Divorce Needs a Cultural Shift
I am sure we can all think of amazing people who have changed the world around them for the better—they are raising thousands of dollars for research, or coaching and mentoring children. I am a teacher who hopes that I can inspire students to be more excited about learning and to follow their passions, but I feel like I have a bigger calling, and I’ve had it since I took my first job in family law in 1998. Back then, I wanted to be a family law attorney because I wanted to help the families get through the divorce process as smoothly as possible. However, the realities of the legal system when it comes to divorce made the practice of family law frustrating, and often times heartbreaking. So, eventually I left the traditional practice of family law, switching careers all together to become a high school history teacher. While I love teaching teenagers, I found myself getting great satisfaction in guiding people in my community through their divorces without an antagonistic process. Instead, I found that I could help them focus on the positive as much as possible (even when it means dealing with aggravation from a spouse who still believes wholeheartedly in the antagonistic divorce system), and get through the divorce in a more confident and healthy emotional state. Thus, Family Transitions Divorce Coaching & Mediation was born.
A system that pits spouses against each other as adversaries makes no sense. We’ve heard for generations about the destruction left behind by divorce. Divorce itself is horribly sad, and is a loss that requires grieving. There is extreme sadness in recognizing that your marriage is over and what you thought your future looked like is different. I am not a therapist, but I certainly know that, as with any loss, these feelings of grief can be dealt with appropriately so that they do not engulf you in bitterness. There are many resources available and excellent counselors to help those who need more support than their innate resiliency may provide. However, I have come firmly to believe that it is not the reality of divorce ITSELF that is so destructive (the idea of two people living apart), it is the PROCESS of divorce that is so destructive.
And why is the process so destructive? Because it is still based off an antiquated system where a divorce had to be someone’s “fault.” You couldn’t get divorced unless you could PROVE in COURT that someone was to blame for the crumbling of your union. This is completely ridiculous, and I don’t know of any remaining states that still require a party to prove “fault” of the other spouse before granting a divorce. Regardless, changing the belief system of a culture is extremely slow. Yet all of us alive today have seen this happen in major areas of our life in the United States. We’ve seen the stigma surrounding homosexuality disappear (or hopefully it’s well on its way), and we’ve seen the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement take hold on the American psyche. All of these things represent monumental shifts in what had been cultural norms for generations. But with divorce, even though you may file the paperwork “no-fault,” too often the parties themselves look to the other spouse to assign blame, and certainly society does. You make the sad announcement that you’ve made the painful decision to divorce, and everyone wants to know the backstory— the gossip worthy story that can make them feel better that it’s YOU and not THEM. The reality is, that in most cases, a divorce is nobody’s fault.
So what is the reality? In most cases, a divorce is the product of two people who had the intentions of doing their best every day, but the reality of life in the digital age, with its expectations of longer and longer work days, and children who are more and more involved and “accomplished,” made maintaining an emotional connection to your spouse impossible. This is where the sadness comes in. No one intends for this to happen. A very small percentage of people really are purposefully mistreating their spouse (I’ll talk about those circumstances in a different post). So you might ask why people on the edge of divorce can’t recognize this and work to reconnect. Why divorce at all? I’ve asked myself that exact same question, and the best answer I’ve been given by a family and marriage therapist is that the repeated disappointments and small resentments typical of most marriages build up over time. Each time there is a disappointment or argument, if left unresolved, scar tissue builds up around you heart. Eventually, even if spouses decide to try and “work on it,” the scar tissue is so thick that it can’t be broken through. I did not understand how this could be until I experienced it for myself. I had heard dozens of clients describe how at some point, it is like a switch goes off, and there is no going back into the marriage. Then, it happened to me. My own divorce gave me a new empathy and compassion for my clients trying to make sense of why they knew that divorce was the only way forward. It made me even more certain that approaching divorce WITHOUT ASSIGNING BLAME is the key to a healthier divorce process. Instead of BLAMING the other spouse, be grateful for the positive roles each of you has played in the life of the other, and be mutually supportive of each other’s happiness AFTER the divorce. Parties, especially parents, need to remember that the kids will be okay if the parents are okay. Often times, that means the primary bread winner needs to pay support for longer, or in higher amounts, than they might feel like is fair. In other cases, one spouse might need to be gracious to the other’s new love-interest, so the children don’t need to be conflicted at half-time, wondering which side of the field to run to.
I’m not naïve. I certainly know that shifting to an emotionally intelligent divorce process rather than a destructive divorce process, will take deliberate steps and effort on the part of the people making this enlightened choice. But all cultural movements have to start with one deliberate step. I would like to see a world where warring “ex's” are embarrassed by their behavior. The party with a “win or lose” attitude should feel social pressure to treat their ex-spouse with kindness, empathy, and respect, rather than an opponent to be defeated. When spouses don’t feel as though they are under attack by the other, they can stop being constantly on guard and ready to defend themselves, and start building a new foundation for their altered future relationship.
I hope that, one family at a time, I can help change the culture surrounding divorce. Instead of being amazed at “friendly ex's” they should be looked up to as examples of how families in this country come in all creeds, colors, and configurations. We should have “conscious uncoupling” be our new cultural norm. Thank you Gwyneth Paltrow.