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The First Critical Step Towards Divorce

We are always amazed at the number of articles with steps to take in divorce.  These include things like getting familiar with the finances, timing events around a bonus or stock options, watching texts and emails and many other tactics that lead to the ultimate conflict.  It is encouraging the culture of conflict.

But we always look at how people got there in the first place.  What happened?  What is the story to this marriage?

Before anyone thinks that we are coming down on divorce, we fully understand there are plenty of reasons to end a relationship and many times it is simply because the other person has left or is leaving.  It just takes one.

On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of couples that arrive at the conclusion to divorce together.  We had a couple in our office for mediation and one opened up about how she shares this divorce with their children.  She said, paraphrasing, “Getting married was not a mistake and the years together are to be cherished.  Getting a divorce is a change to our relationship and not a comment on the time we had with each other and with you, our children.”  She went on to explain that this something different and pointed out how the children are now having more direct time with their dad than they did before.

But even in this case, when the divorce is amicable, what happened?

Separation is that first step on the path.  It is not the affair or other misdeed; those generally happen later.  It is the decline in interest and time spent with each other.  It is making “other” more important than “us.”  This includes electronic diversions and other forms of interaction that pull us away from each other.

We see it in children as they leave the real world to immerse themselves in the life of digital “reality.”  It goes so far as to foster some people to commit suicide from the online attacks they receive.  When the digital world takes hold, relationships suffer.

There are other distractions as well.  Hobbies, friendships outside the marriage, interests in work that supersede family and much more.  Even a good cause can be a bad thing when it dominates the relationship.

This is the real first step toward separation.  Divorce is simply the manifestation that the marriage is considered irreparable.  But is it really something that cannot be repaired?  That depends on the willingness and insights of the couple.  Tolkien once penned these words:

“How do you pick up the threads of an old life?  How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back?  There are some things that time cannot mend.  Some hurts that go too deep… that have taken hold.  It cannot be said, do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”

Something to consider when thinking about where you are in your relationship.

Armand & Robbin D’Alo

Divorce and Marital Conflict: The Math, The Magic & The Reality

I am the kind of person that likes to get to the heart of a matter.  So here it is, in simple terms from the research of John Gottman.

69% Of All Marital Conflict Is Unsolvable

People headed for divorce typically have the unsolvable problem.  Along the way the relationship got off track, there were benchmarks that were crossed, trust that was violated and expectations that were not met.  This may have been financial, sexual or whatever.  In some way at least one side of the relationship reached a point that for them, anything was better than this marriage.

These issues flow from core differences in personalities that engender conflict, or they are fundamental differences in lifestyle.  In either case, these are reflections of values help by each individual.

Research shows that the issue is not the problem itself, but rather the ability of two people to create a dialogue around the matter.  If there is no way to discuss what is happening then the couple becomes deadlocked, they build defenses and eventually check out emotionally from the relationship.

Dr. Gottman shares six skills from his research for managing conflict and building dialogue.

  • Practice Physiological Self-Soothing
  • Use Softened Startup
  • Repair and De-Escalate
  • Listen to Your Partner’s Underlying Feelings and Dreams
  • Accept Influence
  • Compromise

These can be explored in more depth in Jon Gottman’s book, The Seven Principals for Making Marriage Work.

Even if a couple reaches the determination to separate, the ability to communicate will still be essential to their new lives as separate adults.  This is especially true when children are part of the picture.

Ratio Of 5:1 Positive to Negative Interactions Indicates a Healthy Marriage

Turning again to research, when couples argued, it was found that anger is not the element that is dangerous.  Everyone gets angry when they are hurt.  The question is, what happens with that anger and how does a couple work through it.

Successful couples, even when fighting, tend to offer positive support to each other.  As couples in the research studies showed, those that offered five positive comments to each negative comment were more successful.  Those that tended to head for divorce were closer to a 1:1 ratio.

This is important when you recall how we, as humans, take in negative comments about ourselves, as well as some of our own internal dialogue.  The negative seems more real to humans than a positive statement.  Think about this as an emotional scale.  If every negative comment was 10 pounds and every positive comment was two pounds, it would take five positives just to balance out the negative.

This is the same in a relationship.  What was interesting was that when couples were not in conflict discussions their ratio was closer to 20:1 and made up a richer environment.

Don’t get this wrong and think that these compliments are massive statements of adoration.  These are the simple responses we give like, “That’s nice,” or “Good idea.”  Within a conflict, responses might be, “I see your point” or “What are your thoughts about…”  These are ordinary statements that acknowledge and enrich.

86% Versus 33% Rate of Responsiveness

This idea of a rich environment leads to the concept of responsiveness.  Paying attention to the other person builds trust and confidence within a relationship.  Again, this is not the longing adoration that may have been heaped on each other before marriage.  But it is the consistent acknowledgment of a partner.

Couples that succeed tended to respond to their partner about 86% of the time.  As Dr. Gottman calls it, they turn towards their partner.  This turning towards is seen with simple acts such as a nod of the head, a verbal acknowledgment or even a grunt.  It is a way to say, “I heard you.”

Those that are less successful tend to ignore the other person or tune them out.  In one relationship, this was an interesting matter since both had hearing problems.  At first there was an issue of feeling ignored.  As they learned more about the matter it became a skill and sign of respect to see if the other person was able to hear, so they knew when they were tuned into each other.

In divorce, acknowledging what each side is experiencing may not be a path to reconciliation.  But it is a path to acceptance and communication on a business level.  This is necessary to have a low-cost successful transition from marriage to life as two adults with children.

Good Marriages & A Good Divorce Tend to Be Uninteresting

When people part company, the way they change direction impacts the rest of their lives.  Are they willing to move on if one person is done or is their conflict based on emotion?  Are both willing to share and be open with each other, something that is required by the law, or is the need to fight more dominant in the relationship.  In the end, if a couple chooses separation, resisting the change on whatever level, only leads to financial damage and hurt that will last far longer than any court battle.  The better transitions are business like and cordial.

On the other hand, the bottom line for most good marriages is that they are boring.  They are gentle and full of acceptance.  They carry acknowledgment and a willingness to understand.  Marriages move to a higher level when curiosity enters in and couples remain engaged with their evolving lives and new experiences.  The ability to embrace change and growth are keys.  Understanding the “Gottman” math helps along the way.

Armand D’Alo and Robbin D’Alo