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Conflict Resolution Professionals and Divorce

Divorce is a painful and seemingly, but not actually, ironic experience for professionals who work in conflict management. We are knowledgeable and skilled in prevention and intervention in various conflicts and perhaps are very successful, yet often find ourselves in unhealthy marriages. Our spouses and children mockingly may say, “Physician, heal thyself.” This essay focuses on this paradox.

Whatever our resumes say about our achievements, we are unavoidably human. We bring to our relationships all that we have experienced and are. If our parents raised us with strong emotional bonding, love, and encouragement, we bring a strong emotional foundation for all later relationships. If we grew up in doubt about our worth or, if we experienced traumatic events, we carry these things into every relationship. We know this.

Seeds of Divorce

The seeds of divorce are planted and nurtured by both parties, sometimes more by one than the other. We change, our spouses change. We experience and create harm, as do they. One party may be more prone to creating conflict than the other. Third parties affect our relationship. Perhaps a friendship at work becomes more than that. Perhaps a family tragedy occurs and the consequences alter emotional stability or perceptions. One partner may become substance-dependent, or develop a gambling addiction. The seeds of destruction are as varied as the human capacity to plant them, from benign neglect (what a non sequitur) to open aggression.

Nurturing our careers can displace nurturing our closest relationships. Personal growth can lead to a natural distancing from others who are not changing and developing with us. Our own neurotic frameworks and tendencies can interfere with our abilities to hear others, or to say what we intend. Past betrayals may build invisible walls that prevent intimacy with anyone, even those who may love us most.

Combine any of these factors in both parties and anticipate compounded problems. While many readers are mediators, arbitrators, therapists, family counselors, divorce attorneys, and family court judges, our personal lives sometimes are exact replicas of the worst cases we see.

Seeds of Love

We sometimes see mismatched, irascible, even psychologically impaired couples, who mysteriously or miraculously manage to maintain their marriages for life. For centuries, the religious taboo of divorce discouraged many people from ending marriages containing severe violence or other forms of abuse. On the other hand, sometimes the taboo, coupled with religious commands to love or forgive, created conditions and capacities for tolerance in one or both partners that led to marriages with more good than bad in them.

We can sow seeds of love, and we do. We love strangers and clients by not dumping our emotional garbage on them. We know we will alienate them by our negations. We respect them enough to control our emotions, even to shape our responses so they will feel positive towards us. We love them enough to behave in ways that build relationships. People who care about conflict resolution as more than an income should love our partners in life in the same way. Even if their personalities are difficult, they deserve not to be the dumping ground for our unhappiness. While all intimate relationships experience stress and require tolerance, our marriage license does not give license for a double standard for how conflict professionals ought to relate to their loved ones.

Most of us, even the most damaged of us, respond over time to repeated, consistent, gifts of loving speech and behavior. When we are respected, when others listen carefully to us, when others forgive our rudeness, when they still relate to us with favor after a particularly difficult time, these experiences reach deep into our hearts and minds. We love people who love us. Most of our spouses and family members are precisely as we are.

Making a regular commitment to sow seeds of love will produce good results for all but the pathologically disinclined. To be sure, one partner—ourselves included—may need psychological or pharmaceutical assistance. In most situations, regular, predictable, unremitting words and deeds will lead to responses in kind. Even marriages with long histories of conflict will experience incremental, progressive change under these conditions. Conflict prevention and reduction in marriage is achievable in many cases by one partner’s consistently answering the question, “What small, good thing can I can say or do for my spouse, regardless of whether it is received or appreciated?”

There are partners who are unable to receive or appreciate these seeds of love, interpreting them only through the distorted lenses of their pathological conditions. What harm does it do to the conflict professional, nevertheless, to refrain from retaliation, to withhold angry and harmful words, or to refuse to pour emotional accelerant on such partners? One of my best friends, now deceased, was married to a person with the most chronic psychological and behavioral profile, yet consistently acted out of genuine love despite decades of traumatic situations. The surviving spouse now understands that love and cherishes the memories.

Divorce With Love

While we may and should be ashamed of our roles in bringing harm and suffering to our spouses and, while we may not be able to undo the past, sometimes our marriages are, as the legal language states, “irretrievably broken.” How one manages emotions and behaviors during and after divorce does not preclude showing seeds of love, even when the other person throws the emotional gasoline, and builds a case for retaliation.

Prayer for the welfare, health, and healing of partner is a good place to start. If one is an atheist, nothing prevents a personal decision to will and intend these outcomes for the other person. One can begin by listing the good qualities, the good memories, the inner core of the partner’s humanity, all worthy of love. Whether in beginning or ending one’s day, the sincere and earnest prayer peace and healing for the other person achieves several things. (1) A positive psychological orientation to the partner is established. (2) That orientation checks or modifies hostility or retaliation. (3) Daily repetition is a reminder of the core value of love. (4) The power of prayer works subconsciously and spiritually in other relationships during the day. (5) This is a good way to live.

Divorce and Professional Conduct

Divorce is one of life’s most traumatic events, evoking feelings of failure based on fact, introducing a series of stressful and painful events. Learning how to prevent failure in our personal relationships, learning from past failures, can be a gold mine for our work in conflict management. The dynamics of preventing or healing from divorce contain so much we need as we serve others in different situations.

How we manage our personal relationships is not only an issue of professional integrity. While we can serve clients and remain highly dysfunctional persons (which surely affects our client load!), if we really care about what we do, we owe it to our clients to be healthy, open to learning from our mistakes, and capable of demonstrating the best of what we recommend to them. As we learn to sow seeds of love, as we see the benefits of these principles in action under circumstances where love seems illogical or impossible, we will become better servants for those who come seeking help from us.


John Willis

John D. Willis, PhD is an expert in conflict dynamics and drivers, psychological and social; a practitioner in EEO grievances and conciliation; and, consultant to executives on conflict and ethics.  John earned his PhD from the University of Chicago, with concentration on the motives and justifications of the religious wars… MORE >

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