As a team, the primary tasks of the divorcing couple are to resolve shared problems involving custody and parenting, child support and alimony, marital property, and other practical matters. As individuals, each member of the divorcing couple has a responsibility to build a separate identity as a non-married person.
The Collaborative Model
In traditional litigation-based models of family law, the emotional turmoil couples experience during the separation process is frequently exacerbated by the adversarial nature of the court process. This exacerbation increases the distress and mistrust between the separating couple, breaks down their ability to communicate effectively with one another, and destroys any residual trust the couple may have had. Consequently, it becomes more difficult for the parties to resolve issues. The collaborative model provides divorcing couples with the support and guidance needed to move through the process in a more amicable manner.
While the collaborative process centers on a discovery of personal needs and interests, and how these can be met by each spouse, it is important to remember that conflict is inevitable for nearly all divorcing couples. Indeed, people who are seeking a divorce are experiencing higher than normal levels of conflict. Each spouse has their own version of the breakup and selectively glosses over and highlights those aspects which reinforce their perspective. The collaborative practice gives spouses the help they need to build a story that both can accept, allowing for a smoother resolution and easier transition to single life.
The Psychological Stages of Divorce
It is never easy to end a marriage, and everyone who goes through a divorce will experience an emotional transition. Often, the emotional upheaval of separation and divorce is the primary catalyst leading to a long, drawn-out legal process.
While it may appear that the erratic and emotional behavior occurring during the divorce process is random in nature, many psychologists theorize that there are specific and predictable stages that occur during the divorce process. The combined stages generally take an average of three years to complete and may occur in a specific order or may, in some cases, overlap. Spouses are often at different stages as they progress through the divorce process. The following stages may vary if the divorce is mutual.
Stage 1: Shock and Blame. The individual who initiates the divorce blames the spouse for all of the problems in his or her life. The initiator generally experiences the first stage of divorce while still living with the spouse. Initiators are frequently unhappy for some time and need relief from the stressful marriage. Although there is often a measure of relief, they may also experience guilt, fear, anger, and depression in response to the decision to divorce. The non-initiator, on the other hand, begins the first stage after learning of the spouse’s intent to divorce or after the couple has physically separated. It is at this point that they may develop a negative self-image, appear sad much of the time, become depressed, and experience a profound sense of being shell-shocked. Tending to the children’s needs at this time is very difficult.
Stage 2: Mourning the Loss. This stage is about acknowledging the end of therelationship. It is a time when grief can feel overwhelming. People often become self-pitying as, in their eyes, the future appears hopeless and meaningless. Individuals are intensely preoccupied with their own feelings and unable to concentrate on the real world. The identity and role of spouse is lost, and with that loss comes a feeling of grief no less intense than grieving the actual death of a partner. Often, spouses experience fear that they will never recover and the grief will never end. Diminished parenting may continue. Some parents may hold onto a child in an attempt to recapture the separated spouse. Others may behave in a rejecting manner to their child because of perceived similarities between the child and the spouse.
Stage 3: Anger. Though anger is experienced at almost every stage of the divorce transition, it is now the dominant trait. More often than not, the anger, which may have righteous quality to it, is most often directed toward the spouse. “No fault” divorce does not seem to alleviate the need to blame the other party as the one responsible for the dissolution. The need to perceive one spouse as the “bad” individual and the other as the “wronged” spouse continues. Interestingly, during this time the individual’s energy levels often increase and function to propel the process forward.
Stage 5: Re-entry. A new level of stability is now achieved. Individuals regain the feeling of control over their own lives. Long-term plans and commitments can now be made.
The Development of Independence
Readiness to live life without one’s partner requires more than a geographical separation. Achieving psychological independence from the marriage and the former spouse is a critical task for the newly divorced. Individuals must prove to themselves that they are a person who can survive physically and emotionally as a single person instead of as part of a couple. That means validating the fact that one is a person of value and worth in one’s own right, not only as part of a couple. Divorce is much more than the legal piece of paper. It is predominately a psychological process of self-renewal.
In a marriage, couples have shared the deepest part of themselves with each other, traversed the joy and adversities of life together, and loved one another before the love died. It should come as no surprise that ending this set of experiences can be temporarily destabilizing. Often, people only discover the enormous extent to which marriage has defined their personal identity when they are confronted with being on their own.
As a no-longer or soon-to-be unmarried person, the time has come to grow up and take responsibility for one’s life. It means confronting one’s dependencies and fears. The newly divorced must give up blaming the former spouse for their lot in life. It takes enormous courage to admit that what was wrong with the marriage was, at least in part, also wrong with themselves.
When they were a married couple, there was a kind of fusion that took place in the relationship, i.e. the model of “togetherness”, that together the two will be whole, prevailed. The focus was on the “we”. However, from the perspective of the newly divorced or divorcing, the fusion model is no longer applicable. It must be replaced with a model that requires each person to take on responsibility for their own well being. One plus one no longer equals one (“we”). It equals three — two separate beings (“I”) whose relationship forms a third entity, requiring them to stretch beyond themselves for the sake of redefining their post-divorce partnership.
The Need for a Constructive Mode of Resolving Conflict and Developing Independence
Constructive modes of resolving conflict are thus necessary to assist the couple to think of their relationship in new ways, to feel differently about each other, and to act differently toward one another without jeopardizing their own sense of identity.
The act of balancing one’s obligations to one’s spouse as well as and the obligations to oneself during a Collaborative Divorce process is admittedly difficult. Being stranded between the worlds of togetherness and separateness, sometimes acting as friends and sometimes strangers, brings nothing but confusion to the individuals involved.
Divorcing couples face competing needs to simultaneously establish themselves as independent of each other and work collaboratively, as a team, throughout the divorce process. They must work through strong feelings of anger, frustration, and fear, all of which will inevitably result in interpersonal conflict. If not managed properly, the couple’s capacity to work cooperatively towards post-divorce resolutions for themselves and their children will be diminished.
Each spouse leaves the marriage with his or her own version of what went wrong. Sins of omission — failure to communicate, failure to contribute one’s share, failure to be affectionate and supportive — are catalogued and hurled in the other’s direction. Divorcing couples attack each other mercilessly, deny their own responsibility for the failure of the marriage, heap blame on the other, and then use all their ammunition to argue that the “guilty” party must assume a disproportionate share of the burden.
To the individual, these emotions are very real and therefore must be acknowledged. They cannot be dismissed. Nor, however, can they be mismanaged. If they are negated or not appropriately addressed, the collaborative process will fail.
When people feel unfairly judged or falsely blamed, their own identity and self-esteem are challenged. They feel victimized and shift their focus to saving face and refusing to accept blame. Communication then shifts away from the actual issues in conflict to the secondary issue of how others will see them in this process. They need to be seen, both to themselves and the world, as a certain kind of person. (“It wasn’t me who was not a loving partner. I treated you well. It was you who withdrew affection.”)
Saving face is very closely linked to defensiveness. Defensiveness is simply a way of protecting one’s self-image from those who are challenging that image. Simply put, defensiveness is behavior to protect oneself from a perceived threat or attack. When one spouse makes a judgmental statement towards the other, it will threaten their spouse’s self-perception. If the two perceptions are incongruent, the defensive person may be inclined to justify, deny or attack.
When spouses become defensive, they often will respond in one of two unproductive ways: passively, by shutting down or withdrawing, or aggressively, by verbally attacking, judging, or blaming their spouse. From a communication perspective, defensiveness results from how people talk to each other. Those on the defensive often feel confused and profoundly misunderstood. They cannot empathize with or understand another point of view that differs from theirs and are often unwilling to take in new information.
Defensive behavior from either party hampers communication, preventing productive dialogue and better understanding from taking place. These behaviors need to be addressed so that communication can be refocused.
Constructive Modes of Resolving Conflict
By shifting communication to a more constructive mode, greater understanding and successful conflict resolution are more likely to occur.
The following list describes some intervention strategies that a collaborative professional may use to address defensiveness so that understanding and productive communication between the couple can be restored:
- Help each person to acknowledge or empathize with the defensive spouse’s point of view with the intention of helping them feel heard.
- Refocus the discussion to a less conflicted topic.
- Point out the defensive behavior as soon as it happens.
- Balance the power between the spouses.
- Describe the process as the professional sees behaviors happen.
- Probe to clarify what motivates the defensiveness.
- Help the couple to recognize and understand their own emotions as well as their spouses’.
- Encourage the couple to talk about their feelings so they can be dealt with directly.
- Remind the couple that all feelings should be expressed in a non-confrontational way.
- Help each person to acknowledge the other’s feelings as legitimate. Although they may feel differently about a situation, both sets of feelings are real. Denying either spouse’s feelings is likely to intensify those feelings. Encouraging feelings to be expressed allows the couple to return to the substantive issues in dispute so that they can be resolved.
The collaborative model requires that the divorcing spouses work towards a resolution that meets both sets of needs. It means reframing their relationship so that despite the conflicts that may exist between them, they function as mutually respectful working partners, not adversaries.
In order for this to occur, the divorcing individuals must acknowledge the paradox that calls for them to be unified in a new partnership while simultaneously moving forward toward a greater separateness between them. Each needs to take responsibility for his or her own well being while still being responsive to the other. Developing an ability to assert their own feelings and needs while maintaining a genuine caring for their soon-to-be former spouse is a difficult challenge, but one that must be met.
For the collaborative model to work effectively, individuals must replace the need for confirmation from a spouse with the ability to accept differences. Where there was once sameness, now there is otherness — a difficult adjustment for most people to make. The successful divorcing couple will develop the ability to take responsibility for themselves and the courage to validate the reality of the other.
When conflict and defensiveness arise between the couple and interfere with collaborative functioning, various interventions can be used to help the couple learn to more directly assert themselves and clear the way for caring attention to the other. The collaborative professional will guide couples through the process and help them learn to assert themselves individually while still maintaining a caring attention to the other.
Dr. Deborah Hecker welcomes calls from both divorce lawyers and clients for assistance during the divorce and post-divorce processes.