Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Myth of The Friendly Divorce

Many people who are going through a divorce try hard to be amiable and friendly, even though they are hurting or angry inside. I have seen this phenomenon many times in the 10 years that I have been teaching a divorce recovery class. Considering that divorce is a loss for you and your children, why would anyone want to put on a friendly face when they are facing such a loss ?

This if the conclusion I have come to: when we keep things friendly and "nice", we can avoid our true feelings of sadness, anger, pain or guilt. Mind you, I am not saying that there has to be open conflict in order to successfully navigate a divorce. Nor am I saying that two individuals going through this process can't be civil and respectful of one another.

Let's look at this from a broader perspective. Divorce is a loss. Loss involves a grief process. When we don't complete it, we set ourselves up for problems in some way. Let's explore what sort of problems can ocurr by first examining the grief process .

I. Shock
This is the first stage.It is characterized by a sense of numbness and disbelief..We don't feel pain, anger or sadness.

II. Denial
In this stage we find ways to rationalize and minimize the difficulty of the situation. We are not aware of our feelings. We may do something to mask or medicate our feelings. Some people do this by working longer hours, or getting involved in "busy" projects at home. Some get involved in rebound relationships. And in worst case scenarios, some may turn to alcohol or drugs.

III. Sadness
In the sadness phase we are fully in touch with the pain, and we may even experience some depression. If you are experienceing depression you will likely feel a loss of interest in things you are normally enthusiastic about. You may spend more time alone than usual, and lose interest in socializing or connecting with friends and family.

IV. Anger
During the anger stage we may blame ourselves or our former spouse for things we did or didn't do that contributed to the divorce.Anger is expressed as hostility, irritability, verbal aggression, and feelings of revenge. Many people get stuck in the anger stage more than any other phase of the grief process. Getting stuck in anger can keep us from completing the grief process.

VI. Anxiety, Guilt
Anxiety is worry. Worry stems from fear. People in this stage may be afraid that they can't manage the new financial responsibilities of divorce, such as child support or managing a budget on less income. In this stage we may feel guilty for leaving our spouse, or guilty about the breakup of the family. We may feel guilty because our children don't have daily contact with the other parent if we are the custodial parent. Guilt can make us overly accomodating when we need to be focusing on our own interests. It may also compromise our ability to set limits for our children.

VII. Acceptance
When divorcing people reach the acceptance stage of the grief process, they no longer experience the pain, anger, sadness or guilt. They are emotionally neutral. This is a good analogy: when we can be in the same place at the same time as our former spouse spouse and experience an absence of these feelings, we have reached the acceptance phase.

There is one very important thing to remember about the grief process:
We can go through all of these feelings in an hour, a day or a week. This is not a linear process. We can go from sadness to denial, anger to sadness, sadness to anger, or acceptance to anger. Since people are all individuals, there are no firm rules written on a stone tablet, stored high in the Himalayas about how we experience the grief process.

Strategies For Dealing With or Avoiding Conflict
If we are still in the mode of superficial niceness in a divorce situation, we will not deal effectively with conflict, and there may be times when conflict is unavoidable during or after divorce. If it happens we need to be prepared with good coping skills. I will share some of the strategies I have taught in my classes.

The most important thing we can do in dealing with conflict is fighting fair. This means that we don't yell, use obscenities or deragatory language when dealing with our former spouse. We make an effort to be polite and respectful.

If we find ourselves too angry to do this, the next best thing is to detach from the situation. This means that we don't continue to argue, or continue to listen to the other person arguing. We simply say "I'll talk to you later about this" and walk away. Another strategy is to set a definite date and time to talk about the issue. We can talk by phone or by email. If there has been a history of conflict or disagreement, email is the best tool to use. When using email we are not exposed to facial expressions or tone of voice. This has the best potential for remaining objective in communication.

The following is a few suggestions to use in situations involving visitation with children.
If conflict arises in regard to visitation with our children, the best tool to use is to refer back to the schedule that we set up for parental visitation at the time of separation. Send your former spouse a copy of the visitation schedule with a note indicating when your last visitation was and what date the next one will be. This can be done by postal mail or email. Follow up with a phone call in which you say, I would like to pick up the kids on this date at this time, as a reminder of what the normal visitation schedule is.This approach can also be used if you need to make unplanned changes to the schedule. If all else fails, talking to an attorney about enforcing the visitation schedule would be a last resort. This can often be done in one visit.

The "friendly divorce", when two people are superficial rather than honest and real, can be very damaging to children. They will be confused and ultimately, angry. They know well that their parents are no longer together as a couple. If parents try to always be amiable and friendly when they are angry, sad or hurting, children will pick up on it right away. Their adjustment to the divorce can be compromised and they will suffer from it with a lack of trust and fear of closeness in their own adult relationships.

Lastly, a vital component in avoiding the myth of the "friendly divorce" is effective co-parenting. Co-parenting is effectively accomplished by using the same behavioral strategies mentioned : treating your former spouse with respect and politeness, another term for which is co-parenting.

The best approach to co-parenting involves being businesslike with your former spouse regarding the children. Consider this: when you are dealing with a client at work that you dislike or have issues with, you pull in your personal feelings and relate to that person in an appropritate way for the workplace.

This may sound cold, but this approach can be effective with co-parenting. Think of your former spouse as a business partner with whom you share your most important asset - your children. If you maintain this focus, your children will benefit the most. If they see adults working out difficulties, treating each other with respect, they will be able to bounce back from divorce without adverse affects.

If you are able to apply these suggestions and techniques to your divorce, you and your children will adjust in a healthy manner, paving the way for an emotionally successful future in which you and they will be better able to have fulfilling opposite sex relationships.