How to Achieve Civility in Divorce
Recently, I coordinated a program for collaborative practitioners with the Great Lakes Civility Project. It was a 90-minute virtual Civility Session, where we explored what civility is, why we need it in these trying times for our country, and how each of us can begin to build civility into our existing relationships. (Watch the session here.)
I had participated in Civility Sessions before, which is why I felt it was important to bring it to my colleagues in the Collaborative Practice sphere. By definition, collaborative practitioners seek ways to compromise, to find common ground, to create solutions that serve all involved. And yet, even we at times have trouble always being civil.
Frankly, don’t all people?
In the situation of a divorce, emotions run high and vulnerabilities do, too. My clients and their soon-to-be ex-spouses both have things to lose and things to gain as the marriage ends, and sometimes winning feels like redemption if we are sad and feel rejected by the breakup. But winning is not always the best outcome.
What Stephen Henderson and Nolan Finley of the Civility Project teach is that all good people want the same outcomes – they just differ in how they will get there. I believe that’s true in divorce, too. Even when we are hurt by a marriage ending, possibly initiated by the other person, we want happiness, prosperity, security and to know that we are worthy of love. In the temporary fog of divorce, we can forget that the relationship might be over but both people’s lives (and the lives of their children) are ongoing and meaningful.
When people divorce, they can’t possibly agree on everything. Frankly, during the marriage, it’s unlikely that they agreed on everything! We all have different perspectives on everything from money to parenting, and I tell my clients that they didn’t agree while married, after the divorce, they’ll agree even less and have less control over the decisions their spouse is making.
The principles of civil discourse, as presented by Nolan and Stephen, are as follows:
- A conversation is not a competition. Nor is it intended to convert the other person to your way of thinking.
- Set honest goals for a conversation.
- Learn to listen fully – which means not jumping in with a retort when the other person stops speaking. It means, asking follow-up questions and regurgitating what they said after they said it, so you know you’ve truly heard it.
- See the person behind their politics. In a divorce setting, I’d say, see the person behind the breakup. See them as human if you can. It’s the only way to have fair and easy interactions.
Taking it one step further from just a civil conversation, in a co-parenting situation, you have to be more accepting of your ex-spouse’s different beliefs or values. All people come to their beliefs on the basis of experiences and values and all people make decisions that they think are going to serve them, their family, their community. So when your ex makes a decision for the kids that you wouldn’t, it doesn’t mean they’re evil or out to get you. It means they parent differently from you.
Whether in the professional sphere, or in our relationships, we could all stand to become more civil. If civility were the goal, how different would our lives be?