Experts on divorce and separation
Each month we will have a guest author: an expert in their field, or a qualified divorce professional, or a well known writer, who will share an article or insights on a divorce related topic. Nothing written constitutes as legal, financial or therapeutic advice.
Navigating a Difficult Divorce:
When Your Ex Won't Cooperate
By Jason Price, LMFT
Constance Ahrons, in her book “The Good Divorce,” describes the healthiest way for couples to navigate the divorce process and create the optimal environment for kids. She states that: “The family undergoes dramatic and unsettling changes in structure and size, but its functions remain the same. The parents continue to be responsible for the emotional, economic, and physical needs of the children.” While a good divorce is something that all couples should aspire to, navigating a divorce process that is steeped in negativity can be daunting. In my practice, one parent often feels that they are engaged in a vicious battle with their ex, and unsure of how to handle the difficult and tenuous road ahead of them. Rational dialogue with their spouse seems to get them nowhere and they feel left to either battle or accept defeat. I regularly hear the following concerns from women who are baffled by the steps their ex has taken in the divorce process
1) decides to move in quickly with another woman (often the person with whom they had an affair) without processing the impact on the kids;
2) withholds financial support;
3) makes disparaging remarks about them to the kids, friends, and/or extended family;
4) abandons the kids or fails to follow through on parental visitation time; and/or
5) needs to “win” and so makes a legal battle out of every potential difference.
Having to deal with each of these issues on their own can be challenging enough, but having to deal with all of these issues at the same time can feel insurmountable. Add to that the difficult grieving process inherent in a divorce, helping the children deal with the frightening changes, re-entering the work world, and moving to a new home, and the process can become paralyzing.
In my practice with women going through the divorce process, the ones who are able to get through it with the least amount of damage share some similar characteristics.
First, they have a strong support system comprised of people who understand the complexities of divorce. Friends and family members ultimately tire of the ins and outs of the divorce process. Utilizing them too often to vent or seek advice on the day to day battles can lead to them distancing themselves, leaving the client feeling alone or burdensome. In addition, friends and family are generally not neutral bystanders. Often, they are grieving the loss of the family themselves, or as friends, are affected by the impact the divorce has on the broader social group. Support groups, friends who have been through their own divorce, and an experienced therapist, provide much of the support necessary to get through the process. They are more likely to really understand the experience and be direct about what things my clients may be doing that are contributing to some of the ongoing problems. They are more effective problem solvers, being able to draw on their own experience with the process of divorce.
Second, they select an attorney they can trust. It is imperative to have an attorney that can align with the client’s ultimate goals, empathize with their experience, and then fight the necessary battles for them. A good attorney won’t agree to fight just to ratchet up billable hours or be dismissive of concerns because they have more pressing litigation. A good attorney will tell the client their options based on the law and offer guidance about when to pursue something and when to let it go.
The clients who get through the process the quickest and with the least pain are the ones who pick and choose their battles. The divorce process will give anyone a lot to be upset about. Trying to correct the mistakes of an ex, especially when they are hurtful to the client and their children, can be beyond frustrating. Deciding when to confront the ex is difficult but essential. My general rule of thumb with clients is to first help them evaluate the degree of harm their ex’s behavior has or will cause. Second, if they decide that they want to approach their ex with their concerns, to try and anticipate how it will be received. If the goal is really to change the ex’s behavior, then they have to decide if the concerns are something they can hear and make use of. If not, it will only create more acrimony.
Lastly, and probably the hardest, is to work really hard to see things from their ex’s perspective. Even when clients are being hurt by their ex’s choices or comments, if they can empathize with what is driving the behavior, then it will typically soften the dialogue. Rather than labeling their behavior as selfish or inconsiderate, if any other motive can be acknowledged, then some sort of productive conversation can happen. (Bonnell, 2014). For instance, an ex-husband in a family that I was working with moved in with the woman he had an affair pretty quickly after he filed for divorce. While I advised against him doing so, he had the need to demonstrate that the other woman really meant something to him and that he wasn’t just abandoning his family on a selfish whim. While it ultimately wasn’t a good decision, the intention behind it wasn’t all bad. As he was being verbally bashed by his wife and kids for the decision to live with her, rather than listen to their concerns, he defended the relationship more vigorously. After time in therapy, it became evident that he was trying to project an image of himself as a man who was a thoughtful decision-maker, and that if he made a decision to do something, it was important to follow through. Once he was able to shift his focus from his own motivation to the impact it was having, he found that his relationship with his children improved.
The divorce process is never easy, but the conflict and acrimony almost always makes it much more difficult. Getting the right support and being mindful of how you are impacting your ex, as opposed to simply reacting out of your own hurt, is essential. Even though divorce can be very hard, research has shown that most people can establish a new life and that children do adjust to their parents breakup.(Trafford, 1992)
Bonnell Karen. (2014). The Co-Parents Handbook. Bellvue, WA. CMC Publishers
Trafford, Abigail. (1992) Crazy Time: Surviving Divorce and Building A New Life. New York, NY.
Harper Collins Ahrons, Constance. (1994). The Good Divorce. New York, NY. Harper Collins.
About the Author: Jason Price LMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist and Co-Director of The Center for Divorce Recovery with ofﬁces in Northbrook, Chicago, and Naperville. Jason specializes in working with individuals, couples, children and their families going through the divorce process, especially when the divorce process has been highly conﬂictual. In addition, Jason provides services to adolescent boys that are often resistant to therapy, utilizing sports, music, social media, and video games to engage them in the process. If you would like to learn more about Jason please call 847-480-0300.