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Divorce Lawyers

Thyden Gross and Callahan LLPCounselors and Attorneys at Law

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COPING STRATEGIES
FOR DIVORCE EMOTIONS

Does your divorce or separation make you sad, angry, vengeful, depressed, confused or hateful? Emotions are the powerful drivers of many divorce decisions. This blog by a lawyer and psychotherapist will help you cope with divorce emotions.

Can You Be Friends with Your Ex?

January 22nd, 2011

            In a divorce, both people feel not only disappointed but betrayed.  One of them sometimes suggests that, although they won’t be married any more, they can be friends.  This effort almost always is doomed to failure. 

Someone at some workshop long ago (I’m sorry I can’t attribute this concept to the individual who shared it) demonstrated why the attempt to be friends so often fails.

Imagine a circle.  Better yet, draw a circle.  The movement in the circle can go ONLY clockwise, so draw an arrow going clockwise inside the circle.  Then, on the upper right, at one o’clock, write BUSINESS RELATIONSHIP.  A business relationship is the beginning of every relationship, in that you don’t know each other and can make no assumptions about each other.  It would be inappropriate, for example, to expect the bank executive you just met to give you a ride home, or to lend you five dollars for your next stop at Starbucks.  Your dealings are contractual, explicit.  If you want a loan, you sign a promissory note.  If you need a ride home, you call a cab.  You have no right to expectations, other than the ones you and your banker agree upon.

 However, if you see this banker frequently, you might indeed eventually suggest meeting for coffee, and one or the other might treat.  Eventually, it might be appropriate to request a lift home.  When these things happen, a business relationship has evolved into FRIENDSHIP. 

Write FRIENDSHIP at about four o’clock on your diagram.  With a friend, you can have greater expectations—both of you—about what you do for each other.  You can assume that your friend will want to meet you for lunch, or will invite you for dinner.  He might even help you move furniture, or paint your house, or keep your dog when you travel.  With some friends, you can assume they’ll come and get you if your car breaks down twenty miles away on the Interstate.  On the other hand, that assumption, and others of that kind, usually relate to the next stage of relationship, INTIMACY.

INTIMACY, or INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP, would be at, say, eight o’clock on your chart.  In an intimate relationship, you can expect that your partner will be there for you in all kinds of ways that a business acquaintance, or even a friend, would not.  Your partner will nurse you when you’re sick, buy you ice cream when you have a craving, share his or her money with you.  You make these assumptions implicitly and you expect that your partner will follow through.

Now, here’s the point.  When an intimate relationship breaks down, there is no going back to friendship.  You can’t back up in the circle.  The only way to regain the trust and confidence you need for a viable friendship is to go around the circle toward establishing a solid business relationship.  And you establish a solid business relationship by making everything explicit.  You make agreements and keep them.  “I’ll pick up the kids from school today.”  “I’ll pay you xxx dollars.”  Whatever the agreements are, the rebuilding of trust depends upon your making clear commitments and following through.

Then, maybe, you can become friends again.

Why Did It Happen?

January 12th, 2011

            How do we know what drove us, or, more gently, brought us, to act the way we do?  For example, I have a client whose wife is blindingly, furiously angry that he wants a separation.  As you might expect, he says he left because she was always angry. 

            We can spend a lot of time arguing about where the cycle started.  She was angry, he couldn’t stand it any longer, he left.  Or he was never fully present, and that made her angry; she was just trying to get his attention.

            Does it help at all to figure out who started it?  It is so easy to see our partner’s part in it, and so difficult to see our own.  We are complicit in our marriages—that is, we are right there, passive or active, angry or withdrawing.  It doesn’t happen without us.  We don’t have to dig to the roots of our childhoods—although that can be healing—to grasp that both people have responsibility for a failed marriage.  Sometimes, we have to think a lot about our partner’s flaws in order to justify our decision to leave, or to soothe ourselves that we haven’t, really, lost so much. 

We keep asking “Why did this happen?”  “What went wrong?”  What could I have done

 differently?”  We can drive ourselves crazy wondering why and trying to find a reason.   But all the time we spend looking backward, life keeps moving forward.  We move on.  We develop new relationships.  Finally, without us quite knowing it or planning it, our new life becomes more important than our old life.  The present and the future crowd out the past.  And we stop looking for a reason why.  Because it no longer matters.

Letting Go

December 28th, 2010

Many years ago, a physician named Elisabeth Kubler Ross described a process that people go through when they’re confronted with death.  She identified denial, anger, bargaining, mourning, and acceptance as the stages of grieving.  People often found it helpful to understand grieving a major loss as a process, not an event, and to realize that different feelings prevailed at different times.

Those working with people in divorce thought similar stages might apply.  “Oh, she’s still in the anger stage.”  “Yes, I think he’s reached acceptance.”

I don’t think the original concept ever suggested that the process involved distinct, carefully bounded stages.  It isn’t as if you can leave the anger stage and never go back.  Most people bounce from one dominant experience to another.  One day you may feel fully accepting, ready to get on with your life, and the next day you may plunge back into the pool of grief and feel you’re drowning again.

Over time—for most people, at least a year and often considerably longer—the primary theme does change, though it rarely changes for both members of a couple at the same time.  Nor is there ever a 100% graduation from grieving.  If you don’t mourn the loss of the spouse, you mourn the loss of the dream.

Gratitude

December 18th, 2010

My good friend, Pat Seaver (Patricia J. Seaver, MSW, LICSW, www.4positivetransitions.com), thought I should offer something more upbeat about coping with divorce, especially during the holidays.  Her comments follow:

“Divorce can take a serious emotional, physical, and psychological toll on you. It is common for people in divorce to focus on anger, resentment, anxiety and other negative emotions. Attempting to counter-balance the deleterious effects of the divorce process can help you move forward and achieve a stronger sense of yourself and your future.

Here is an exercise to help preserve a sense of well-being, optimism and balance.  Becoming aware of what you have and not just what you have lost is very powerful.

You need a notebook and pen beside your bed.

Every night, just prior to going to sleep, record in your notebook three moments in which you felt happy that day. These do not have to be defining or cataclysmic moments. For example: ‘I loved the warmth of the sun on my face as I walked to my office,’ or, ‘My manager at work praised my report,’ or, ‘My roommate from college called and will be in town for dinner together next week,’ or, ‘Today I walked a mile and ate a healthful dinner.’

Research has shown that after as little as two weeks your dreams will become more positive and your mood improved. Continue doing this exercise. Reread your previous notes.  Focusing on what is positive in your daily routine has a healing, empowering effect.”

 

 

First Holiday After Divorce

December 17th, 2010

 

Anna, a former client, told me about the first holiday after her divorce, when her children were with their father.  She and her new boyfriend set off optimistically for Florida, where they expected a happy and romantic holiday.

Instead, they encountered the aftermath of a severe freeze.  It had been so cold that the oranges froze on the trees.  Miles upon miles of orange groves were nothing more than bare skeletons of trees, with the reek of rotten oranges filling their nostrils as they drove.  Anna said she never felt so empty, miserable, and despairing.  

It was not a good holiday.  Sometimes holidays aren’t what we hope for, despite our best planning.  The most we can do when that happens is to get through the days, survive them, and move on.  We call that dealing with reality.  They should give an award for it.

Holiday Dreams vs Holiday Realities

December 15th, 2010

Many people suffer during the holiday season.  They imagine the holiday that is advertised to us in this culture as being available (at least, to everyone else).  We imagine everyone else engaged in happy banter at tables groaning with fabulous food.  No one rolls their eyes when Uncle Burt pours his fourth glass of Scotch.  No one sniffs back tears because Cousin Ralph said her dress was ugly.  No one feels empty inside even when they’ve eaten all they can. 

In the dream holiday, everyone leaves the table smiling.  Everyone helps to clear the table and clean the kitchen.  Still smiling and laughing, everyone gathers around the piano.  Standing close together, they begin to sing Christmas carols. 

The contrast with the reality of our own flawed or fractured families and celebrations is brutal.  Sometimes it’s harder to deal with the loss of a dream than with the loss of a reality.  A dream has a sweetness and a purity about it that makes us want to hold onto it, closely, forever.  Reality is more complex, sometimes painful and sometimes joyful, but a mixed bag at best.

Why Emotions Are Like Golden Retrievers

December 9th, 2010

I have a Golden Retriever at home named Mr. Jones.  It strikes me that emotions are a lot like Golden Retrievers.  They want to be acknowledged, even welcomed.  They want to be recognized and fussed over—they want attention to be paid.  Then they tend to lie down in the corner and go to sleep.  A strong emotion doesn’t last, and if it does, it’s because you’re re-stimulating it by thinking the same thoughts again.  Think about something else and the feeling begins to quiet down.

Disillusionment of Marriage

December 9th, 2010

Names of things matter.  Different names have different connotations.  “Divorce” suggests a severing, a sharp splitting or truncating of a relationship.  Some states call divorce “dissolution of marriage.”  It’s softer, giving an impression of a substance dissolving, or an entity resolving perhaps into separate elements (unless, of course, you think of “dissolute,” which creates an image of an inebriated bum.)

I always preferred the softness of “dissolution of marriage,” but clients sometimes made the terminology their own.  One client wanted a “delusion” of marriage, and I wanted to ask, “Maybe you already had that?”  Another talked about seeking a “disillusionment” of marriage, which seemed painfully apt.

In the mediation world, we talk about “re-structuring your relationship.”  Some of us call ourselves “matrimonial” lawyers, or “family” lawyers, rather than “divorce” lawyers.  We are people who “work in relationship conflict.”

If you need that sharp, clean break, by all means, do what the law does and call it a divorce.  If you want something softer or more hopeful, find the language that seems right.  What do you need to call this experience, in your heart?

What Do You Want?

December 9th, 2010

When I was training as a psychotherapist, there was an exercise my clients sometimes chose to do.  We sat quietly across from each other, me with a pen and pad, and I asked, “What do you want?”  The client would respond. I would write down the answer. And I would ask the question again.  And again.

Sometimes a person’s answers would expand, as I repeated the question.  “I want to feel peaceful inside.”  “I want everyone to feel peaceful inside.”  And sometimes answers would deepen.  “I want to live in a house that’s kept clean and tidy.”  “I want to date someone who’s considerate about time.”  “I want to be around people who respect me.”

Ah.  So it isn’t just about cleanliness or promptness, it’s about respect.

What do you want?  In your divorce, do you want the house?  Is it the house, or is it the neighborhood?  Is it the neighborhood, or is it the school?  Is it the school, or is it the familiarity?  Is it the familiarity, or is it the security of not changing anything else right now?

Go deeper, into what you really want.  There may be only one house but more than one way of getting what you really want.

Acting on Your Feelings (or Not)

December 9th, 2010

Aaron came into my office seeking a divorce because he found out that his wife was having an affair.  She had ended the extramarital relationship but he still had to get the divorce, because his first wife had been unfaithful as well, and he had vowed never to tolerate that kind of betrayal again.

Did Aaron really have to get a divorce?  He seemed to think so, but I thought he was at a choice point.  Of course he could get a divorce, for any reason or no reason, but he didn’t have to.  He could make other choices, like taking her back without reservations, or going to counseling to see whether his behavior had any part in the infidelity of two women he loved.  He couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened, but that didn’t mean he “had to” divorce her.

Sometimes people imagine that if they allow themselves to acknowledge a feeling, or a thought, they have to do something about it.  Not true.  You can let yourself admit that your wife is an alcoholic or that your husband spends all his free time on internet porn sites, without having to act upon your knowledge.  You still have a choice, even when you acknowledge the truth to yourself.  In fact, admitting the truth gives you the freedom to choose.

This belief, that seeing the truth compels action, is at the heart of denial, a process by which we pretend to ourselves that what is true doesn’t really exist.  It is a good defense mechanism and one that can be enormously helpful in dealing with life events that shake our foundation—for a while.  Then, slowly, we begin to wrap our minds around reality, and we begin to adjust our behavior to the truth.  We begin making decisions consciously, instead of unconsciously.

 

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