Divorce and Assertiveness

“Criminal lawyers see the worst people at their best; divorce lawyers see the best people at their worst.” (Attributed to Thomas Concannon, Jr., Former Mayor of Newton, N.J. and Family Lawyer)

Studies conclude that divorce is life’s most stressful challenge.  When we experience high stress in our lives, our automatic, often painfully limiting, behaviors rise up and overtake us.  What is your own idiosyncratic behavior when you are under stress?  Do you become habitually angry…depressed…isolated….workaholic…sugar addicted?   Those of us who tend to lose ourselves in another, may become so fearful of asserting themselves and their needs that they will swing between the extremes of abject passivity and righteous anger.

There is, however, a middle ground that is far more self-supportive and that is the stance of assertiveness.  Back in the 1970’s assertiveness was first highlighted in books and mental health trainings and it has fallen out of use as a theme since then.  However, we are well served to revive some of the tenets of assertiveness when struggling with the dynamics of divorce (and, of course, if we have an intact relationship as well).   Lange and Jakublowski in their classic, The Assertive Option – Your Rights and Respoinsibilities list Eleven Fundamental Assertive Rights which we should all hold close to us when facing intense interpersonal stress and conflict.  They are:

1.  The right to act in ways that promote our dignity and self-respect as long as others’ rights are not violated in the process.

2.  The right to be treated with respect.

3.  The right to say no and not feel guilty.

4.  The right to experience and express your feelings.

5.  The right to take time to slow down and think.

6.  The right to change your mind.

7.  The right to ask for what you want.

8.  The right to do less than you are humanly capable of doing.

9.  The right to ask for information.

10.  The right to make mistakes.

11.  The right to feel good about yourself.

If we can keep these basic personal rights close to our minds and hearts, we will have less occasion to roll over or become explosive in our interpersonal conflicts.

My Two Big Beefs – Part II

Beef No. 2 – Martial Therapists are not umpires.  Their job is not to hear each person’s complaints and to decide which one is more right than the other.  It is this belief that both clients and some couples counselors embrace that makes couples therapy the least successful therapy with the highest failure rate.  However, those trained in a specific approach to couples therapy (of which there are a handful), are remarkably more successful.  Clients enter couples counseling with both a great certainty and a great fear.  The certainty is that the problems the couple are experiencing are mostly because of their partner.  The fear is that they, themselves, will be blamed.  Blame and shame – these are the boulders on the shoulders of the individuals commencing couples therapy.  Any therapist who tries to impart to each person, “If you do a little more of this or a little less of that you will improve your relationship,” will ultimately do more harm than good.   What a shame that therapists (mostly trained in individual therapy – and often quite good at individual therapy) create an environment of blame and defensiveness that will usually result in one person feeling more identified as a problem, unheard, shamed and definitely unsafe.  This doesn’t have to be, but couples therapists have to avoid becoming overly engaged in the tangle of content.