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Divorce: Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em

Rachel Alexander June 12, 2016

{5:36 minutes to read} Recently, a young man, Dave*, called the office, reeling from the discovery of his wife’s infidelity and, even more so, from the lies she told to cover it up. As a divorce mediator and family law attorney, it’s not unusual to receive a call from someone experiencing painful emotions. This young man wanted to schedule an appointment as soon as possible and begin an action for divorce. Dave was shaken, triggered and emotionally hijacked. He was in crisis and aiming to push through it into action.

When a person calls inquiring into mediation on the bruised and blistered heels of a triggering event, my first goal is not to schedule an appointment. My first goal is to introduce a calmer, slower pace so that the reasoning part of the brain—the left or rational part that goes offline when emotional flooding occurs—is invited back into the conversation. I know crisis, and when someone is in the midst of it, it is definitely time to take action, but it’s often not the action first identified by the person in crisis.

Starting a mediation process should not be a reactive, reflexive decision. People who enter into the process or schedule an appointment immediately after a provoking event are often not ready to proceed. Once they have regained their equilibrium, they typically call to cancel. Those that get as far as the first appointment usually don’t make it further. They aren’t in the right place yet.

Often a one-time bad act or traumatic event results in a phone call to a divorce mediator, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to divorce. Nor should it. As I conveyed to the young fellow on the phone: divorce, as an option, isn’t going anywhere. It will be available should you need it, but it’s not your only choice.

There are times when divorce might be the right option, but it almost never needs to be the first one.

Launching into a divorce, before having a chance to process what’s happened, may be hasty and harmful. When done as a way to strike out or demonstrate anger, it is typically met with a retaliatory attitude of hostility and aggression. Things get stirred up rather than resolved.

Allowing a settling, both within and without (i.e. internally and situationally), and providing yourself the kindness of time, can be a way to show yourself compassion and begin the recovery from the incident.

Give your feelings a chance to catch up. It is always of value to allow the rational brain to come back on board before you launch into any action. Marsha Linehan calls this “wise mind.” It’s the state when both the emotional/intuitive brain and the reasoning/rational mind are equally engaged. Linehan recommends making no decision until you are in wise mind. Having the benefit of your whole self, calm and grounded, before making a major decision or taking a significant action, is worth the wait.

The next day, Dave called back. He said: “I’m going to wait a bit and see how I feel.” He said: “I realize I was feeling out of control, acted upon, powerless. Racing to get to a mediator and start the process was a way to try to regain control. I’m going to sift through things a bit more.

Dave was demonstrating strong insight and clarity—signs that he was already in a more centered place—and he was, in fact, taking quite conscious and meaningful control in his decision to give himself time. The choice to slow down and settle was the action needed. This does not mean that he won’t decide to divorce, only that if he does, he will be deciding from a conscious, centered place.

Even though the illusion that by pulling the trigger, any trigger, is taking control, it isn’t. It’s reacting, which is simply an extension of being acted upon. Or out of control.

Spaciousness in considering things and compassion towards oneself in times of crisis are usually the right actions, subtle and undramatic as they may be. This may be more uncomfortable in the moment, but it lays the foundation for a more positive, honest outcome.

When in doubt, pause, breathe, and keep company with yourself. Lao Tzu said: “Compassion towards yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.” For each one of us, that could be the first right act.

*Any incidents referencing a client are fictionalized for educational purposes and do not refer in any way to actual people or situations.