When someone tells me that they are considering divorce, I often suggest that their first call shouldn’t be to a lawyer. Rather, I say that investing in a relationship with a skillful mental health professional is usually the place to start, unless there is active domestic violence in the relationship. That’s because divorce is 80% emotional, 10% financial and 10% legal.
Sometimes they tell me that they’re doing “just fine.” I’m usually a bit skeptical, unless they also share that they have been discussing splitting up for a long time, have worked through their emotions about it, and each partner feels psychologically ready to move on with their life. Most folks aren’t quite there yet. That’s ok. You can get there with the correct support. Divorce is a major life transition and an adjustment.
Since divorce is a grieving process, it is natural to feel ok one day, and not so great the next. Healing is not linear. Even when we feel prepared or confident in the decision to separate, divorce will bring up a lot of emotions we don’t even know we have. Pain, loss, and an overwhelming feeling of betrayal are common. So are loneliness, helplessness, and confusion. And even if you don’t feel angry or anxious right now, you undoubtedly will at some point in the process, or I’d submit you are not human.
A skillful, licensed mental health professional with expertise and interest in divorce and family systems is worth their weight in gold. They help you name your feelings so you can let them go. You want to process those strong emotions so that they do not dominate and control your legal and financial decision-making. Many people don’t know exactly what they are feeling because they spend so much time focusing on the other people in their life. But you’re not going to be of much help to the people that you love until you take care of yourself. This is the quintessential “put the oxygen mask on yourself first, before you put it on someone else” moment of life.
It is time to get out of denial and into your emotional intelligence. Put simply, emotional intelligence — also known as emotional quotient, or EQ — is the ability to recognize, manage and understand your own emotions and the emotions of others. As the Institute for Health and Human Potential puts it: “It’s a scientific fact that emotions precede thought. When emotions run high, they change the way our brains function…diminishing our cognitive abilities, decision-making powers, and even interpersonal skills. Understanding and managing our emotions (and the emotions of others) helps us to be more successful in both our personal and professional lives.” This awareness will come in handy during your divorce. When we engage our emotional intelligence, we can respond in positive ways to overcome challenges, empathize with others, and communicate more effectively with the people around us, including our spouses who often trigger us the most.
According to author Susan David, a psychologist on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, people deal with emotions by “bottling” and “brooding.” Bottling is when we try to tamp down our emotions so that we don’t have to deal with them. “You’re upset with a person,” says David, “You’re feeling angry because you feel exploited, and what you do is you tell yourself, ‘I’m just not going to go there.”
Brooding is when you’re so enmeshed in your emotions that you find it impossible to focus on anything else. “It’s like you can’t let go and you obsess over the hurt, a perceived failure, or a shortcoming,” she says. Both of these behaviors make it difficult to understand how we are feeling.
David suggests that in order to make it through difficult situations, we need to learn how to be emotionally agile. In her groundbreaking book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, she offers this practical wisdom: rather than trying to deal with our emotions, we need to give ourselves permission to feel them, even when they’re unpleasant or uncomfortable. When we can name, feel and express our emotions and — here’s where the agility part comes in — we can make more rational choices about what actions to take next. We overcome our more primitive fight, flight or freeze response to adversity and challenge. We then re-engage our higher executive functioning.
At this point you might be wondering why the choices you make now are so important. Consider the people in your life, including your spouse, your kids, and your extended family. Making thoughtful decisions now about how to move through your divorce will make the whole situation easier on everyone around you, including yourself. Start to lay the groundwork now for how you envision your life to be in the future. It all starts with you.
Of course, emotional agility is not an end point. It’s a learning process like any other. To make sure that you keep moving forward as you consider separation and divorce, I encourage you to look into a Collaborative Divorce. This process is the opposite of the lawyer-driven, adversarial process that is all too familiar and popularized in our culture. With Collaborative Divorce, there’s a team of professionals to guide you and your spouse through the process, legally, emotionally and financially.
In a Collaborative Divorce, you move forward at your own pace and on your own terms. No one is rushing you into court. In fact, you probably will never see the inside of a courtroom with a Collaborative Divorce. Because you’re working with, not against, your partner, there’s no reason to go before a judge. Strong feelings and difficult conversations are handled within the process. There are no bitter battles that play out in a public forum. There is no shame or blame.
Divorce is an emotional process. We can’t avoid that fundamental truth. Collaborative Divorce is designed to create an emotionally safe environment where you can feel your feelings, express them appropriately, and learn to communicate more effectively with the person you love and who is about to transition into the role of your former spouse. It’s important that at one of the most difficult times of your life you are able to make the right call.