A big part of what makes divorce so challenging is that divorcing couples are asked to make very important decisions related to their children, their property and their finances during a time of emotional turmoil. Divorce mediation takes it one step further and asks this same couple to work as a team to sort out these difficult decisions during a time when their relationship is at a low point marred by anger, mistrust, outrage, bitterness, shock and resentment. What do we do with all of these emotions and all of the fallout that often accompanies the decision to divorce that must be navigated before couples are ready to move forward? How does the divorce process address such things as blame and fault and punishment for poor behavior? How does a “wronged” spouse get vindication?
Before we jump in, I start by acknowledging that my education and training as an attorney/mediator is in the legal/business part of the divorce. To get to the business however, we must navigate the emotional aspects to assure both spouses are in a good place to make thoughtful decisions. My skills in helping couples navigate the emotional challenges of their divorce did not come from law school. They have come from experience over time and mediation trainings mixed with empathy and patience. Having compassion is important in this work but I am the first to admit I don’t have the education and training that therapists have in helping with the emotional challenges of divorce. I frequently reach out to mental health professionals to learn and gather more tools for my toolbox to best help these families and to also build my resource list so I can direct clients to professionals who are better versed in dealing with the emotional side of things. This past week I had the pleasure of speaking with Carolyn Jacobs, a Certified Divorce Coach and owner of Ally in Divorce in Los Angeles. The role of a Divorce Coach is to provide either spouse with support for managing the emotional and practical challenges of their divorce. When divorcing couples are willing to make use of these resources available to them it tends to help in managing the emotions so that sound decision making can occur. So how does the divorce process address fault, blame and the need for vindication? Simply put, It doesn’t.
California and No Fault Divorce. California and a number of other states have “no fault divorce” which means you do not have to prove that your spouse has wronged you to get a divorce. Actually, the Court is not interested in hearing why you are getting a divorce. If you want a divorce you can get one. Having a “no fault” policy does not magically make all the emotions of the divorce go away. It just means the Court doesn’t have time to listen to the reasons since they do not factor into the decisions of the Judge related to child sharing, support and property division.
The Role of Blame and Who Left Who. It is very common in divorce for each spouse to perceive that it was the other spouse that was largely to blame for the breakdown in the marriage. It is often much easier for us to see the faults of others and to blame them without recognizing the role that we ourselves played in the conflict. There are certainly those cases where one spouse made a clear mistake that violated the trust in the relationship but much more often each spouse has played some role in getting to that place where the relationship has suffered. Carolyn Jacobs shared a blog post she had written titled “Who Left Who: Usually Debatable and a Stand That Hinders Growth,” in which she explores the complexities of the perspective each spouse has when the marriage breaks down. It is a natural reaction to blame the other spouse and to resent them for whatever role they have played. In acknowledging that blaming is normal, Ms. Jacobs goes on to share that the fallout of blaming is that it fuels anger, denial, resentment and shame that all stand in the way of healing and the ability of the spouse to move forward. There is a place for blame in divorce. We must recognize it is there and help spouses who are overwhelmed by it to develop healthy tools to cope with it, manage it, and put it behind them.
Where’s the Vindication? Many divorcing spouses are eager to have their “day in court” to show for all the world to see the shortcomings of their spouse and their bad behavior. There are occasions when the Judge will recognize that one spouse is not being truthful, not being reasonable or is playing games and the innocent spouse will get some degree of vindication with the Judge making favorable orders. Most couples, however, will not accomplish vindication for the emotional wrongs they have suffered and they will be disappointed to find that the Courtroom is not an effective place to heal these wounds. With “no fault” the Court does not give much space for airing grievances that do not directly impact the issues the Court is to address. Holding onto these feelings until they can be exposed in open Court can delay the process of resolving them and can keep the spouse mired in the negative emotion. Once they finally get to their day in Court it is very likely they will find that the time in Court does not accomplish the intended result and there may be further resentment in it not going as planned.
So What is the Answer? The process of divorce does not provide a good mechanism for dealing with the emotional hurts arising from the breakdown of the relationship. These feelings can get in the way of sound decision making so finding a way to work through them is an important task. If you are not able to find a healthy way to cope with them there are many resources available to assist you. In Carolyn Jacobs’ article she talks about tackling the tendency to blame by trying to step back and see things from the other spouse’s perspective. Recognizing that blame and resentment do not serve us well, finding a way to move our thoughts beyond the wrongs of the past to the hopes of the future is an important step. Getting support from a therapist or a divorce coach can be a great investment. Us attorneys and mediators do the best we can to help couples struggling with these challenging emotional issues but there may be better support found in professionals with a more focused training.
Navigating the emotions is part of the divorce process. Recognizing that the Courtroom is not the best place to handle the emotional side of things is a step in the right direction. A Healthy Divorce recognizes the importance of using all the tools and resources available to put couples in a position to resolve the emotional challenges of their divorce while making educated and practical business decisions that move their lives forward.