultlines are triggered, you can’t take in information or make thoughtful decisions.   In private meetings, your coach will help you identify the faultlines that will be triggered, and develop a plan about how to handle the surge of emotions when you are in divorce meetings.  Unlike therapy, where you might unpack your “faultlines”,  coaching will give you the tools and resources to help you manage them during the course of your divorce.

Faultlines might include betrayals in the marriage, or conflicts about money or the children.  When discussing financial settlements or parenting plans, these faultlines can trigger a cascade of unhelpful emotions.  Your coach will help you develop strategies for managing your own faultlines, and respecting those of your spouse as well.

Your divorce coach will help you translate your emotions into being able to articulate what matters to you most.  Your coach will help you indentify your goals, needs and interests, without becoming adversarial or positional.  With the coaching, you will be able to voice these needs and interests in a more neutral way, without tripping your own or your spouse’s faultlines.  Your coach can also help you restructure your relationship with your spouse, so that you can co-parent with trust, honesty and respect.  Unlike in therapy, a coach will help you restructure your future role with your “ex” without “working through” all of the feelings you may experience in your divorce.

Your divorce coach could actually decrease the cost of the divorce.  In your divorce process, conflict and arguments in attorney meetings are not only hurtful, and pointless: they drag out the process and are expensive!  Your divorce coach will help you look at the process as a problem-solving effort, without pulling in the faultline issues, so that you can make rational decisions for yourself and your family.  As your coach helps you separate your emotional faultlines from what is most important to you, you will gain control over moving toward your new life, and the goals that you envision.

When you are flooded with intense feelings, this biologically limits your brain’s capacity to deal with the enormity of the divorce process.  Divorce coaching helps you maintain your integrity and dignity during a painful and stormy transition in your life.  As your coach helps  you and your spouse learn to communicate in new ways, you are able to keep your family’s wellbeing in focus, make the most well-thought-through decisions together, and begin to heal yourself. 

Avvy Mar, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist practicing in San Francisco and Marin County.

http://www.collaborativepracticemarin.org/members/mar

photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.

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

Dark Feelings During Your Divorce

Grief and Sorrow

Being sad when a marriage ends is natural. Although it’s painful, grief is a healthy emotional response to loss of an important relationship. We are hard-wired to feel it and it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect otherwise. While sorrow and grief can be very hard to handle, most people do understand and accept the inevitability of these feelings.

Research, theoretical writings, and our professional experience with thousands of couples during divorces all confirm that though the emotional impact of a divorce is as severe as that of a death in the immediate family, the grief and recovery process does have a beginning, middle, and end. Though they may seem endless, the pain and confusion surrounding separation and divorce do gradually lighten, and finally go away—for most people over a period of eighteen months to three or four years following the marital separation, though recovery  can be quicker or slower.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, pioneer in the hospice movement, first described the stages of grieving and recovering from a major trauma like death or divorce:

  • Denial— “This is not happening to me. It’s all a misunderstanding. It’s just a midlife crisis. We can work it out. ”
  • Anger and Resentment—“How can he (she) do this to me? What did I ever do to deserve this? This is not fair!”
  • Bargaining— “If you’ll stay, I’ll change” or, “If I agree to do it (money, childrearing, sex, whatever) your way, can we get back together?”
  • Depression— “This is really happening, I can’t do anything about it, and I don’t think I can bear it.”
  • Acceptance— “OK, this is how it is, and I’d rather accept it and move on than wallow in the past.”

Understanding these stages can be very helpful when it comes to talking about divorce and decision making.  It’s important to know that when you are in these early stages of this grief and recovery process, it can be challenging  to think clearly or to make decisions at all, much less to make them well. Identifying your present stage of grief and being aware of it is an important step toward ensuring that you make the best choices you can.

Guilt and Shame

Experiencing guilt and shame is also a normal reaction to the end of a marriage. These feelings arise when we feel a sense of failure—of not having fulfilled our own or our community’s expectations. In the case of divorce, people often feel guilt and/or shame because they have failed to stay married for life. That’s partly a matter of personal expectations—not fulfilling the promises made to a spouse—and also partly a matter of not fulfilling what our culture seems to expect from us. If our culture’s expectations about marriage and divorce are reasonable—if they fit well with how people actually behave in that culture—and we don’t measure up, then the guilt and shame felt at the time of divorce may be appropriate. If the culture’s expectations don’t match well with the reality of marriage and divorce as people actually live it, then the guilt and shame can be much more problematic—difficult to see clearly, difficult to acknowledge, difficult to manage in a divorce. In addition, in some marriages one or both partners have engaged in extremes of betrayal, deceit, or even criminal behavior that almost always involve feelings of guilt and shame.

For many people guilt and shame can be so painful that they change very quickly into other more tolerable feelings such as anger or depression—often without the person even knowing that the guilt and shame are there. This is why it is so common in divorce for each partner to blame the other, and why it can be so difficult for divorcing partners to accept responsibility for their own part in a failed marriage.

Very few divorcing people find it easy to see or accept their own feelings of guilt and shame. These powerfully negative feelings often remain under the radar, hidden and invisible, where they can do the most harm. Strong feelings of guilt or shame can make it difficult or impossible to take in more balanced information, to maintain perspective, and to consider realistically your best alternatives for how to resolve problems.

Guilt can cause spouses to feel they have no right to ask for what they need in a divorce, causing them to negotiate unbalanced, unrealistic settlements they later regret. Family lawyers have a saying that “guilt has a short half-life,” and because guilt is such an uncomfortable feeling, it can easily transform into anger.  People who have negotiated guilt-driven agreements often have second thoughts and go back to court to try to set aside imprudent settlements.

Similarly, shame often transforms into blame, anger or rage directed at the spouse. Bitter fights over children or property can be propelled by feelings like these, because modern divorces seldom brand either partner as Snow White or Hitler, Prince Charming or the Wicked Witch, and therefore the anger, which needs to go somewhere, goes toward fights over matters that courts are permitted to make orders about.

A full collaborative divorce team includes not just lawyers but also two licensed mental health professionals acting as coaches, whose job includes helping you and your spouse become more aware of how grief, shame, and other strong emotions may be playing an unwanted role in your divorce process.  They can also help you address those  feelings in constructive ways that leave you much more clear-thinking as you negotiate long-term divorce settlement terms.

Pauline H. Tesler, J.D., CFLS, is a collaborative divorce lawyer practicing in Marin and San Francisco.

[This post is excerpted and adapted from Chapter One of Collaborative Divorce: The Revolutionary New Way to Restructure Your Family, Resolve Legal Issues, and Move on with Your Life, by Pauline H. Tesler, J.D., and Peggy Thompson, Ph.D.]

photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.


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“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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