When we talk about divorce, we fixate on assets and debt, child support, co-parenting agreements and all of the components of undoing a business contract. But what about the breakup?
If you watch those high school dramas with your kids, listen to country music, or watch reruns of “Sex and the City,” you will bear witness to the tremendous amount of energy directed to the success and failure of romantic love — “he loves me,” “she loves me not” — the intensity of raw emotion and gut-wrenching heartbreak. It can be paralyzing and all-consuming. And there is a lot of time for the self-indulgent wallowing and grieving process. It is through relationships that we learn about ourselves, so allowing the emotions of a breakup to run their course is an important component of being able to mature and move cleanly into a new, healthy and happy relationship. (And if we do the work, we might not repeat the patterns! The rates of divorce for second marriages are much higher than the rates of divorce for first marriages.)
When there is a marriage contract in place, we call the breakup “divorce.” The path forward is fraught with paperwork, process, experts, expense and panic. When is the time for grieving the end of the relationship? Where are the friends and the weekends away? They are replaced with lawyer meetings, tracking devices, single parenting isolation, scheming, and worse, the sadness and grief that, without a healthy outlet, is often channeled into anger and rage. Anger inside of the divorce process is like lighting a match at a gas pump. It leads to punishing behavior, expensive mismanagement of a legal process and a path of destruction from which it can be hard to recover. This summer, three couples in different geographies across the country all described to me that at their respective children’s high school graduations, with blended families and new partners, there were toasts and hugs and practically identical statements, like “Why did we spend all that money and do that to ourselves and our family?” Let’s use the value of collective hindsight to change the experience and manage the emotional response outside of the legal process.
We have to honor the breakup. We have to allow ourselves to grieve the ending, no matter how messy it is. Divorce might be the end of a dream, maybe a high school romance, maybe a college sweetheart, or maybe that work romance that evolved into a house in the suburbs. No matter what the story, no matter why the divorce, it is the end of a relationship, and we have to be allowed to experience the pain without using it to complicate an already difficult contractual dispute.
Emotions are expensive. When we bring emotional pain into the divorce process, we tend to use that process to stay engaged with the other person. So now, in addition to Facebook stalking and late-night texting, we have a tool — ongoing conflict — to force our spouse to see our pain or receive our punishment. When the raw emotions aren’t addressed and put to bed, divorce can be fraught with unnecessary adversity and cost. Unfortunately, some aspects of the legal system require fast action when one spouse is fully dependent on another for essential expenses, or when children are involved and there is an immediate need to address schedule, so the crisis of the immediate needs brought on by the breakup supersedes one’s ability to process and grieve the breakup. But only temporarily, there is still a methodology to manage the pain that can co-exist within the process.
How can you go through the divorce process when you are emotionally devastated and angry? That emotional work has to be done outside of the legal meetings and mediation with experts. Family law attorneys are not trained and are far too expensive to be used as your therapist. The mediation process is an excellent way to settle the divorce with the maximum amount of creativity and compromise, but it is not a substitute for marriage counseling. The collaborative law practice model recognizes that the emotional aspect of the divorce cannot be ignored and includes one, sometimes two, mental health professional to support the spouses and to identify compromise and settlement roadblocks that are caused by emotional responses.
At dtour.life we believe in completely reframing divorce and that begins with each spouse shifting their mindset around managing their own divorce process. Couples often begin marriage counseling to see if they can fix the marriage, but they rarely consider counseling to work through how to divorce, with dignity. As well-intentioned as friends and family are, they often tend to feed the irrational state of mind and pile on, rather than provide the necessary neutral and informed perspective and tools for managing grief. Whether it is individual therapy, couples’ counseling, divorce support groups, or local workshops, addressing the heart, the pain, the disappointment, the betrayal, the rage, the grief; whatever the flavor of emotion, will shift the experience of the divorce, empower spouses to settle with a far more rational approach and save a significant amount of unnecessary expenses. When children are involved, it will model for them excellent conflict resolution skills, and minimize damage and long-term effects. It is time to learn from the past, change the experience, and honor the heart that brought the couple together.