Divorce and Negative Thinking

“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)

Many of us struggle with habitual negative thinking.  This was understood many years ago and gave rise to one of the most powerful, effective approaches to psychotherapy and counseling, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT.  It is a favored psychotherapeutic approach for depression, in tandem with appropriate medication.  David Burns’ books are excellent starting points for anyone struggling with depression.

While going through some old papers recently, I came across a page entitled Irrational Thoughts and it contains six mistakes we make in our thinking that will always bring us down.  If we understand these thoughts as not truth but simply as examples of negative thinking, we can spare ourselves a good deal of avoidable pain.  We are engaged in mistaken negative thinking when we:

1.  Turn wants or preferences (including strong ones) into absolute vital needs.

2.  Convince ourselves that if the need isn’t met, it will be awful, terrible, catastrophic, unbearable, and the end of the world.

3. Draw incorrect conclusions.

4.  Not consider the evidence.

5.  Automatically attribute negative motives to other people.

6.  Focus exclusively on self-deprecating thoughts.

When we are depressed, we truly and honestly believe the truth of many of our fears and negative thoughts.  When we emerge from our dark place, these certainties do not seem all that certain any longer.  Such is the power of unreined negative thought.

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 I

There are two subjects that always make me jump on my soapbox.  (I might even wave my hands around like the little guy here.) 

First, the court’s are an atrocious forum for resolving marital disputes.   After all, how are lawyers trained?  Law school is a three-year course in “the case method” of teaching law, which is over 100 years old and still going (fairly) strong.  In this model, students read written opinions from appeals courts and learn how to support each side.  Our legal system is based on this “adversarial method of conflict resolution” in which each side  promotes their side aggressively, secure in the fact that they don’t have to worry about the other side because they have their own representative promoting their side aggressively.  Well, suffice it to say, if I were ever charged with a crime, I’d want one aggressive individual fighting for me.  Yet, when intimate couples fracture their relationship, the intensity of individual vulnerability and wounding on both sides his breathtaking.  The triggers that caused each person to become flooded by anger – or fear during the marital fights are no less sensitive when they commence upon the road to divorce.  If anything, the vulnerability is even more exquisite.  How cruel, then, to subject these poor people to the violations that are inherent in legal advocacy.  Making the private pains public – subjecting individuals who are going through the soul-searing doubt of divorce to public revelations, criticism or outright attack is nothing short of torture.  Adversarial lawyers speak of protecting their client’s rights.  I would say, “protect from what?”   The answer can only be the other person who had been their intimate partner.  This is the individual who has seen us at our least guarded; with whom we shared sexual intimacy and who knows our deepest fears.  We thought this person would hold this information in trust and yet they become weapons to persuade a person in a robe to give them what they seek.  The minute we tell someone we will “protect” them from this other person, we have created an environment of paranoia which, in most cases, can only do ill.  Courts are a too-blunt instrument for the exquisitely sensitive task of helping people dissolve their intimate bonds.

The Decision to Divorce

Maybe the hardest decision in one’s life – the Decision to Divorce.  In my experience it is never a decision taken lightly.  Here’s how it seems to work in most cases.   You feel disatisfied or increasingly discouraged with the relationship.   After many arguments over the same thing, or attempts to get your partner to hear what is so vitally important to you, without success, the thought of ending the relationship begins to dawn.  Imagine a bright line boundary – on one side is “Emotional Commitment to Marriage,” on the other, “Emotional Disengagement from Marriage.”  You seem to bounce up against the boundary continually, but your commitment to your relationship is stong enough to keep you from crossing over.  It looks a bit like this  ……………….

You can go on for months or years, just bouncing up against that boundary.  You believe you have let your partner know that you were feeling desparate about your disconnection.  You know that you have tried.  Then, one day, something happens inside you.  Maybe it was another fight over the same thing.  Maybe it was just waking up one morning and looking at yourself in the mirror and knowing something has changed inside of you.  Whatever the spur – you have crossed over the boundary…and this boundary that for a moment seemed open enough for you to pass through has closed up.  It has become an emotional, impenetrable wall.   Now your process looks something like this:

When I start the process of divorce mediation with a couple, one of the first things I want to determine is whether one of the partners has crossed over that line.  Almost always this has occurred.   On the infrequent occasions it hasn’t, a referral to a couples therapist is always made. 

A really important lesson I have learned over the years is that once a person has crossed over that boundary they have made a decision that is unchangeable.  If you are the partner who feels left, you may experience a wide range of wrenching emotions – grief, fury, confusion, a sense of betrayal.   My recommendation is to get help with those emotions.  Seek out counseling.  Read helpful books, like Bruce Fisher’s excellent, Rebuilding.  Your life has changed – and while you may need to process through the trauma  and the deep sense of injustice you may feel, once your partner has crossed over the line they will not cross back.  While you may be drawn to do whatever you can to try to get them to do this, those efforts will amost certainly be fruitless and (here’s the important part) they will cause you deep and lacerating pain and frustration.  My hope for those who have been left is that you find the resources you need to manage the pain and direct your energy to caring for yourself and slowly discovering your path to recovery.