The divorce process can increase your distress ... or launch better days.
1. Find a non-blaming understanding of what happened to your marriage.
Divorce almost always raises negative emotions like anger, resentment, disappointment, shame, guilt, and anxiety. Painful feelings like these can tempt folks to dump blame on the other and to resort to punishment. Yet blame and impulses to punish or get revenge back will not heal anyone. They just add to everyone’s emotional damage.
The alternative to going to war begins with building an honest understanding of what each of you did that led to your divorce. Aim to find an understanding that is descriptive rather than judgmental. To accomplish the goal of understanding together what went wrong in the marriage, use your very best cooperative talking-together skills. Talk quietly. Explain your concerns. Listen to your partner to learn rather than to argue or dismiss your partner's perspective as wrong.
Before completing this discussion it can be helpful to look for areas of potential pathways other than divorce that could be responsive to both of your concerns. If at least one of you would prefer to see if the marriage can be saved, consider agreeing to a finite period of time during which you will both attempt to mend the marital schism by seeking professional help with therapy or a marriage education course. If the final outcome is still a decision by at least one of you to end the marriage, pick up your dignity and move on with your life.
2. Discover your own mistakes and how to rectify them.
Mistakes are for learning. Instead of waiting until after the divorce to learn what the rupture of your marriage can teach you, start immediately after one of you has first said the d-word. Look at all the ways in which you have been a less-than cooperative, considerate and loving partner. Look at what you could have done instead of either holding back from discussing what was troubling you in the marriage or bludgeoning your spouse with angry criticisms.
Notice also to what extent you paid serious attention to your spouse's concerns. How well did you listen when your spouse expressed distress? To what extent did you focus your attention on yourself only? Or allow yourself to focus on others outside of the marriage? Mistakes are for learning. Focusing on the mistakes you've made and how to prevent repeating them makes you a winner no matter what the outcome of the marriage disengagement process.
3. Learn skills for collaborative dialogue and shared decision-making.
Most divorcing couples handle the divorce with the same mistaken strategies that ruined their marriage. Learn and use the skills that were missing in your marriage relationship if you want the divorce settlement process to stay cooperative.
4. In the settlement agreement, aim for somewhere between fairness and generosity.
Aiming to get more than your fair share can be tempting, especially if you feel you have been wronged or if you have a spouse who tends to be overly generous. As my mother used to say, two wrongs don't make a right. At the same time, excessive altruism sets up for resentments down the line. I have seen with divorcing couples time and time again that agreements based on selfishness, stinginess, or overly generous settlements tend to come back to bite you both.
5. Choose legal advisors with a proven track record in mediated settlements.
The adversarial court system results in everyone losing except the lawyers. Check if your legal advisor has a history of successfully helping clients to negotiate a mutually fair settlement.
6. Find a trusted person with whom you can talk through your feelings of hurt, shame and guilt, anger, sadness and fear.
Painful feelings about a failed marriage are inevitable. Talking them through with a trusted person can help you to move through and beyond them, much like talking through feelings of grief after a loved one's death can help you cross the river of feelings and emerge safely on the other side. If you do not talk them through to a state of calm, you will be at risk for "acting out" the feelings through self-defeating hostile actions like drawing out the settlement process or making it needlessly warlike in an attempt to get even.
7. Treat divorce as a gradual process, not a one-time action.
Divorce is like a large, round and bitter pie with many slices that need to be digested.With regard to the order of which pieces to digest first, before you forge a legal settlement agreement it's generally better first to have divorced emotionally. Once you have accepted that the marriage is over, learned from your mistakes, and reached a point of willingness to let your spouse go his/her own way, it will be far easier to negotiate the divorce settlement in a collaborative way. The legal piece usually needs to be the last piece of the pie that you deal with.
8. Remember: there is life after divorce.
Divorce can be experienced via many alternative meanings. It can mean shame and failure or bring about chronic warfare. Alternatively it can end old antagonisms, heal long-standing wounds, and launch a fresh start toward a new and improved life situation. The choice is yours.
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Denver, has authored multiple books on the process of psychotherapy and the skills for marriage success. Her current project is an online relationship communication skills program called PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.