Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life (Penguin/Perigee 2010) excerpts
The 8 Keys to Resolving Family Conflict:
1. Be hard on the problem, not the people.
2. Understand that acknowledging and listening are not the same as obeying.
3. Use “I” statements.
4. Give the benefit of the doubt.
5. Have awkward conversations in real time.
6. Keep the conversation going. Life is a dialogue.
7. Ask yourself “Would I rather be happy or right?”
8. Be easy to talk to.
Key 1: Be hard on the problem, not the people.
Change the nature of the fight and you’ll change the dynamic. Stop throwing stones in arguments. Using blame, shame, or guilt to get your spouse to do something will become less effective as your relationship ends, because each of you will stop making the little concessions you once made for each other in the relationship. Instead, address the problem rather than laying blame on your spouse. For example, “Whether or not to sell our house is a tough decision; we both have a lot of work to do, and I would like to work together to figure this out” works much better than “If you’d only earned more money while we were married, we wouldn’t have to think about selling our house.”
If you don’t keep the problem separate from your relationship, you risk having the conflict overtake your life (especially after your divorce). When two people who are stakeholders in a relationship are at odds, they sometimes say and do all sorts of irrational things, project, deny, and shift blame.
All this drama has nothing to do with solving your problem. But there are things you can do to focus hard on the problem, not the person. The goal is to work with your spouse, rather than being adversarial.
Though many of these points are common sense, when the relationship gets tangled up in the problem, things can get volatile fast—and common sense gets lost. When you are hard on people, they are no longer open and available to you to help with the problem. You end up with a problem plus an argument to solve. When your spouse knows he is safe from automatically being blamed for a situation, he’ll be able to think strategically rather than defensively. You’ll be able to work cooperatively and collaboratively rather than at odds with each other.
Key 4: Give the benefit of the doubt.
Before, during, and after your divorce, you’re going to have lots of opportunities to test your ability to give your spouse the benefit of the doubt.
Here’s an example: Your spouse is late for a meeting with the bank to see if you can refinance your house. Your first inclination is to take it personally. “How dare she be late again! She does this just to drive me crazy!” But there are also thousands of other plausible explanations which have nothing to do with you: the line at the grocery store was long, and the checker was new; the hamster got out of the cage and had to be found before leaving the house; an important phone call came from a family member at an inopportune time and she didn’t have the heart to tell the caller to put a lid on it.
Maybe these explanations are true and maybe they aren’t. If this is not habitual behavior, then find it within yourself to extend the benefit of the doubt. If it’s just once in a while, it’s ultimately easier on everyone not to take it personally. Your blood pressure will thank you.
Any time you feel frustrated, annoyed, or mildly irritated, remember that your spouse is human and so are you. We all have our bad days. Also, one day you may be the one asking for the benefit of the doubt, and it helps to pay it forward.
Offering the benefit of the doubt helps you practice seeing the best in your spouse. Perhaps you haven’t seen that in a while. Maybe that’s because you’ve been looking for the worst. You and your spouse are both good people who are going through a very hard time right now. Allow your spouse to save face, and when it’s your turn to ask for the same favor, it will be an easier request to honor.
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