John McEnroe made famous the phrase "you can’t be serious", which he frequently hurled at tennis umpires and referees, often resulting in McEnroe’s being sanctioned, but virtually never achieving the changes that McEnroe sought in the first place.
We often take a similar dismissive stance with our spouses or ex-spouses. We may be trying to discredit them, shame them, or cause them to doubt the validity of their feelings and concerns. Whatever the motive for the dismissive stance, the ultimate goal is to force the other person to retreat in defeat.
Minimized, Criticized, Resentful and Angry
We may recite McEnroe’s phrase, or something equally dismissive, such as “you’ve got to be kidding,” or “are you out of your mind?” However, even if any of these caustic responses is successful in the short run, the long-term result is to leave the other person feeling minimized, criticized, resentful, and angry, while the issue that initiated the dismissive rebuff remains unaddressed and unresolved.
I have heard these phrases many times in my divorce mediation practice. A wife who seeks alimony will be cut off with a disdainful “you can’t be serious.” A husband who seeks more time with his children is dismissed with a sharp “you’ve got to be kidding.” But I have found that, more often than not, the dismissing party is not attempting to destroy the other party so much as they are trying to avoid further discussion because he/she is afraid of where that conversation may go.
He Fears, She Fears
The husband who dismisses his wife’s request for alimony may fear that his wife will remind him that she worked to put him through school while foregoing her own educational and employment opportunities. He may be ashamed or embarrassed that his wife supported him, or that he owes his success in large part to her sacrifices. Perhaps he is concerned that those sacrifices would justify her need for alimony so that she can finally pursue a career. Or the husband may fear that his wife wants to punish him financially for the divorce, leaving him destitute.
The wife whose husband seeks more time with their children may fear that her husband is trying to take the children away from her. Perhaps she may fear that her husband will point out all of her shortcomings as a parent or wife, or might bring up a prior “indiscretion,” to blackmail her into giving in to his demands. Regardless of the reason, the dismissive, bullying party is usually acting out of fear, not spite or strength.
You may not agree with the other person’s request, but by summarily dismissing that person, you prevent constructive conversation and creative problem-solving. If, however, you respond in a respectful, inquisitive and non-judgmental manner, you might discover that the other person has a valid point, even though it may have been presented in a pugnacious or extreme manner.
Furthermore, you may learn what issues are behind the other person’s thinking: their concerns, fears, or needs, so that you can devise ways to constructively address the other person’s specific concerns, fears, or needs as well as your own objections to the original comment, demand or request.
Case in Point
I recently worked with a couple where the husband owned his own business. In the normal course of the divorce process, his wife asked if the husband would be willing to provide invoices, receipts, contracts, etc. for his business, but he replied sharply: “Are you kidding? You wouldn’t understand any of it.” His wife was angry that her husband was unwilling to be cooperative, and that he had dismissed her request as if she were stupid and unreasonable.
Furthermore, his disdainful dismissal of her request caused her to think that her husband had something to hide, so she hired a forensic accountant to thoroughly review the husband’s business dealings. Although the accountant uncovered no improprieties or unreported income, the couple incurred a tremendous additional expense (for the accountant), trust between the spouses was compromised, and cooperative negotiations were severely hampered--all because of the husband’s dismissive and disrespectful response to his wife’s reasonable request.
Eventually, the husband revealed that he had interpreted his wife’s request as proof that she did not trust him, that she was challenging his competence in running the business which he alone had started and made successful, and that she wanted to take his business away from him. He was very surprised to learn that his wife simply wanted to have respectful and honest communication--not revenge.
On the Other Hand
Some of the most powerful, positive and constructive moments I have witnessed in my divorce mediation practice are the times when, rather than dismissing or ridiculing the other person (with a caustic comment such as “you cannot be serious”), a spouse has acknowledged something positive about the other spouse.
The wife might admit that her husband has been a hard-working and responsible provider, or the husband could note that his wife has been a good mother while also working outside the home. Or, a spouse may validate the other spouse by simply acknowledging that the other spouse has a right to his/her opinions and concerns, whether or not the spouses share those opinions and concerns.
These comments may seem insignificant, but hearing anything complimentary from the other party can help the parties to lower their defenses, and be more positive, constructive and cooperative than ever before.
Being respectful and receptive to the other person’s concerns is equally important after the divorced has been finalized because, especially if there are children of the marriage, both of you are likely to need each other’s flexibility, assistance, or accommodation.
Even though you may not agree with the other person’s statement or request, dismissing, insulting or ridiculing that person will lead to arguments, opposition and impasse. Difficult as it may be to do when you are angry with the other person, try to change your response from “you can’t be serious” into “please explain your concern” or “let’s talk about this.” You may well open the doors to discussion, understanding, respect, and resolution.