Divorcing well? Divorcing peacefully? Is such a thing even possible? Let’s face it, divorce often generates mutual recrimination and fury, which can lead to ugly, expensive court battles, particularly when children are involved. During a divorce, both partners can become their own evil twins, more intent on inflicting punishment on each other than on ending their tattered marriage.
As counselors and family therapists, we want to spare our clients all this pain by preserving and improving their marriages. But when the marriage obviously can’t be saved, many therapists focus on helping the partners achieve what’s widely called a “good divorce”: a split as humane, rational, and nondamaging as possible.
Increasingly, therapists recognize that even after a marriage ends, most couples continue to be linked together. While the death of a marriage is undoubtedly painful, it doesn’t have to be pathological. If handled well, it can even become a rich opportunity for emotional and spiritual growth.
Yet, to a couple neck deep in the kind of reciprocal fury that only two people who once loved each other deeply can feel, the idea that their divorce could be an opportunity for transformation is as crazy as it is undesirable.
Is there any way to stop the antagonism? Beyond helping these self-declared enemies shed their feelings of anger and vengeance, is it possible to encourage them to be more openhearted and kindly toward each other? I’ve drawn three ¬simple, uncomplicated steps from Buddhist ¬philosophy to help hostile spouses cultivate a spirit of nonviolence, generosity, and compassion toward their ex-partners. Counterintuitive as it seems, practicing these steps can help people find the kind of inner wisdom and peace that acts as an antidote to their self-destructive and aggressive impulses.
Inherent in this approach is an expectation for people to connect with their higher nature—what Buddhists call their “Buddha-nature”—even when they’re in pain. Using Buddhism as the backdrop for understanding the loss and transformation embedded in divorce, the process helps clients move past their knee-jerk emotions to a more enlightened place.
The three steps are:
1. Accept the Way Things Are
2. Choose the Road Less Traveled
3. See the Big Picture
Taken together, they constitute a method that can create subtle internal shifts and powerful behavioral changes. While it’s preferable for both partners to embark on them simultaneously, it isn’t a prerequisite for doing divorce well. The client need not embrace Buddhism to benefit from this approach either.
Divorcing well doesn’t mean that there’ll be no conflict, pain, or challenging situations. It simply means that the divorcing couple, or one member of the couple, chooses to use the process for personal and spiritual growth, thereby launching them both on a healthier trajectory.
I first met Ryan and Beth when they came in for marital therapy, shortly after their 10-year-old son had died of bone cancer. Understandably, they were devastated by their loss which, as is often the case, had exacerbated preexisting tensions in their marriage.
Ryan, a prominent doctor, spent many hours at work, and Beth had always complained that he was away from home too much, didn’t help enough around the house or with the kids, was too tired to have sex, and didn’t pay enough attention to her. Feeling overworked and underappreciated, Ryan retreated from what he perceived as Beth’s harassment, responding with evasions, sullen silence, and even more distance.
Not surprisingly, they got little support from each other while mourning the loss of their son. Over several months, I helped them process their grief, but I couldn’t do much to help them turn toward each other in their pain. When we ended our work together, I sensed a veil of bitterness still hanging between them. So, several years later, when Ryan returned alone for treatment and told me that Beth had asked for a divorce and full custody of their daughter, Hilary, I wasn’t surprised.
Step 1: Accept the Way Things Are. What did surprise me was Ryan’s adamant resistance to the divorce. He was fighting the legal process and feeling betrayed and belligerent. I think part of this was because, on some level, he had been satisfied with an emotionally distant, but stable and dependable, marriage. More than this, he feared change. Like many of us, he found it difficult to let go of old patterns, even if they’d brought him little happiness.
Ryan was active in a liberal Protestant church and found that the language and rituals of his faith were sustaining to him and yet . . . he was clearly open to learning from other spiritual paths. A central tenet of Buddhist teaching that immediately spoke to him was the Eastern perspective on change: the truth that nothing is permanent is not only understood and accepted by Buddhists, but actively embraced. Whether accepting or resisting it, change will continue to occur, and, therefore, they feel that rejecting this fundamental truth brings nothing but suffering. Conversely, accepting the inevitability of change brings peace and wisdom.
This is easier said than done, however, mainly because every change, especially a divorce, is, in essence, a little death, and human beings predictably react to death—and to endings—with anger and depression.
Life as Ryan had known it was over. Accepting this ending, this profound and irrevocable change in his life, was the key psychological task facing him. I suggested that he start to integrate into his days a physical practice of letting go and accepting reality, no matter how painful. One way of doing this is a simple breathing technique of internally chanting a word on the in-breath and another on the out-breath. I asked Ryan to inhale the word let and exhale the word go.
He found that doing the chant when he felt mounting tension helped calm him down. Such a simple technique hardly seems powerful or grandiose enough to help people do something as monumental as accept change. Yet it releases the tight physical grasp we keep on ourselves—on our desires and expectations for the way we think things should be—and helps our minds and bodies flow with life’s natural rhythms.
After a few weeks of conscious breathing whenever something seemed out of control and upsetting, Ryan found that his feelings of rage at Beth and sense of betrayal began to abate.
Step 2: Choose the Road Less Traveled. Once clients begin to feel themselves accepting reality as it unfolds, they need to choose how to accept it. One option is to accept what’s happened with bitterness, animosity, and a determination to punish the ex-spouse. The road less traveled, however, is a commitment to cooperation, a decision by spouses to put the children’s needs above their own, and a desire to maintain a healthy relationship with each other.
While Ryan had decided to take the road less traveled, he found that staying on it was the challenge. At first, things progressed smoothly. After attending a court-mandated “Kids First” seminar required in most states for divorcing couples, he seemed enthusiastic about trying out what he’d learned: that couples shouldn’t insult their ex, fight in front of the children, or use the children as pawns
However, Beth’s ongoing antagonism began to erode his commitment to that path. For instance, she undermined their visiting agreements regarding Hilary, and then sent sarcastic e-mails accusing him of not caring about his daughter. Ryan fell into every trap, easily taking her bait and repeatedly arguing with her and being nasty.
I asked, “Do you like who you become when you relate to Beth?”
“No, she brings out the worst in me,” he said.
“Or rather, you let her. You know,” I added, “If one person changes the dance steps in a relationship, the entire dance pattern begins to change, maybe not at first, but certainly over time.”
So he and I began to experiment with ways that he could change the dance. I asked him to preface his remarks to Beth differently: to start every sentence with a kind phrase and then bridge it with a however. For example, his wife had agreed in mediation to refrain from scheduling appointments for their daughter during “his” time, but she invariably forgot. Rather than just blow up at her, he said, “I know it must be frustrating to try to schedule this dentist appointment when your work schedule is so packed. However, we agreed that you’d schedule this type of appointment on “your” time. I’ve already made other plans for that day, and so I won’t be able to take her to the appointment.”
What begins to happen when people really work with this step is that they find that taking the peaceful path becomes gradually less difficult and more natural; it becomes not so much a question of trying hard as of just being.
Step 3: See the Big Picture. Seeing the big picture means gaining perspective and realizing that any event or period of time, including divorce, is only one piece of the overall puzzle of their lives. While clients may believe that their situation is dire or intolerable, we can help them expand their frame of reference by having them imagine what things might look like in 5 or 10 years.
In trying to help Ryan gain perspective on his situation, I asked him to write a list of 10 things that were better about his divorced life than his married life. He was able to think of 20 things, including not getting yelled at every night when he came home, not being criticized for being unaffectionate, enjoying his one-on-one time with his daughter, and being able to watch football on the weekend without being hassled. His new life was perhaps more complicated as a divorced man, but it clearly had its upside.
Becoming aware of improvements in his life was part of Ryan’s healing, but “seeing the big picture” can also include a farther reaching vision. According to the Buddhist concept of rebirth, Ryan and Beth were joined in working out the vast moral law of causation, or karma. The main point of karma is that every human life is part of a vast, inconceivably complex pattern.
Ryan was able to see that, even though his union with Beth had been unhappy, it had produced two wonderful children who were absolutely meant to be born. Furthermore, his son’s life and death had influenced many people and continued to do so through a scholarship legacy in his name. By engaging in this exercise, he could glimpse the idea that he didn’t make a mistake in marrying Beth, but that both the marriage and divorce were part of an endless process of learning and growing.
Do Ryan and Beth have an easy, relaxed friendship now? Well no, not always. Ryan continues to see me every other month, just to check in and review interactions with his ex. Staying on the peaceful path is a journey that requires regular vigilance and support.
The last time he was at Beth’s house to pick up Hilary for the weekend, they began to discuss the next summer’s vacation and camp plans. Ryan knew this had been a sticking point in the past, and he didn’t feel they could or should discuss this casually. He suggested that they find a time in the near future to work out the details so that they’d both be comfortable with the arrangements. Beth agreed.
And then Beth said, “You know, Ryan, I pray for you at night.”
“How did you respond?” I asked.
“I told her thanks, and I pray for you, too.”
This blog is excerpted from “Divorcing Well” by Ashley Davis Prend. The full version is available in the May/June 2008 issue, The New Face of America: Psychology Takes on the Immigration Debate.
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Ashley Davis Prend
Ashley Davis Prend, LCSW, ACSW, is a psychotherapist and grief counselor in private practice in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She’s the author of Transcending Loss and Claim Your Inner Grown-Up. She’s also the cohost of the mental health radio program Heart to Heart on Portsmouth Community Radio.