Excerpted from Between Love And Hate: A Guide To Civilized Divorce
By Lois Gold, M.S.W. (Penguin USA 1996)
“Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate…”
John F. Kennedy
This is the first in a series of articles by Lois
Gold, author of Between Love And Hate:
A Guide To Civilized Divorce.
In this article, an excerpt from
Chapter 12, Lois focuses on preparing
yourself to be at your best as a negotiator. Although it is written for
separating or divorcing couples, the principles are applicable to any disputants who have had or
will continue to have a relationship.
Treat Settlement Discussions With Respect
In most negotiations there is a point at which real bargaining takes place…. “I’ll give you this or
do that, if you do this or give me that.” This kind of bargaining is uncomfortable, if not repugnant, to
many people. The idea of trying to strike a deal over how many days of Christmas vacation the children
will be with you, or how much money will be traded off for the treasured antique tea service violates the
spirit of these things.
You will find it painful to put dollar values on a life created together and to treat the ending of a
marriage as a business deal. Your possessions are symbolic of the life you created together. Each item
partitioned is a reminder of what was once whole. Each item traded and divided brings you closer to
facing the imposing reality that it is over. On one level the settlement negotiations are really about how
much you were valued, cared about, and respected. They are about wanting to be acknowledged.
Negotiating in the framework of our adversarial legal system can create such animosity, competition, and
conflict that people who once shared life dreams with each other feel like they never mattered at all. It is
a terrible way to bring five, ten or twenty years of your life to a close. Underneath it all, everyone wants
to know that he was valued.
When an attorney handles the divorce negotiations at arm’s length, the discomfort and pain of
bargaining over the value of a life built together is somewhat removed. In many ways it is easier
emotionally to have someone else handle it for you. But an attorney can’t do it all. You still have to deal
with each other. As you prepare to talk to each other, remember that your spouse has also anguished over
the failures in your marriage and has experienced all the hurt and angry feelings that you have. In your
heart of hearts, you both probably wish things hadn’t turned out this way. As much as you disagree about
what is fair, and as heated as the settlement negotiations may get, try to be respectful of the fact that you
are undoing what were once sacred vows.
Are you ready to negotiate?
The failure to deal sensitively with the other party as a human being can jeopardize even the
most high level negotiations. The first question is, “Are you ready to be reasonable?” Has enough time
passed that you are able to put aside the hurt and angry feelings and deal rationally with the decisions
that need to be made or are you still reeling from the aftershock, hating or missing your mate? You have
to ask yourself if you are fundamentally ready to do “business” with your spouse, and, if your spouse is
ready to be reasonable with you? Here are questions that will help you examine your readiness. Answer
yes, no, or sometimes.(1)
1. Do I want to resolve these issues equitably?
2. Am I willing to put aside my anger and deal with the issues in a rational manner?
3. Are the issues negotiable? Am I willing to make compromises and give some things up?
4. Do I value the importance of the children’s relationship with the other parent, despite my feelings about him as a spouse?
5. Am I willing to work to keep the channels of communication open?
6. Can I accept that we will have differences of perception and in what we think is fair?
7. Have I stopped blaming my spouse for the divorce?
8. Do I feel that my spouse is basically fair minded?
9. Am I ready emotionally to deal with the final settlement?
If you have more than two “No’s,” you may not be ready to embark on the final settlement negotiations. Your feelings may be too raw, you may still feel too angry, or you may not have come to terms with your role in the divorce. Consider waiting until you have had more time to heal and gain perspective. The same is obviously true of your spouse. One of you may be more ready to be reasonable than the other. It is best to wait until you are both ready. Pushing it only leads to a more conflictual settlement process. If you need help with interim decisions, seeing a mediator can be very helpful.
What worked well in the past?
There have undoubtedly been times in the past (think hard now!) when you did resolve your differences well, and were able successfully to solve a problem together. These will not necessarily stand out in your mind as you struggle with the conflicts of the divorce negotiations. You bring out the worst in each other now. It is hard to remember that it wasn’t always this way. If you can recall what worked well in the past, you can use it now. One of the new approaches to short term psychotherapy is called “solution oriented” therapy. The idea is that instead of just analyzing a problem, the therapist helps you examine what is going on when the problem is not occurring. This way you can get a clear picture of your interactions and relationships when they go well and can learn from your successes. We are conditioned to see what isn’t working, what we don’t want to happen anymore, and what the problems are; we rarely have as well-defined a picture of the successful parts. It is useful to look back at your problem solving and negotiating successes in this respect, even if they were few and far between. Past successes are resources. The more you are aware of the skills you possess, the more you can consciously and intentionally tap into them.
Taking Inventory: An Exercise
1. Take a moment to think back in your marriage and recall three instances in which you successfully resolved an issue with your spouse or former spouse. Remember how you each handled yourselves and what you each did or said. Write down what characterized those situations and their successes. How did you contribute and how did you spouse contribute? When the list is completed, think about how you can apply any of those successful behaviors to your current situation.
2. List two things your spouse or former spouse does now that contributes to discussions or interactions going well. My former husband, for instance, once said in the midst of a heated argument full of accusations and counter accusations: “This is not helpful, we have to look at what we can do about this now.” His comment cut through a situation that was out of control and enabled us to get back on track.
3. List two things that you do now that contribute to having successful discussions.
4. What have you found to be the most effective means of getting along with your spouse since the
5. What does your spouse do that infuriates you or pushes your buttons? List three things you can do that
are “solution oriented” when this happens.
6. Are you aware of what you do, say, or how you come across that frustrates or infuriates your spouse?
7. When do your discussion go best? What approach to each other seems the most helpful? (Describe in
terms of the presence of positive behaviors rather than the absence of negative ones.)
8. What are the two things you have to remember that will help you get along better. Write them down
in big letters on the cover of your divorce file or in some other place like next to the phone where you can
be reminded of them before dealing with your spouse. For example –let him know he is really important
to the kids; or don’t talk about money when the kids are being dropped off.
What Are The Red Flags – Anticipate The Most Sensitive Issues
When you can anticipate sensitive or inflammatory issues, you can deal with them more
delicately. These issues exist in every divorce. Sometimes they are related to a person’s past.
Sometimes they are related to the circumstances of the break up. They touch a profound sense of what is
fair or a deep emotional wound. One client with alcoholic parents, who had made it the hard way
supporting himself all through high school, college and graduate school, was adamant about not
supporting his ex wife to finish college. This issue made him see red. Another client was unwilling to
tolerate the children’s being around her husband’s new lover who had been a mutual friend.
These issues run to the core. They tend to cool down with time if their intensity and meaning are
respected. Walk gently into these dark nights. Choose your words carefully. Acknowledge your
spouse’s right to his feelings, although you don’t have to totally accept the demands that come with them.
Try putting yourself in your partner’s shoes. If this had been your life circumstance, how would you feel?
How would you react? If you are the one having an intense reaction to a settlement issue, try to identify
what is behind your reaction. How does your reaction relate to your personal history?
List any red flag or highly sensitive issues in your divorce for your spouse and for yourself.
The more mutual respect there can be for highly
sensitive issues, the more
potential for healing and the less danger these issues
have of becoming
inflamatory and escalating conflict.
1. This questionnaire is based on the ideas about readiness to do parenting “business” with your spouse that appear in Mom’s House Dad’s House, by Isolina Ricci. See Chapter 3 of that book for additional self- surveys to assess where you stand.