Breaking Up with Style
Keep Emotions in Check and Remain Amicable During the Divorce
Two nights a week during baseball season, you’ll find Angie Milhous watching her son’s game with her current husband, her ex-husband and her ex-husband’s wife. My husband and I have both had successful divorce experiences. It’s kind of unusual,” said Milhous, who has a masters degree in nursing and family therapy. Her son and her ex-husband’s stepson are on the same baseball team and attend the same school. The foursome is together regularly, so they have had to find a way to make it work for the sake of the children.
Divorce does not have to be an angry, vindictive experience. There are ways to negotiate the process while remaining dignified and amicable.Milhous attributes her harmonious divorce to the fact that she was vigilant about the steps of the grieving process that both spouses had to experience as they passed through to the end of their marriage: shock or disbelief, denial, anger, bargaining, guilt, depression and acceptance.
Milhous said that often, the person who initiates the divorce is far ahead in the grieving process “ as much as 12 months ahead. That was the case for her. She knew about a year before she asked for a divorce, that her marriage would end. So I had time to grieve, albeit in private,” Milhous said.
She took that time to prepare for the divorce that lay ahead. She got her finances in order, she got her emotions ready. When I told him this was it, he of course, had to start the grieving process right then,” Milhous said.Once he moved through his shock and denial, the anger kicked in. And that’s when Milhous’s real work began.
ANGER MAKES DIVORCE MORE PAINFUL
I think anger is the point when the divorce process falls apart,” Milhous said.She said she knew that to try to keep her divorce amicable, she had to try not to give in to the anger her husband was experiencing. She did everything she could not to respond to his anger, not to escalate it. I just stayed quiet, and I understood that was the part of the grieving process he was in,” Milhous said. It wasn’t pretty, but I just waited.”
She and her husband were in negotiations with their attorneys at that point. She had to warn her attorney to try not to make the situation worse. She said she told her attorney, Just sit tight. He’s in the anger phase, and we’ll just get through it.”
It was painful to sit by and let her husband spew his frustrations at her, she said. But she knew that eventually, it would blow over, and they could move on toward accepting that the divorce was going to proceed.Milhous said she believes that egos get in the way of dignified divorce because, by letting an ego be the guide, one is likely to focus more on taking a defensive stance in the process. It takes a very strong, patient person to sit back and wait it out,” Milhous said.
LEARN ABOUT THE PROCESS
It takes not only strength but self control. Deborah Moskovitch, who recently published the book Smart Divorce: Proven Strategies and Valuable Advice from 100 Top Divorce Lawyers, Financial Advisers, Counselors and Other Experts,” said she weathered a difficult divorce process and came through with several lessons learned. The first of which was that she was responsible for her own behavior. You can’t control what is happening to your soon-to-be former spouse,” Moskovitch said. You can only control yourself.”
She said one of the deepest pitfalls into which people descend is letting their emotions guide their decision-making behavior. Moskovitch said that she saw herself becoming overly emotional and making faulty decisions. When she realized it, she said, she focused her efforts on making informed choices about financial and ethical issues. There are so many things that I felt needed to be taken care of through the legal issues, and it doesn’t work that way,” Moskovitch said.
In finding her way through her divorce, she found her way to a new career, Moskovitch said. Now she shares the lessons she learned with others. Primary in her advice is that those going through the divorce process educate themselves about as many facets as possible. Learn about the financial situation one is leaving, and the financial situation one is entering. She recommends that they learn as much as possible about attorneys in the area, and then choose the most reputable one. The extra time people spend learning about the issues before them and making informed decisions, the better off they will be post-divorce, Moskovitch said.
The major obstacle in many divorces is the fact that people base their decisions on their emotions, she said. They are based on revenge, based on anger, based on whatever kaleidoscope of emotions,” Moskovitch said. And when you do that, you get legal bills.”
Those going through divorce need to work hard to stay focused on educating themselves about the process and removing emotions from the equation, she said. She said that no one should ignore their emotions, but they should deal with them independently and appropriately without dragging them through the attorney’s office. You need to separate the emotional part from the legal process.”
She said that in her work as an author and lecturer, she sees many people bitter and angry about the decisions they made about their divorces. Years pass, and they can’t move on from their resentment and fury. She said that it took her a nasty divorce process to understand that removing the negative emotions and focusing on the information at the core of the decisions would help her become satisfied with the outcome of her own experience When I closed my file,” Moskovitch said. I felt really good about my life.”
DIVORCE IS A LONG JOURNEY
Healing from the end of a marriage takes time, said Elinor Robin, Ph.D, of Boca Raton. Robin is a mediator with a Ph.D. in psychology with a specialization in conflict management. She said the journey toward healing takes more time and effort than even sometimes she expects. Over and over again it hits me how difficult the transition is. It really does knock people for a loop,” Robin said. Divorce is the major transition of adulthood. Divorce hits people at every single aspect of their lives.”
They need to heal emotionally, spiritually, sexually, financially, mentally. Robin said her clients have t be completely ready to embark on the process of dissolving their marriages if they want to be successful in it, she said. They have to be prepared to shift their identities from part of a pair to a singleton. They need to find comfort in their new roles.
A key to finding their way amicably is to learn to speak to each other without contempt. When spouses feel dismissed, discounted or disenfranchised, Robin said, they will express that in the way they treat their soon-to-be ex-partner. Robin said she encourages her clients to find a way to heal those feelings so they can move through the ends of their marriages in a more positive way. We can’t go from an angry situation to harmony just by snapping our fingers,” Robin said. To get to a place where a family lives in harmony is a process. We have to, I believe, define the emotions so they understand, in part, what is driving them”
REMOVING EMOTIONS FROM LEGAL CHOICES
The legal process is not a place for emotional decision-making, according to one attorney. Alan Kopit, the legal editor of
Lawyers.com, said the two main difficulties he sees in the divorce process are children and money. He said decisions about caring for the children reach a boiling point when one spouse does not believe the other is capable of properly caring for the children and works tirelessly to keep that person out of their children’s lives.
Kopit, who is a is a partner at Hahn Loeser & Parks LLP in Cleveland, Ohio, said the first priority of divorcing couples should be fairness regarding the children involved. You don’t want to hold hostage the child issues as leverage on monetary or property issues. I always find that to be a bit offensive,” Kopit said. There’s a classier way to go about your divorce.”
Even if terrible things, such as infidelity, happened in the marriage, remembering how the divorce will affect the children will make recovering from the divorce easier in the long run, Kopit said. Thinking ahead to how one wants the divorce to play out in the end will help maintain some civility in the process, he said.The second snag in the progression of divorce: Money. It’s very simple,” Kopit said. The spousal support issues are very difficult and very different in each state. And child support issues — how much is going to be paid in child support.”
That frustration and difficulty can be alleviated early by entering into a prenuptial agreement, Kopit said. He said he is seeing more and more clients signing the agreements because they want to alleviate some of the negative feelings if the marriage fails. Prenups take the emotion, stress, the expense out of the process,” Kopit said. And when you do that, the process becomes more amicable.”
There is no way to take all of the stress out of a divorce, but there are ways to minimize it. Although the divorce process is extremely personal, Kopit said, his clients are always well-served when they make informed decisions without becoming overly emotional. Everybody’s been scarred by the divorce. You have to accept that. It’s a given. Keep it as businesslike as possible,” Kopit said. The more emotion that gets into the process, the less rational the process will be.”
Michele Bush Kimball has a Ph.D. in mass communication with a specialization in media law.She has spent almost 15 years in the field of journalism, and she teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. She recently won a national research award for her work.
TIPS TO REMAIN AMICABLE
- Understand the grieving process.Know what emotions will emerge so you are ready to deal with them. If you are the one initiating the divorce, try to be patient with your spouse. Accept your spouse, faults and all. He or she will not change.
Remind yourself that it will damage your children if you start a war with your spouse.
- Take your ego out of the equation.
- Find a therapist if you feel that your emotions are out of control.
- Try to learn to speak with your spouse without contempt.
- Frame the process as a business transaction by keeping emotions out of negotiations.
- Educate yourself about the divorce process so that you are completely capable of making rational decisions.
- Be realistic about your settlement needs.
- Be as financially informed about yourself and your spouse as possible.
- Don’t denigrate your spouse to your children.
- Make the needs of your children your number one priority.
- Know what trips your spouse’s anger trigger and avoid it.
- Don’t be the one responsible for escalating the anger and negativity.