By now we are all too familiar with the popular movement to “consciously uncouple,” and while it sounds lovely in theory, I used to wonder if these unicorn divorces were just a very clever publicity stunt by Gwyneth Paltrow’s agents. Occasionally, I have crossed paths with someone as unphased by their divorce as one would be by an annoying fruit fly.
When probed, they simply give a shrug, wave their hand, and describe it with the coveted label, “amicable.” So clearly, the idea of a “peaceful divorce” is not just an oxymoron, it is an actual outcome that quite a few couples have in fact achieved.
Tips for a Peaceful Divorce
What are the magic ingredients that separate the garden variety split from its more dramatic counterpart? After working with so many divorcing people, and observing nuances in behavior and thought processes, I have put together a list of components that I think would constitute a peaceful divorce.
If your soon-to-be-ex is highly narcissistic or immature, this will be all the more challenging; however, to the extent you can adopt any of these measures, you may just preserve some sanity and maintain your inner peace.
1. Hash out what you can before engaging professionals
Can any of your negotiations begin around the kitchen table? By setting a baseline of what you see eye-to-eye on before engaging professionals, you establish a level of trust with your spouse. As much as any good lawyer should keep conflict at bay, the legal system is still adversarial in nature and there is a noticeable shift in dynamic the minute you have your own representation.
Of course, you should be comfortable with this approach and call off all unofficial negotiations the minute you feel uncomfortable, uninformed, or coerced. This all comes back to trust and respect, neither of which are abundant during a divorce, but knock off as much low-hanging fruit as you can and reap the rewards of a lower legal bill, less conflict, and more peace later in the process.
2. Explore all types of divorce
Gone are the days when the only option for divorce was litigation. Today alternative dispute resolution such as mediation and collaboration exist specifically to avoid expense, delay, and conflict. Again, if you can get your spouse to the table for a mediated divorce or buy into the team approach of a collaborative divorce, then communication happens between the two of you rather than between attorneys.
Ultimately your attorney must guide you in choosing the best process for your case, and much of this will come down to the complexity of your assets, parenting considerations, and the relationship between you and your spouse. If litigation is the best option, find reassurance in the fact that 95% of cases are settled outside of court, and you can still have a peaceful divorce should you go the traditional route.
3. Keep your eye on the big picture
No matter how prepared you may be for your pending divorce, if there were ever a time to expect the unexpected, it would be now. Divorce is a series of big and small decisions, often with one having a ripple effect on another, or raising minutia you would never have anticipated. To avoid going down a rabbit hole, set a vision for your future, and keep your end goal in mind.
It is up to you and your attorney to decide what you can reasonably let go of, but I caution you that negotiating every detail will cost you time, money, and the destruction of relationships Ask yourself, will this matter in three, five, or ten years’ time? If the answer is affirmative, by all means explore your options; but if not ,your energy and resources may be better spent elsewhere.
4. Exercise flexible thinking
This term is thrown around a lot when discussing relationships, but what does it actually mean and look like? Well, it means being open-minded and not labeling issues as right or wrong, and black or white. It means not just seeing a situation from your perspective, or even from your soon-to-be-ex’s perspective, but seeing it from multiple perspectives. I do a helpful perceptual positioning activity with clients in which we observe a particularly difficult situation from four different perspectives/positions, thereby softening rigid thinking.
True flexible thinking in divorce is where the magic really starts to happen – for you and your spouse. Would you rather be working with a fixed mindset that keeps you constrained to one outcome, or one that allows you to be open to many? I think we can all agree that the latter is more conducive to a peaceful divorce.
5. Allow this relationship to end before starting a new one
It is understandable that after living in a frigid situation for so long you may be chomping at the bit to get out there and see if you still have the goods. Here is the problem with this: no matter how manageable the fire is, you are throwing gasoline on it at best; at worst, you are blowing up something by bringing anyone else into an already smoldering situation. “Hell has no fury like a woman – or man if the case may be – scorned,” is not just a popular figure of speech it is an actual description of what your divorce may look like – hell.
Unless you have, quite literally, spelled out in black-and-white that you are dating, or have been separated for years, the level of suspicion and distrust that this introduces will compromise your divorce and obliterate your co-parenting relationship for years to come.
Take a breath, allow this relationship to end before you can fully give yourself to another, and always remember the Golden Rule; or be prepared for a hurt, vengeful soon-to-be ex with fresh accusations of infidelity, and watch as forensic accountants prowl your joint accounts to see what your little dalliance has cost the marital estate.
6. Avoid the blame game
Pointing fingers at your significant other when your marriage ends will only serve you if you take note of the three fingers pointing back at you. At the point that your marriage is over, spending time arguing over who is to blame is not only a moot point, but also overlooks the only truth – which is that you are both to blame.
While I understand that it is human nature to look outside of yourself, it may be helpful to think of it the following way: When you are in a relationship with someone, there are actually three entities: you, your partner, and the unique dynamic the two of you create (i.e. the relationship). It is the relationship that failed you, not each other, so if the goal is to remain peaceful, try to shift any blame toward the psychic energy the two of you created, rather than the individual himself/herself, and certainly rather than yourself.
7. Accept you will not get everything you want
Think you will get everything you want in your divorce? Think again. While it may be one hard pill to swallow, a successful negotiation will not end with you getting everything on your list, but it should end with you getting what is most important to you. As you prepare for divorce, it is critical to list out your priorities into ranges: what are your essentials and where are you willing to bend?
Remember that your priorities will change as you move on and your children grow, so what may seem unimaginable to you right now could evolve over time into something acceptable. Think clearly about the amount of time, money, and effort spent in fighting issues that may not hold much weight in a few years’ time. With any luck, you and your spouse will reach a point in which there is some overlap in what is acceptable to each of you in terms of a settlement. If a peaceful divorce is the end goal, this would be a great point to wave the white flag.
8. Find common ground in something you both love
For most couples, this is obviously their children, but it could be a pet or an elderly relative. The shared love for your children or loved ones should be your default when things start to spiral. At the very least, when you agree on nothing, you can agree that you (hopefully) love your children more than you despise each other.
Keeping your children in the center, rather than in the middle, of your divorce, also helps a couple prioritize the children’s needs thereby keeping the focus on the greater good of the family rather than themselves. I naturally felt more peaceful and at ease during my divorce when I knew my children’s needs were being met and that we were doing all we could to preserve their innocence and their childhood.
9. Take care of yourself
Taking care of yourself during tumultuous times is not selfish; doing so means that you can fill your tank, think clearly, and be present for those that need you most. This means getting enough sleep and exercise, as well as eating a nutrient-rich diet high in unrefined foods. The field of nutritional psychiatry has demonstrated that there are correlations between what you eat, how you feel, and ultimately how you behave.
Whether it is something as simple as the food you put in your mouth or perhaps more elaborate like a new meditation or yoga practice, anything to calm your nervous system will drive behaviors that are more conducive to peace. The same applies to getting substantial, restorative sleep which strengthens learning, helps the brain form new connections, and improves creativity. A creative solution to a sticking point may be just what you need to prevent your divorce from tipping from peaceful to contentious.
10. Choose your support system wisely
Finally, be very discerning in who you surround yourself with. Family and friends, while well-meaning, may often poke the bear in their attempt to be protective and defensive of you during your divorce. Perhaps they never liked the way your soon-to-be-ex spoke to you, or maybe they felt you two were mismatched from day one.
Certainly, you want them by your side, but they should be a calming and supportive presence, not another member of the chorus trying to satisfy their own personal vendetta against your spouse. This is why a coach or therapist specializing in divorce is such a worthwhile investment in their capacity to act as a nonjudgmental thought partner with expertise in your exact situation.
A small investment up front can save you real money in legal fees as a coach works to keep conflict to a minimum and emotions in check. For this very reason, divorce coaching has been recognized by the American Bar Association as a form of alternative dispute resolution and, by definition, is a means to a healthier mindset and more peaceful divorce.
Is a peaceful divorce possible? I am a firm believer that when it comes to divorce and co-parenting, while you may only be as strong as your weakest link, every bit of effort counts. It would be completely unrealistic to think that a belligerent spouse is not capable of significant damage – they most certainly are. It is important to manage expectations: if your spouse is highly narcissistic it is a safe bet that you will unlikely all be going on holiday together anytime soon.
Focusing on what you can control, and choosing the high road if at all possible, may not guarantee a perfect “conscious uncoupling” but it certainly increases your odds of a more peaceful divorce and more favorable outcome as you work toward restructuring your family.
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