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Focusing & Divorce: (Part 3) Take Nothing Literally

Focusing & Divorce: Take Nothing Literally (Part 3)

{6 minutes to read} Our series of three articles examines how several Focusing concepts lend themselves to navigating conflicted relationships and informing divorce mediation. Article 1 examined the one in there and Article 2 concerned the right distance. Article, 3 of the series, explores how “taking nothing literally” can transform communications and create options where none are apparent.

Focusing Institute logoFocusing Oriented Therapy concentrates on how change occurs. A desire to change is the reason people seek treatment, and the inability to change is why treatment fails. Many other therapeutic approaches concentrate on insight, analysis, and causation, and though this often results in clients gaining an understanding of what went wrong, it offers no clear way forward — no transformation, no way to live differently. The intellectualizing of issues and identification of their origins does not automatically, alone, result in resolution. Clients are often left with insight but without relief. Focusing operationalizes a process required for change. Not just theoretically, but in real-time. Therefore, it is interesting to apply a focusing approach to the challenges of divorce mediation and explore what help focusing can offer.

PART 3: Take Nothing Literally

One focusing application, taking nothing literally, invites us to relate differently to everything. It calls for listening carefully to communications but adds that we expand listening so as to hear the essence, poetry, and unuttered expression beyond the words. Listening to what another is saying is vital in the process of relating. Holding space while listening, for more than is being said — for what is being implied, indicated — is the beginning of taking nothing literally. The approach is particularly important for complex communications about crucial matters, especially when emotions are inflamed.

Perhaps we take up listening with the same ears we use when attending a symphony — observer ears. Perhaps we read an email with the eyes used to read a novella — open, discovering, integrating eyes. These different ways of approaching interactions shift the conflict dynamic from attack, defend, deflect, and shut down, to interest. This approach ameliorates the threat and our automated responses to fear.

The usefulness of taking nothing literally is best illustrated through examples. Fortunately/unfortunately divorce provides no shortage of examples. One spouse might threaten another with, “If you go through with this, you will get nothing!” Taking this literally to mean that your divorce settlement and support will be zero, can lead to a rush of anger and alarm. How can one meaningfully and reasonably address such a declaration?

If taken at face value, and engaged with literally, both people are now backed against walls with no room for movement into the realm of possibilities. If the recipient of the above were to instead allow for the threat to land without taking the actual meaning of the words as the only information being transmitted, the recipient steps away from the wall and makes room for a multitude of options. The recipient can consider that perhaps this outburst is:

  • An expression of rage, frustration, perceived powerlessness, overwhelm of loss, or desperation.

  • An attempt to maneuver the other back into line through fear or dominance.

  • An outcry of conflicted, wrenching emotions that do not have a better way to be expressed

  • An indication that the speaker is not in a place for rational conversation and needs to have some time to calm down

If the words are taken literally, the contagion of fear would spread to the recipient and an escalating battle would ensue. If the words are taken more as a brush stroke of a larger portrait, or chords in a song, the recipient can call upon her creativity and bring her larger understanding to bear. The recipient hears the words but is not limited to responding [at all, of course] to the words alone.

And then the speaker has the benefit of expressing something without it being taken up as fact; it is instead given space to linger and ultimately settle, often to be reabsorbed into the atmosphere without causing lasting disturbance.

Taking things literally is limiting. It's like just dealing with the very tip of the iceberg without appreciating that the portion requiring more significant attention is its vastness that lies out of sight, beneath the surface. There is almost always much more that can be gleaned; when taken non-literally, fuller meaning has the opportunity to emerge.

When we are regarding one another, it is important to remember that we are each at least as complex as a miraculously fluorescent sea amoeba, and there is always more to us than how we are currently presenting, or what we are currently insisting upon. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass:

We are -- [each of us] -- large; we contain multitudes.

No matter how small the actions of another, it serves us to cultivate respect for each person as a whole universe; a whole work of art. Even if we would not choose to display a particular canvas in our home, it nonetheless represents a complex confluence of influences, a history, and a depiction of its creator.

Considering one another as works of art includes both spaciousness and wonderment. Aiming to return to that view periodically, particularly during difficult interactions, might be helpful to the other, but will certainly assist you. Focusing offers gifts that, when artfully applied to divorce and relational difficulties, increase perspective and summon imagination. The vital ingredients for change.


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