If you’re not especially good at being “rotten” – don’t even bother.
Walk away from pointless combat with your ex, it’s not worth it.
Take the “high road” – it’s the only road that gets you anywhere worth going.
What’s so consistently amazing is the direct, practical connection taking the high road has to being happy. Many people don’t really doubt it’s the best way, but can’t quite walk the walk. Some people want to believe it, but can’t trust themselves – or others – enough to get there. Some just have no clue.
I keep reminding my clients: you actually have to have a ton of extra energy and a genuine skill at being selfish, dishonest, mean – whatever – for it not to blow up in your face at some point, and cause big problems.
Click here to listen to my 3 minute audio: Divorce: The High Road is the Way
I’ve never yet had a client or a personal friend tell me they actually loved the fighting part of divorce. Even these days – incredible as they are – that would be a bit much.
But I have to say, I’m really worried about the turn things have taken around the way we talk about – and ultimately feel – about the loss of a marriage. It’s one thing for it not to be a stigmatized disgrace that can only be talked about privately, in hushed tones. It’s another entirely for the latest episode to be broadcast, with gory details, to anyone within earshot.
I was musing with a friend the other day about one particular “message” coming toward us about success, happiness, and how to live, we hear all the time: “live with passion.” Sometimes I think I know what that means, and if we’re talking about caring deeply about something important, learning everything you can about it, sharing it with others, and benefiting from the enriched experience – that sounds pretty good to me.
But for some, “live with passion” adds up to “live without thinking” – a kind of permission to be uninhibited, unfiltered about expressing feelings. I feel it, so I say it – or do it.
Regarding divorce, the task used to be clear: you must grieve the loss of the marriage – the one imagined on your wedding day – while simultaneously negotiating for a fair share of parenting responsibilities, community property, and the dignity we deserve.
That’s hard under the best of circumstances – and even harder when you also have to earn a living, manage a household, be a citizen, and try to have a life.
Which gets back to “living with passion.” Bringing passion to your divorce can be THE all time mistake. It used to be that everyone also got this message: manage your feelings on crucial matters with longlasting consequences, or else you’re not a credible adult, not worthy of respect. In other words: “don’t be a jerk.” That wasn’t seen as oppressive, or squashing personal freedom. That’s time-tested social wisdom – especially since one of the key parenting tasks is to convey to the children witnessing the process that everything’s going to be OK.
At this point many nod in agreement, but then say, in essence, “I fight better when I’m angry, not when I’m sad.”
Which means the fight with the ex is what’s most real, and it’s the trumping, pragmatic motivation to be in combat mode. It enhances the likelihood of “success” in a struggle that may take months, or even years to play out.
The problem, of course, is that it’s not just the wrong state of mind to be in for raising children, it’s disastrous for living any kind of good life.
Which is why successfully coaching someone through a divorce hinges on whether they finally agree that managing their anger is a crucial goal. – and that, far from costing or weakening them in their battle with the ex, it will strengthen them. It clarifies what’s really important. And it positions them for the more important tasks: to grieve the loss of a deep emotional investment, and to keep moving forward, children clinging, on the only journey that matters.
But my wife told me that when she originally saw the title she thought it referred to that first conversation between couples when the unhappiness threshold is broached out loud, and it’s finally in the open that the marriage might not last forever.
I chuckled at the shift in perspective, but I didn’t have much to say about that first divorce conversation. A few times, I’ve coached the ones who were initiating their divorce to be kind, respectful, not let the conversation wander into the same old grievances, or get out of hand. Not particularly innovative or creative on my part. There’s no script. More often, I’ve been with clients right after the conversation has happened – devastated, outraged, panicked, but sometimes eerily calm.
I remember a client filling up with tears, out of the blue, when recalling the conversation “many years ago” initiated by his wife that put his marriage officially on the divorce track. He said, “Right after it happened, I told everyone I was totally shocked, never saw it coming, couldn’t really understand why she was doing it. But I was lying to myself – more than to anyone else. I didn’t let myself see – didn’t want to see - how unhappy she was. I’d been on my own roll, and I was too selfish, too immature, and too frightened to deal with it.”
Even my veteran status doesn’t diminish my continual amazement at the power of selective attention to cause an intelligent person to not see what’s at stake – in this case the man’s marriage and family – until it’s much too late.
As you’d predict, there’s been some commentary and speculation about the effect the plunging economy is having on marriage and divorce.
So now there are stories about people who “can’t divorce” while the economy is this bad.
Some of it has that “I told you so,” reproachful tone, as if to say that the essence of marriage is its underlying economic utility – revealed most clearly during hard times. The thrust is another nail in the coffin of the “ideal marriage” – a sacred union of two soul-mates, committed for life, deeply in love.
I’ve never denied the pragmatic, “anthropological” perspective of marriage as an evolved human institution. From the dawn of civilization forward, marriage has always – first and foremost – been about economics and procreation.
Marriage originally provided a way to stabilize and reinforce “good” social behavior, especially regarding the conception, and subsequent responsibility for the care, of children, and there wasn’t all that much concern about the feelings of any particular individual. The stakes were too high.
But no matter the origins of marriage, modern life puts additional psychological burdens on the people who enjoy its benefits.
We’re increasingly asked to make “choices” as citizens, rational economic actors in a complex world, and as free individuals – with the implication that we’ll also benefit emotionally from making thoughtful, self-aware decisions.
The problem comes when “choosing” whom we marry. The forces guiding that decision are almost always messy and conflicting – what I think I want based on who I think I am and who I’m trying to be. The probability that we’ve misperceived something along the way is high. Tradition can be helpful, it can also be the worst guide possible.
I thought we all knew that already.
Love is unreliable. It’s true. So even in the bleakest economic times, people will end marriages – or decide to remain in them – based on multiple considerations.
But keeping commitments is a good thing – good for the spouse, good for the children, and especially good for any person trying to do life well.
I hadn’t heard that phrase in awhile.
Such an understated, gentle way of putting it.
It was said by a very lively 93-year-old guy from somewhere around Lake Sunapee being interviewed in an old Yankee Magazine about his still-successful tool sharpening business. He was responding to a question about his early life, and it was about all he had to say regarding his encounters with the opposite sex.
I have to admit, working with as many divorces as I have has seldom caused me to say “disappointed in love” when describing my clients’ states of mind.
Devastated, crushed, enraged, panicked, exhilarated, desolate, anxiety-laden, depressed, bitter, disassociating, delusional – that’s more what I’ve seen in this day and age.
It’s also true that many can appear, from the outside, to be carrying on pretty well. I remember I was pretty stoic to the visible eye.
Divorce rips a hole in our universe. Our sense of ourselves moving through time and space is altered.
I actually admire that “old school” reticence.
I go in and out on what I truly think about whether “culture” succeeds, or makes things worse, when it strongly shapes the way people are supposed to feel - and express those feelings – about something as elemental as male-female relationships.
It came out later in an “aside” by the interviewer that the elderly gentleman’s attempt to have a family in his mid-30’s had resulted in admission to “a mental ward” and a stint in prison.
Lasting human relationships have never been easy.
Does your child have a label?
I’m talking about a mental health diagnosis, a medical condition requiring “accommodation,” or an identified “learning” problem requiring special education services.
If so, how’s that working out?
I should say right off that I’m not one of those “contrarians” who thinks those labels are totally bogus and accuses the various professionals of using them to provide jobs for themselves.
You’d be a tad right to detect a bit of world-weary skepticism on my part, but I need to be clear: my beef is mostly with parents.
Many parents are not collaborating with the “team,” or monitoring what’s going on, the way they should be, and even though going through a divorce and being a single parent makes it much harder – it’s still what needs to be done.
Yes, I do have concerns about kids and medications, and I’ve written elsewhere about some of my problems with Special Education.
I’m thinking especially of those initial meetings where the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for a Special Ed student are created, which too often become an exercise in managing the words used to define and then address a “problem” – the real focus fixed firmly on legal obligations and the available staffing of the Special Ed Department.
But divorce, as monumental as it is, exacerbates the “disconnect” between families and the Special Ed team far more than it should. It should be the other way – the reason to connect even more frequently than ever.
The truth is most professionals are trained to respond to news of divorce promptly, constructively, and compassionately – and are very tuned in to the ways the distress may effect your child
It’s usually parents who don’t stay on top of the basics.
So, again: counseling can be helpful, or it can be a total waste of money.
Participate, cooperate, collaborate but, – above all – notice! Pay attention to what’s going on.
Professional help is good, but it’s not magic.
Kids need their parents to stick with them – and not let divorce make them crazy. It’s parents and consistent, active parenting that kids need most – not professionals.
Children would trade professional “services” for solid parenting in a heartbeat.
Who’s to blame for your divorce?
Awhile back, I was posting on a divorce forum I’d run across, and it didn’t go well. My three little paragraphs about “learning” went over like a lead balloon.
The gist of what came back at me was: it sounds like “blaming” when that’s the last thing someone going through divorce needs. They need comfort, support, and ideas for moving forward.
They’re absolutely right.
When a divorce breaks open it’s cataclysmic and disorienting – a fundamentally emotional experience.
It was true for mine, and virtually every divorce story I’ve ever heard – personal or professional.
At first, it’s “all hands on deck” time: connect with family and friends, make the living arrangements, secure the finances – stabilize.
Because divorce happens in the middle of life itself, it’s immersed in all that real world, here and now “doing.”
Pesky little things like parenting and earning a living spring to mind right away, not to mention small items like maintaining the home, time commitments associated with career, community involvement, extended family obligations, etc. The whole package of “things” and “tasks” connected to being a family – living under one roof, with that spouse, and those children – needs to be parceled out, maintained, negotiated, arranged for, and/or left behind forever.
Too often, I’m afraid, the all-too-real circumstances of divorce in our modern world end up being “managed” as just another “chapter” in someone’s personal drama – with the net effect that really comprehending what happened never has a chance.
How someone conducts him or herself in a marriage – even if it’s exemplary – is filled with lessons and truths that need to “register” if they’re going to make a difference in the future.
Recognizing and owning the part your feelings and behavior played in a complex dynamic like marriage takes honesty and courage.
That’s not blame, it’s learning.
Do you know what PAS is?
I’ve witnessed the behavior many times over the years, but I’ll admit I dropped my head and anguished for a few seconds when I learned that it’s become an official syndrome – Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS).
PAS is the systematic denigration of one parent by the other with the intent of alienating the child against the other parent. Mostly it’s done to gain or retain custody by one of the parents – and the literature is saying it occurs most often where the mother has custody, and doesn’t wish to be dealing with her ex.
The point is that it’s so common and widespread that divorce lawyers and mental health professionals routinely refer to “PAS” as they manage their cases.
I have many problems with “Mens’ Rights” advocates who pretend too often that many of the laws regarding custody and parental obligation don’t reflect a longstanding reality about male behavior, but I’m also very discouraged that so many women resort to unconscionable tactics to keep their ex out of their children’s lives. (I address a more common scenario here.)
It isn’t just how selfish it is, it’s imagining the vulnerable, impressionable kids being subjected to a campaign of deception and lies by their primary caregiver and life teacher – obsessed and consumed by their rage.
It’s depressing – and terrifying.
“I’ve gotten lots of conflicting advice about when I can start dating again. What do you think?”
There’s no hard and fast rule, but – in general – “take it slow” is the right advice.
Simply rebounding into another version of the same mistake is so common it’s a cliché.
It’s hard to overstate how jarring and disorienting a marital breakup can be. Some people simply can’t stand being alone, look for a quick re-entry into the dating scene, and, regrettably, premature intimacy. (I should be clear that I’m far more concerned about emotional intimacy than sex.)
Many current adults never saw their own parents function in a mature and intimate way with each other. So, as they start through their own fragmented divorce story, we’ve got a growing population of people who, despite being fairly effective in the workplace, are totally “at sea” when it comes to even imagining what a healthy relationship looks like.
Proceed with extreme caution. Give yourself time.
If I had it my way I wouldn’t be within 100 miles of my ex, but that can’t happen. How should I handle school events and ballgames when I know my ex will be there?
This is especially dicey in the early phase of divorce, and if there are additional circumstances such as some recent, really bad behavior, or someone new in the picture, it can become so messy and fraught with feelings that it feeds the tendency to avoid - and that’s the real problem.
The “high road” approach is to find it within yourself to go right up to your ex, or at least make eye contact and nod, wave, or make some sort of gesture of acknowledgment. Once that’s out of the way, relax and focus on the event at hand: root, clap, laugh, enjoy, talk to other parents – but try not to have it be that there’s this frosty disconnect everyone can feel, and cut with a knife.
Yes, I realize some will say it’s just not possible. They can barely tolerate the sight of their ex, or – the other way – even though you might be able to pull it off, the ex can’t.
And yes, of course, that means it’s not wise to “force” the issue, make the ex uncomfortable, and convey that you’re “fine,” but they’re not.
It’s obviously an excellent reason to have a brief, focused conversation with your ex about this situation.
But the underlying principle is to be a “class act,” and take the high road in situations where being there for your children, and enjoying being a parent, is what’s most important.
It’s always impressive when our friends and loved ones handle these little challenges gracefully, and help us all relax. Your kids will tell you that, too – but maybe not until they’re 35.
I’ve been separated for almost a year now, and I know I’d have been in big trouble if it weren’t for my mother and her husband being there for me, and taking care of my son when I go to work.
I know they adore their grandson, but I grit my teeth a lot around how much they correct him, at age 5, even with me right there. Ironically, my mother’s the strict one, and corrects more often than my stepfather. He’s more low-key, but supports her totally.
When I try to talk about it with them they get defensive, and criticize me – even to where it feels like they’re saying I’m not being a good mother.
It’s gotten pretty heated sometimes, and I haven’t always been that nice with some of the things I’ve said back to them.
They mean well, but I just don’t see everything their way.
I still need them a lot, though, because paying for childcare would just keep me in the hole I’m already in.
Plus, of course I prefer that my son be cared for by people who love him.
This is an all-too-common situation , Marsha, but let me also say right away: thank God for families – unpleasant squabbles and all. You’re totally right to prefer that your son be cared for by family members who love him.
So a quick tip: I hope it’s not too hard for you, despite how intense it can get when the words fly, to find ways to tell your mother and your stepfather how much you appreciate what they’re doing for you and your boy.
It’s important because a) you should be appreciative, and b) a state of “gratitude” is a generally “elevated” state to be in, and c) pragmatically there are just fewer hassles when you convey appreciation to those being helpful.
What gets entwined here, almost to the point where it can’t be sorted out, is how much of this is a genuine disagreement around parenting philosophy, and/or how much of it has to do with their irritation – with you and the overall situation – their exhaustion, and the simple ups and downs that go with adjusting to the “disruption” of their regular living patterns.
Now. Parents from the “old school” are fairly relentless on things like basic “do’s and don’ts,” house rules, and manners. They don’t think they’re harming anyone. That’s a contrast with the postmodern approach to parenting that seems – simultaneously – more laissez-faire, but also extremely “prickly” when it comes to “who gets to correct my child?”
It feels like, these days, it can only be Mom, and if she doesn’t feel it’s necessary – it doesn’t happen.
Ironically, it used to be that one of the gifts of grandparenthood was being able to enjoy and indulge the grandchildren, completely free of unpleasant discipline tasks, since they, and all the rest of it, were in the parents’ capable hands.
That’s been turned on its head these days, and a lot of heroic grandparents have plugged in to provide the only rudimentary parenting their grandchildren will ever come to know.
Obviously, that’s not what’s going on in your situation, so I’d just like to make the simple case that a disagreement over parental philosophy is the better kind of problem to have.
In general, under their roof, you mostly want to sign onto the house rules, and therefore it boils down to what it takes to get compliance.
When you give your point of view, be sure to validate your mother’s concerns. Don’t dismiss them. But validate doesn’t necessarily mean agree. Your goal is to figure out how a situation can be “managed,” if not solved. Usually taking the problem up in the right spirit generates good solutions, and takes the starch out of free floating negativity.
But, finally, here’s the thing. Unless I planted a camera inside the home, I’d have no way of perceiving what you’re actually like to live with these days.
Divorce is such a blow. You may not realize how much you’re still reeling. You could be “fine,” but it’s more probable that you’re not there yet.
The degree to which you’re showing energy for, and engagement in, parenting your child, as opposed to the extent you’re depressed, passive, overwhelmed etc. may be what your parents are reacting to.
It’s incredibly hard to pretend you’re happy if you’re really not. But your son needs you to try.
The material stuff matters a little, but the emotional stuff is the ballgame. Remind each other you’re all extremely fortunate to be together, sharing, and taking delight in your son.