I absolutely love the song “Say Something” by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera. It’s such a devastating and realistic portrayal of the way so many relationships die.
These artists really got it right. So often, when a relationship is in crisis, each partner is looking in vain for the other person to “say something”. In other words, they’re yearning to hear words, backed up with actions, which make them feel loved and needed; words and actions that reflect a sincere commitment to the relationship and a desire to fight for it.
But all too often, people don’t know what to say or do to get things back on track. And so, as the song goes, they say and do nothing (or else say and do the wrong things), and the relationship slips away.
The tragedy of divorce
Very few people take the decision to end a marriage lightly; to the contrary, separation and divorce are usually traumatic experiences, on par with the death of a loved one. Most people end their marriages because they feel they have no other choice.
And sometimes they truly don’t have a choice. For some, such as those in abusive relationships, moving on is both the only thing they can do, and the right thing to do. And many of these families are much better off afterwards.
But for the others whose marriages could have survived, had they not slowly “fallen out of love” and eventually given up, divorce is a tragedy.
It’s these people who spend hours crying in my office, telling me they never wanted or expected it to end this way. They didn’t want to fall out of love and didn’t think it could happen to them; it just happened when they weren’t paying attention. Many wish they could have a do-over, but by the time they get to me, it’s too late.
They wish they’d known what divorce was really like so that they’d have had better incentive to avoid it, instead of seeing it as the only possible escape.
So what’s it really like to go through a divorce?
Of course, divorce is different for everyone, depending on the legal issues, whether there are kids or not (and how old the kids are), and how raw the emotions are. But I’d say Kelly and James’s story is very typical of many clients who find their way into my office.
For those of you who missed last week’s introduction to these two, here’s a brief recap. James and Kelly started out happy and in love, but had been struggling for many years with the pressures of raising their three kids. James, a traditional breadwinner, and Kelly, a stay-at-home mom, were moving in different orbits, and were both perpetually exhausted. Money was tight, and both spouses were at the breaking point. Each was too wrapped up in his or her own world of stress to muster up much sympathy for the other’s problems, and as a result, each felt unsupported, misunderstood, and unappreciated. Resentment had set in on both sides and the couple’s attempts at resolving their problems only led to fights.
Lonely and desperate for affection, Kelly eventually fell into an affair with another man. James initially hit the roof, but ultimately saw a golden opportunity to pull the plug on a lifeless marriage. Once Kelly realized what she had to lose, she ended her affair and begged James to go to counseling. But he was resolute. Now Kelly is angry at James for letting her down in the marriage, and for giving up so easily.
James and Kelly’s Divorce
It’s a Wednesday morning, and Kelly and James have just sat down together in my office. Prior to this joint session, I’ve spent an hour alone with each of them in order to gain an understanding of their respective views and goals; now that they’re here together, it’s time to delve right into the legal issues we need to resolve.
Having spoken to each of them individually, I already know that each and every one of their issues is likely to be explosive and emotional. So since we only have 4 hours left today, we’ll focus strictly on the parenting issues for now, and move into support and property next time.
I begin by inviting each spouse to tell the other, as calmly as possible, how he or she envisions an ideal parenting plan unfolding post-separation, and why each feels his or her vision is the best one for the children.
Kelly goes first. She starts calmly enough, saying that it’s best for the kids that she continues to be the sole custodial parent, because she’s always been there for them and James has been completely uninvolved. But that loaded comment gets James’s back up and he can’t restrain himself from interrupting!
Bad to worse
Predictably, James now starts turning red and yelling at Kelly that he’s prepared to fight her for sole custody, because she’s a slut and therefore an unfit mother and a bad influence on the kids. He also denies that he’s been “uninvolved”; it’s more that he’s been forced to work long hours to support the lifestyle she wanted. But now that they’re separated, he wants and deserves to make up for lost time.
Kelly tries to interject, but James isn’t done. He tells Kelly that this whole situation has made him realize that it’s his kids, not his career, that really matter in life. So he’s quitting his high-pressure job to get a real estate license, which will enable him to job-share, work from home, and be there for the kids. Plus, why can’t Kelly dust off her MBA and go get a job? It’s only fair that she pulls her weight after “freeloading” off of him for so long.
Now Kelly is livid. She starts screaming and tears pop from her eyes. “I knew it! You’re such a chauvinist! You never respected me or how hard I worked! All you ever cared about was money! You don’t even care about the kids, and you never have. My dad was right – you only want them so you can avoid paying support! How can you do this to them?”
But James gives it right back: “How could I do this to them!? You did this to them! You destroyed our family! You broke your wedding vows! I did nothing but work hard for you and what do you do to thank me – you screw your personal trainer, who, I might remind you, I was paying for to try to make you happy! You are an immoral, selfish bitch and I’ll be happy to take this all the way to trial so that justice can be served!”
Yikes! Might I point out that at this point, we’re only about five minutes into a four-hour joint session?
You can see why divorce lawyers and mediators are so busy. It’s not that the law is that complicated – it is, to some degree, but what’s far more complex, and what underpins the majority of family law litigation, is the intense human emotion surrounding relationship breakdown. Too often, the system is just a tool of control; people use it, knowingly or not, to work through the anger and pain they should really be working through with their therapists.
What’s really going on here?
At first glance, Kelly and James seem like poor candidates for mediation; their conflict seems hopeless. But actually, the mediation process presents a perfect opportunity to educate them on some fundamental mistakes they’re making:
- Being rigid and positional. Each is focusing on his or her position (“I want sole custody!”), not his or her interests (ie. the underlying needs people have which cause them to take particular positions). Once they take a moment, calm down, and actually identify their interests, they’ll have found the key to resolving conflict.
- Being hypercompetitive, and too focused on “legal rights”. Each is hyper-focused on proving that he or she is the better parent and that the other parent is the worse one (as well as an awful spouse!). Because each feels threatened by the possibility of losing the children, he or she goes on the attack in order to prevent this possibility from coming to pass.
- Failing to self-educate. Neither one has had independent legal advice prior to the mediation, but each has heard friends’ horror stories, and each has been coached by those closest to them to try to maximize the potential of getting what he or she “deserves”. This outside interference by well-meaning third parties can be a huge problem.
- Failing to separate the person from the problem. Each has demonized the other parent, attacked the other person’s character, and attributed the worst possible motives to the other for wanting what they want.
Moving past damaging conflict dynamics
So, how do we move past these challenges in order to reach the goal of resolution? Generally, I take a two-pronged approach:
First, name the elephant in the room. The first step is to acknowledge the anger, pain, and fear both parties are feeling, and to help them understand that the legal process is not the appropriate venue for venting these emotions. Each needs counseling to heal; neither will get anywhere by attacking the other. In fact, this behavior will only undermine what needs to be the goal of the process.
Secondly, it’s essential to properly frame the problem to be solved. The children usually don’t care who cheated on whom, or whose fault it was that the marriage ended. What they need, and deserve, is for their parents to stop attacking each other and start working towards the mutual goal of giving them the most peaceful childhood possible. In other words, the ex-spouses need to move forward, from a dysfunctional marital relationship to a productive and goal-oriented co-parenting relationship.
Parallels between Kelly and James’s marriage and their divorce
Sadly, Kelly and James’s initial approach to their divorce has been no different from their approach to conflict during their marriage.
And while I’ll help them find a better way to resolve their divorce issues, I wonder what would have happened if they had received the benefit of professional help a few years prior to their separation.
Might they have avoided winding up in my office? Many clients I’ve spoken with think, in retrospect, that counseling could have made a difference, and wish they’d given it a try.
A good counselor could have pointed out the same patterns I did, but earlier, and could have helped them to find a better way to resolve their conflict.
How could counseling have helped?
For starters, Kelly and James had a longstanding pattern of being quite positional and rigid in their conflict. In mediation, they each initially took the position of wanting sole custody. Similarly, in the past, they would each have tried to “solve” their marital problems by taking positions like “you need to go back to work!” or “you need to come home from work earlier to help me with the kids!”
As such, over time, they got stuck, and resentment built. A counselor could have helped them see how unhelpful this approach was, and might have helped them solve the real problems – which were that they each felt alone, unsupported, unappreciated, and stressed out by financial worries and parenting responsibilities.
What else about this mediation gave Kelly and James a sense of déjà vu? How about the fact that each was being “egged on” by family members or friends who were on their “side” and who wanted them to “fight for their rights”? This happened during the marriage too. Kelly’s dad, who was a self-made millionaire, had never respected James, and during the marriage, had constantly taken digs at him for not being a good enough provider. And James’s mom, a career woman who didn’t relate to full-time parenting, overtly resented Kelly for “causing” her son so much financial stress.
And so, under the guise of being “supportive” of their respective children, James’s mom and Kelly’s dad had ironically failed to support what should have mattered most to their children – their marriage. Now, this dynamic is repeating itself in the divorce. The remedy? Kelly and James need to understand what’s going on, set firm boundaries, and take ownership of their own lives. Should have happened a long time ago!
What else? How about the fact that in the first five minutes of the divorce mediation, each spouse managed to blame and demonize the other parent, attack the other person’s character, and attribute the worst possible motives to the other for wanting what they wanted? This was nothing new either; this behavior, too, had been going on for years. But what if Kelly and James had made the effort to go for counseling years before? Might they have learned to “separate the person from the problem”, thereby avoid causing long-term damage with these hurtful behaviors?
Quite possibly, yes. And, if they had done so, the marriage could have been saved.
So, now that you’ve experienced about five minutes’ worth of what goes on during a typical day in my professional life, I hope you now have a sense of what divorce is really like for the people experiencing it. Awful, isn’t it? And lest you think James and Kelly’s situation is too outrageous to be real, let me assure you that it’s very typical…and even much tamer than some.
It’s all very sad, and I wish that one of these two could have “said something” before it was too late. I also wish that saying the right “something” could have been the beginning of a genuine attempt, in counseling, to fix what was wrong. Unfortunately for Kelly and James, it’s now too late, but fortunately for many others, it isn’t. So if you recognize yourself in this story, then please act now. Say something. Do something. Change the path you’re on, before it’s too late.
Next time, we’ll go back in time and talk a bit about “attributions” – one of the biggest mistakes people make during their marriages, and one of the most common contributors to the deterioration of previously healthy relationships. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your feedback about the ideas discussed in today’s post, as well as your suggestions for future topics.