My grandmother gave me some very wise advice a long time ago. The soft-spoken, smart and sassy sage said, “Always remember that you should only marry someone you can divorce.” This opinion was not offered to suggest that I should divorce the person I would eventually marry, but rather to recommend that the person I marry be someone that is reasonable and respectful when there is a major conflict or confrontation.
In my practice as a divorce mediator, therapist, and coach, I am confronted on a daily basis with clients who are amazed that their controlling, aggressive, selfish spouse is behaving in a controlling, aggressive, or selfish way in the divorce process. To them, I declare: “You only separate from the person you are married to.” With that said, it would be foolish to expect that the dynamics of the divorce be dramatically different than the dynamics in the marriage. In fact, the divorce is more likely to be a caricature of the marriage.
Keep in mind that divorce is a dramatic and traumatic ordeal that intensifies characteristics in men and women. It heightens feelings and emotions and exacerbates moods and behavior to an oftentimes-exaggerated degree.
This means that if your spouse was a yeller or screamer – go for the earplugs, as the noise will get louder. If your spouse was mean, cruel, or callous – get your thick skin ready and a coat of armor, as they are likely to up the ante. The person you once knew will be a hyperbolic version of their married self. By the same token, if you were married to a reasonable, collaborative negotiator, you are likely to experience a peaceful and respectful process that is similar to the way conflict was dealt with in your marriage.
In order to assist in managing expectations during divorce, I have identified 10 common characteristics that you may likely experience in your divorce:
1. Conflict avoiders in the marriage will put off completing financial statements and the necessary steps to move the process forward.
2. Bullies in the marriage will try and intimidate through lawyers, court, emails, and any other vehicle they can find.
3. Control freaks in the marriage will tell YOU how the divorce is going to go down.
4. Abusive spouses will become more threatening.
5. If low self-esteem was an issue in the marriage, the divorce will unleash even more massive insecurities.
6. Angry partners will become bitter and furious combatants.
7. Narcissists and Borderlines will turn the tables.
8. Peacemaking partners will look for solutions and will aim to settle.
9. Impulsive partners will become more unregulated.
10. Pessimists will see divorce as the end of the world and will behave accordingly; optimists will see divorce as the end of the marriage and an important chapter and will move forward eventually.
So what can you do to take control of dynamics you are likely to encounter in your divorce? Here are 10 Steps that will help you avoid falling into the patterns that got in your way in the marriage:
1. Anticipate your soon-to-be ex’s character traits; make a list (both positive and negative).
2. Imagine how the above-noted traits might manifest in a stressful situation (use relationship history and research to inform).
3. Develop your awareness: identify how you have reacted to your spouse’s traits and behavior in the past.
4. Prepare, prepare, prepare: make a list of the ways you can respond differently to the predictable behavior from your spouse.
5. Leave yourself friendly reminders that say “this behavior is to be expected” so you are not surprised when you continue to get “more of the same” from your spouse (voice memos, post it notes, henna tattoo).
6. Acknowledge that your wish for your spouse to behave in new and different ways is not a goal you can control.
7. Accept and appreciate that there may be exceptions to the “you only separate from the person you were married to rule”.
8. Don’t expect the exceptions to be the rule.
9. Be patient and pay attention to the small shifts in the system that will occur if you change the way you respond to the same behavior.
10. Celebrate your power to change the dynamic by changing the way you behave, respond, and disengage from unhealthy patterns.
To quote Albert Einstein, the definition of insanity is: “Doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.” If you move forward using different thinking than you did in the marriage in spite of the fact that your spouse is using the same thinking – you will achieve a different result. Don’t delude yourself that your soon-to-be ex will transform from unreasonable to reasonable or become generous when they have always been stingy. Instead, take control of your responses, reactions, and counter moves. Move forward with the expectation that your spouse will pour the same wine out of a different bottle; instead, take charge of if, when, and how you drink it.