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How to Get Divorced Like an Adult

Here's how to change course when your split starts to turn ugly.

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Divorce can be a literal minefield, with emotional explosions that causes grave injuries and lasting scars. And the language of divorce is often the language of war, too: battles, winners and losers, a “broken home,” destruction, conflict, and failure. But the so-called enemy is the person you once loved and with whom you perhaps have children, who are at risk of being caught in the crossfire. In collaborative divorce, you and your partner work toward a solution together, minimizing harm to everyone. Here’s how you can prevent the war damage and move off the battleground and into the peace room.

There are tactics to help you move from seeking “victory” in the war room (or the court room) to a truce at the negotiating table and a peaceful ending of the conflict.  It starts with learning about how things can go wrong, and developing new skills to avoid the escalations. The following strategies will help you avoid the explosions that can derail your divorce process, increase your costs, and damage your children.

Step 1: Look at the History of your Marriage

The history of your marriage can help you predict where things could go badly in a divorce.  How did you and your spouse handle conflict or make decisions in the past? Did you have arguments that became hostile, demeaning, or fights that led to impasse?  Did you or your spouse withdraw? Did you feel you had to surrender without being heard? Did you quarrel most often about money, the children, parenting, or something else? These same issues will likely be the potential mines in your divorce negotiations. As someone once said, “A divorce is like a marriage, only more so.” This history will help you anticipate the difficult territory that you will be traversing, topics that could trigger you or your spouse, and how you or your spouse might behave when triggered.  Learning new ways to communicate, negotiate, problem-solve, compromise, and resolve the inevitable difficult decisions that lie ahead will be well rewarded in time, money, and a future cooperative relationship. This is especially important if you have children.

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Step 2: Be Alert to Warning Signs

In a minefield there may be clear signs of danger or more subtle indications of disturbances. Pay attention to what your spouse is saying and watch his or her body language and tone. Listen carefully to track what your spouse is saying. You might ask questions rather than make assumptions. Monitor your own tone of voice and body language. Couples often speak in a “code” that outsiders are unaware of, and as a result you will probably sense that you are in or near unsafe territory before anyone else notices it.  One client told me that she would know that her husband was steaming mad when he looked down, refused eye contact, and clenched his jaw. Asked how one would know that she might erupt, she said she would just stop talking and shut down.

Step 3: If Triggered, Just Stop

If the explosion is imminent or has already started, “hit the deck.” Don’t engage, and don’t return fire. A hasty response will probably add fuel to the fire and increase the toxicity of the interaction. Breathe deeply for a few minutes, and think carefully about your next step. Contain your impulse to react, and move forward slowly and thoughtfully.  If you are facing your spouse at a mediation or settlement conference and sense that either of you is getting extremely agitated, take three deep breaths. Breathe deeply into your belly. Get a drink of water. Take a short walk outside. Check your pulse and don’t start the discussions again until your pulse has slowed. Arguing is not only pointless and unhealthy, it is also expensive.

Step 4: Get Help and Support

Let your coach, therapist, attorney or mediator know that you sense danger.  If either of you is escalating, disengage and ask for help or guidance. Talk with your attorney, therapist, or other helper about what triggered you, and what you would like your spouse to understand. If you realize that your spouse has been triggered, try to understand what triggered her.  If you feel it is warranted, offer an apology or recognition of where you may have said something hurtful. Let your helpers know when you are discussing an emotional and problematic issue, and talk through the various options with people you trust. Get the help, support and information you need to stay in a safe zone.  

Step 5: Don’t Take the Bait

Don’t take the bait tossed out by your spouse, and monitor yourself if you are tempted to toss out your own bait. If necessary, backtrack or call a break, and regroup so as to navigate safely through the most sensitive or explosive issues.  You may need to end and reschedule the discussion or meeting in order to consult with your helpers, calm down, and access your supporters. One client brought a friend to a difficult meeting so that he could help the husband stay calm. He was also able to help the husband interpret what was being discussed without the emotions interfering with his ability to take in the information.

Your Divorce Doesn’t Need to be a War

If you really want what is best for the children and for yourself, consider leaving the minefield. Find a way to develop a support system that doesn’t encourage anger and retribution. Use your team to help you make appropriate decisions. And look for ways to achieve your goals without the need to hurt the other person. 

Divorce can be a problem-solving restructuring of your family that will allow you and your soon-to-be ex to heal and move on. It lays the foundation for a healthy co-parenting relationship post-divorce. Shifting from a war model to a truce and peace agreement starts by changing the words we use to talk about divorce. We can talk about sharing time with the children (“custody” is for prisoners, not children), or developing a peace treaty (a parenting plan), and negotiating to a resolution that is a win-win for the entire family through mediation or collaborative divorce.

Ann Buscho, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in California who specializes in issues related to divorce, parenting, parenting planning, and co-parenting counseling. She has divorced, remarried, and raised six children, and is passionate about helping parents divorce respectfully so that the family can heal and thrive. She is currently writing a book about nesting.