By Gary Marsh, LMSW

Even with attorneys, mediators and other professionals, helping you decide the details of your divorce, you might want to use this opportunity to figure out how to make decisions on your own, If you have kids, once the divorce is over, if you have figured out how to make decisions together you can reduce or eliminate the need for the assistance of professionals and the courts, for the remainder of your children’s minority. When parents divorce, their children do best when the parents can cooperate. If you can successfully make decisions yourselves, you will increase the likelihood that you will have a cooperative relationship after the divorce.

People do not get divorced often enough to know how to do it. Decision-making, with a soon to be ex-spouse, is unlike any other challenge. Fortunately, the knowledge needed is not quantum physics.

Here are some tips:

1. Be an observer of yourself and everyone around you. Being an observer of yourself will help you distance yourself from your emotions. Divorce is a hurtful, anxious, scary, guilty, and angry place for anyone to be. People often become overwhelmed with their emotions and, like the wind to a flame, reactive to what is going on around them. One can predict what emotions will result from a divorce. But, emotions are irrational and, because they are irrational, they can cause problems in decision-making. Acting on your emotions is a bad idea. By creating distance from your emotions, you can avoid being reactive and it will help you be able to take deliberate, strategic and effective action. By creating distance from your emotions, you will be better able to look beyond the behavior of your spouse and not react impulsively to it. 

2. Be patient and persistent without being pushy. Cooperation is so valuable it is worth waiting for. If you are pushed, the natural response is to resist. You want cooperation not resistance, so do not push.

3. Exercise damage control. It would help if you had a guiding general concept for how you are approaching this challenge to help you get organized, measure progress and measure success. Divorce is a traumatic event. Suffering injury or damage is unavoidable. In divorce, damage is financial, emotional and social. You may not be able to avoid some damage, however, the extent of the damage is something you can limit. Make your mission damage control. Keep damage to a minimum.

4. Redefine your relationship with your spouse. People struggle with the changes divorce creates in a relationship. One place they stumble is with the end of intimacy. Marriage is an unwritten social contract, an agreement to be intimate emotionally. As soon as one spouse decides the marriage is over, the social contract has ended. Renegotiation is needed. It is unreasonable to expect that you should be able to freely share your negative emotions with your spouse beyond that decision. If you fail to recognize this and share your anger and disappointment, your spouse will likely return your anger and disappointment in kind or, more likely, distance him or herself from you, which will reduce opportunities to communicate. You need opportunities to communicate. Keep in mind emotions unexpressed tend to find a way to become expressed. You need to express them, but direct your negative emotions away from your spouse. A good way to express them is in activities, to a friend (who will just listen) or you could take them to a therapist.

When you got married, your relationship was a positive intimacy. Somewhere along the line it became a negative intimacy. Some divorcing couples see themselves as better friends than spouses and want to end their marriage but preserve their friendship. Recognizing their need for a functioning parenting relationship, some divorcing parents want a friendly relationship, where they can comfortably sit together on the sidelines cheering on their children or comfortably sit together at parent teacher conferences. For people who have children but cannot be friends or friendly, a civil relationship is needed, a business relationship. Business relationships are characterized by written agreements, which help maintain understanding and clarity about what is expected. Making commitments and keeping them make the business of raising children work.

5. Decision-making and problem-solving in general are processes. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. The Beginning is to identify issues. Once you identify an issue, take the time to understand it from each of your perspectives. The Middle. Once you feel you understand it, think of as many ways of dealing with it (solutions) as possible. The End. Select the solution that works best. The advantage of having as many solutions as possible is you may find solutions that are mutually beneficial. These are easy to say “yes” to. If after turning over every stone none of the solutions are mutually beneficial, is there a trade that could be made that would make one of them work? If their is no trade that would make a solution work, think about all the issues you have to deal with. If you have not fully explored all of the issues, set the decision aside for the moment on this one and come come back to it. Once you have fully explored all of the issues, a solution might appear. If there is no mutually beneficial solution and no trade is found, compromise is necessary. When people realize compromise is needed, those who negotiate well, do it easily. 

6. Sometimes having other people around helps us manage our emotions. Try meeting at a restaurant. Anticipate that there will be times when, despite your best efforts, you will become overwhelmed with emotion. Give each other permission to end a conversation without explanation. Your spouse will likely be anxious to continue the discussion. You can deal with this by scheduling the next meeting. Then they will be relieved knowing when the discussion will resume. Some issues provoke more emotion than others. Give each other permission to change the focus of the discussion. There are lots of details to discuss. Focus on easy ones and get them out of the way. Come back to this difficult one another time.

7. Keep discussions in the present. Decision-making with someone with whom you have a history makes staying on a topic difficult, and sometimes results in not so helpful tangents about the past. The decisions you need to make are about the future. You need to stay in the present and focus on the future. At the beginning or in advance of your meeting, create an agenda and agree in advance to stay with the agenda. Then each of you can remind the other of your agreed upon intention to stay with the agenda. 

8. Be an informed decision-maker. Everyone faced with divorce worries about making a mistake out of ignorance. Take the time for both of you to get informed before you finalize decisions. If you get stuck, it may be that you need more information. Gather documentation. Consult with attorneys and other appropriate professionals. Share information freely. Ask if your spouse has enough information to make a decision and, if possible, help them get it if they don’t. 

9. Communication becomes strained so people avoid it and clarity gets lost when relationships break down. If you avoid it, you are forced to rely on your memory of comments made in the past. There are several problems with this. People change their minds because of new information. People make statements when distressed out of guilt, anger, and fear. Those statements end up being distorted at the transmitter and at the receiver. Ask whether you heard them right; accept the answer. If you heard it right, ask if they are still thinking along the same lines. This will avoid confusion and keep you in the here and now planning the future, which is exactly where you need to be.

10. Because the task of the ending a marriage is unfamiliar, most people worry about being tricked or manipulated into something that is not in their interest. And who is the most likely candidate to trick them into something that is not in their interest, their spouse. People look for evidence that their concern is justified. It is as if ideas and information are received through a filter that lets in everything that confirms this fear. Incidentally, nothing feels more like manipulation than threats, emotional intensity, impassioned explanations, talking as if decisions have already been made, a provocative letter from an attorney, being surprised, or filing a motion with the courts. Share your thoughts and ask questions. “This is what I was thinking.” “What do you think?” Sharing ideas freely is openness. Openness is reassuring. The act of asking a question is an invitation to share control. 

11. The odds of disagreement are high and a normal part of divorce settlement. This does not change the fact that you need a solution and that one can be found. Agree to disagree and don’t worry about it. 

12. One reason people disagree has to do with their perspectives being different. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Einstein’s theory explains that experience is determined by your point-of-reference. Two people see the same event from two difference points of reference and as a result draw different conclusions. 

13. A second reason is that people trust their own judgment and, combined with the emotions of divorce, cling to solutions they come up with. An indicator you may be clinging to an idea is when you find you are repeating a rationale or proposal as if you were not heard the first time. After all, if people heard and understood me they would see the value of my conclusions and agree. You are likely to feel panic when you realize your idea is not accepted. The solution satisfied a concern. The panic is the concern without a solution. Your solution may have been driven by emotions. Be prepared to let go of, or modify your ideas. Once you have examined other possibilities, you may be able to revisit the idea with new eyes. 

14. The problem with an argument/discussion can and usually is, the rationale, the “why.” A common misconception is that the rationale or argument determines the solution, that the best argument wins the debate and defines the outcome. It can, if your spouse agrees. When people agree on a rationale, the solution follows. However, once people disagree on the rationale, then the rationale has only one remaining use, it identifies needs. When you hear a rationale or proposal that you do not find acceptable, try to figure out the need that the rationale or proposal is trying to address. This is useful because, if you can figure out what need is being expressed by a rationale or proposal, there may be other ways to address the need that are acceptable to both of you. Most of the time, when a rationale is not immediately accepted, the rationale becomes a liability in the negotiation. You will know the rationale is not accepted, no longer useful and likely a liability, when the response to it is an argument against it or an alternative rationale. When this happens, if you do not let the rationale go, the rationale becomes a distraction, a tangent from the negotiation and you will become frustrated. Frustration promotes pessimism. Pessimism is self-defeating. Shift the discussion to “what” to do and away from “why” to do it. You need to agree “what” to do not “why” to do it. The reality is that most people have their own reasons for saying “yes.” If you press your reasons, you are getting in the way of them finding their own reasons. Be clear about what you are proposing and get out of the way so they can find their reason to say “yes.”

15. When trying to negotiate a settlement, go at a comfortable pace and remember, good agreements survive time and scrutiny. 

16. Above all, be patient with yourself. When I first became a facilitative divorce mediator, I attended a mediator luncheon at which a minister had been asked to speak to the group. He explained that part of his ministry was to hospice centers and hospital intensive care units. He said when he ministered to the elderly he encountered, they would naturally want to talk about their lives and all said similar things. They talked about when various people entered and left their lives. You will always remember this time in your life. It is an important moment. If makes sense that it will be a difficult challenge for you to face.