Even when we are hurt, angry, sad and confused many of us try to find an honest and authentic voice with which to speak to our husbands and wives or partners as we struggle through separation and divorce. There are two really interesting things about this reflection. One is simply that we do often try to make a true connection even when we are coming apart from the other. The second is how challenging it is to find an authentic voice in an intimate relationship that is ending. Frankly, it is difficult enough to find that true genuine voice even in an ongoing relationship.
What inspires people to try to make something positive out of their changing relationship despite a deep human desire for revenge? I think it is the dual desire to make sense out of their own situation along with a desire to continue to value the piece of their life that has been devoted to the now ending relationship.
Whether or not a person going through a divorce or break up wants to honor the former relationship by finding some value remaining, many if not most people want to hold onto their best self and not feel themselves thrown about with little control on the seas of their emotions. It is an challenge to speak from the heart about what is most important to us while facing a person who has hurt or betrayed us or when we are very anxious.
Dr. Harriet Lerner (who I have often quoted in previous entries) lists the following three attributes among others as necessary to an authentic voice:
- We can listen and ask questions that allow us to know the other person and to gather information about anything that may affect us;
- We can say what we think and feel, state differences and allow the other person to do the same;
- We can define our values, convictions, principles, and priorities and do our best to act in accordance with them.
This seems like a definition of conversation rather than argument. If we decide that we want to be in conversation about the end of our marriage or partnership (rather than in warfare), we need to actively decide it and we need to nurture the self that can do it. If we don’t choose it we risk losing our sense of integrity and self-esteem.
That may be a strong statement but it is one that I have observed to be true. People are angry and hurt and that is not to be unacknowledged or unaddressed. I do not for one minute want to stifle or deny anyone’s pain, sadness or anger. These feelings are legitimate and need to be addressed. When those feelings take over the person, however, when there is little else left of the person’s self, that person is at risk for letting their divorce define who they are.
This takeover can happen in little and big ways. It’s obvious when someone is consumed with thoughts of revenge and anger. In New York Divorces, our old fault system encouraged people to stay in a place of reaction through the “Cruel and Inhuman Treatment” cause of action used in so many divorce actions. Its not so obvious but still insidious and very common (even usual) when people have trouble listening to the other’s perspective. Where there is little or no room for two or more points of view. Dr. Lerner says, “Perhaps nothing leaves us more vulnerable than the threat of relationship loss. When we’re drowning in emotions, its impossible to think creatively or clearly. We may think we’re thinking but in reality we’re just reacting.”
I have been impressed over the years at the ability of many of my clients and their spouses to attempt again and again to reach over the rift in their relationship and find a new way to connect with the person with whom they have shared the last years. If there are children involved, the ability of the parents to communicate may very well influence the impact the breakup has on the future of those children.
People who are able to find a way to express themselves, including their feelings, in a time of crisis are able to think about how best to do so. They are able to observe the other person and adjust their communication style in a manner that allows them to hear and be heard in the exchange. How do they do it? Often they get help. They chose a process like Collaborative Divorce or mediation that feels appropriate to their situation. They find professionals who can hear what is most important to them and help them express those things clearly. They find ways to express and manage their emotions in a constructive way.