Divorce with Love

The very notion of “Divorce with Love” may seem radical, perhaps even nonsensical. After all, love is difficult to define. Everyone has a different view of what it means to love another, and each of us fails to live up to our ideals, at least some of the time, particularly in our most intimate relationships.

Divorce would seem to represent the very height of that failure. So if two people couldn’t live together in love, how could (and why should) they divorce with love?

My perspective – which has developed through years of working as a mediator, collaborative attorney, and assisting in other forms of non-adversarial conflict resolution – is that love, more than anything, is a willingness to see through the eyes of another.

Please don’t misunderstand. Seeing through another’s eyes does not necessarily imply agreement. Everyone sees the world differently and each of us is entitled to our own unique perspectives. In itself, this is not a problem. People can have extremely different, even seemingly opposite, views and still experience harmony. Conflict occurs when we don’t trust another’s intentions, and divorce presents innumerable opportunities for that sort of mistrust to arise.

The Nature of Conflict

When going through a divorce, people will often ask, “What happened to the person I married?” Unfortunately, there are times when one has truly misjudged the character of another only to discover, upon divorce, that the person he or she loved never really existed. When one’s spouse is not acting in good faith, non-adversarial conflict resolution does not work. That’s when conventional divorce may be necessary.

Fortunately, though, most people have not failed to see the true nature of their spouse; the person once loved is still there. He or she only seems to have disappeared because the process of estrangement has led to a series of misunderstandings. Here’s how those misunderstandings arise:

We assume we know why someone acts the way they do based on what we would do in that same situation. Then, based on our assumptions about the other’s motives, we make judgments. At those times when the other person is acting in ways we cannot imagine ourselves behaving, our judgments are likely to be harsh. People often arrive in my office saying things like, “She’s selfish” or “He’s a jerk.”

The good news, however, is that our judgments are typically inaccurate. I say this having worked with hundreds of couples. At the core of most every dispute are misunderstandings that become the source of negative opinions and judgments.

Tragic Expressions

Marshall Rosenberg, a prominent advocate for the peaceful resolution of conflict, teaches that judgments are tragic expressions of unmet needs. Needs, according to Rosenberg, are universal. In other words, all people have them. They can be material, such as the need for food, air or sleep; and they can also be emotional, such as the need for respect, empathy, independence, love, humor and the like.

We’re born with a capacity to express needs in a manner that works. For example, when a baby needs something, he cries. Few parents fail to understand that behind the child’s wail is nothing more than a plea for understanding. Only an extremely immature or emotionally damaged parent would think the child was behaving maliciously.

However, as we get older, effectively expressing what we need becomes more challenging. Few of us have been taught to pay attention to feelings (our own, let alone those of another) and even fewer have learned to be sensitive to the needs that give rise to those feelings. If we were aware of what we needed, we might communicate in a manner that resulted in those needs being met. But when we’re not even aware of what we need, we have no language to ask for what’s wanted. And it’s our frustration over not getting our needs met that causes us to form judgments about those who appear to stand in our way through their seemingly unreasonable actions.

Stumbling Toward Conflict

Here’s an example: Let’s say my teenage son returns home from college at the end of the fall semester, walks into the house and goes straight to the kitchen without acknowledging my presence as I relax in the den. Perhaps, for me, that triggers sadness or anger. Underneath those feelings could be needs for respect, shared values, connection and/or love, to name but a few possibilities.

Now let’s take a moment to look at this from the hypothetical perspective of my son. Perhaps he wasn’t expecting me to be home so early in the day and, in the twilight of a Bellingham winter afternoon, didn’t notice me lying in the recliner under a blanket with a book. Perhaps he was so wrapped up in the idea of seeing his girlfriend for the first time in months, he wasn’t in a place to notice much of anything. Or maybe – teenage boy that he is – he was so hungry after a long trip, all he could think of was the inside of the refrigerator.

Were I to call him over and say, “When you entered the house and walked past me without saying hello, I felt sad and hurt because I’ve missed you and really wanted to connect,” there’s a good chance he might hear my words without feeling threatened. In that situation, perhaps he’d respond with something like, “I’m sorry, dad; I didn’t realize you were there” and then give me a hug. In other words, since I’ve expressed my needs clearly, without blame or judgment, there’s a reasonable chance my son will respond in a way I’ll appreciate.

On the other hand, were I not aware of my feelings and needs, I might judge my son a selfish, spoiled brat. Rosenberg regards such judgments, in themselves, a subtle form of violence. From that place of blame, there’s not much chance I’d approach him with words likely to be effective in getting my needs met. I might say something like, “Young man; come here! Am I invisible to you? That’s no way to treat your father!” In this scenario, my chances, percentage wise, of receiving the respect or love or sense of connection I’m seeking have just diminished to something pretty close to zero.

Judgments are tragic expressions of unmet needs, according to Rosenberg, because we form them only when we’re already sure we’re not going to get what we want, and the judgments themselves make it all but certain we’ll be right.

Listening Beyond Words

There’s an old saying that goes, “You’re speaking so loud, I can’t hear you.” As a mediator and collaborative attorney, my focus is on helping people listen beyond the surface of their spouse’s words to the deeper truth of what the other is really trying to say; to assist each in hearing and understanding the feelings and needs that hide beneath the other’s demands and judgments.

As this process unfolds, people are surprised by what they discover. “You’re a jerk” may really mean (for example), “I’m afraid because, if you’re not willing to help me, I don’t see how I can support myself.” “You’re selfish” may mean “I’m sad and frustrated because it seems you’re discouraging the children from wanting to spend time with me.”Few of us are aware of what we’re truly wanting when we lash out. Even fewer are aware of what another is trying to express when that person uses words that seem harsh, punishing or critical.

As you can perhaps imagine, when one authentically speaks the truth of what he or she wants, it’s far easier for the spouse to hear those words with openness and compassion. After all, “I’m afraid” or “I’m sad” is not threatening, whereas most of us feel defensive when someone seems to reproach us with negative judgments. Fortunately, once we’re aware of deeper feelings and needs – our own as well as another’s – judgments fall away.

When people see and recognize feelings and needs, they can move to a place where it feels authentic to say something along the lines of, “What you’re saying makes sense.” In resolving conflict, those simple words make a huge difference. We all need to feel not just heard but understood.

Please keep in mind that “You make sense” does not necessarily imply agreement. It doesn’t mean, “You were right about everything.” Rather, it means “I get where you’re coming from. I understand why, to you, things look the way they do.” When each spouse can honestly express understanding and empathy for the other in this manner, miracles happen.

Bridges of Trust

Working together in the ways I’ve described builds bridges of trust. Once people acknowledge and express appreciation for each other’s point of view, conflict tends to melt away – often effortlessly. Grudging compromises that make no one happy are rarely necessary. The spouses begin to identify creative solutions that neither could have fathomed earlier – solutions that meet everyone’s needs – because now, for the first time in a very long time, they understand each other. They may even discover themselves willing to compromise on issues that, before, had seemed completely intractable.

As people put together agreements from this place of understanding and empathy, there’s a “buy in,” a moment of transformation that occurs when each takes ownership of the settlement which they, together, have authored. From this point forward, everything looks different. Unlike orders imposed from on high by a judge or arbitrator, or a settlement into which spouses are strong armed by their attorneys, there’s neither resistance nor resentment toward agreements that people choose freely for themselves.

It’s unlikely that ex-spouses who have reached settlement using the process I’ve described will later wind up in court, either to enforce or revise their agreement. If something needs to be modified as the children mature or circumstances change, the former husband and wife will likely be able to work together to reach a new agreement. This may occur with the assistance of professionals, but just as likely between the parties, on their own, prior resentments having been cleared away and replaced with mutual respect and understanding.

Keys to the Kingdom

This process works when each party is both willing and able to act in good faith. By “good faith,” I mean the disclosure of all relevant information (such as income and financial documents), the placing of a high priority on the needs of children, and the intention to discover mutually beneficial agreements (even if it’s hard to imagine, at the outset, what those agreements might look like). In my experience, most any dispute, no matter how entrenched it may seem, can be resolved so long as these basic ingredients are present and the parties are guided by someone – or a team, in the case of Collaborative Divorce – skilled in the facilitation of conflict resolution.

In summary, the willingness to listen to another in a way that reveals his/her feelings and underlying needs, then share authentically one’s own feelings and needs, and be guided to a place where each can see through the eyes of the other is, in my opinion, to divorce with love.