What does it mean to be tough? In divorce, most people (including many lawyers) believe that it means “sticking to your guns”, never compromising, issuing the bigger threats, puffing more, “big talk”, using intimidation. In the name of toughness, people are frequently encouraged to be uncaring, to deny any empathy for their spouse, and to turn off all humane or positive feelings about their marriage and their spouse.
That’s one way to do it.
But, in my experience, that is not the kind of toughness required to have your best possible divorce. Real toughness means somethings else for my clients. Real toughness requires a different set of skills and values for my clients.
Because I practice primarily in the collaborative divorce field, my clients need to be able to sit in a room with their spouse for a couple of hours at at time. This is the same spouse who my client may have hurt, or been hurt by, and probably some combination of both. This the same spouse that they may still love, or miss, or perhaps now even loathe. This is a spouse that triggers them, knows their soft spots and weaknesses. This is a spouse that has a huge influence on the most important thing in their world, their kids. And yet, my clients sit down with their spouse in collaborative conferences to have important conversations. That, my friends, requires toughness.
Collaborative divorce clients need to be able to participate in rational and productive conversations about emotionally charged subjects. These subjects touch on their greatest fears, greatest hopes, and most important values. For some clients, even thinking about these subject is like staring into the abyss or facing their greatest fears. That requires them to experience, but manage their strong emotions in service of their ultimate goal of resolution. It requires them to constantly bring their thoughts back to focus on the task at hand, the goals they are striving to reach, and their core values. That requires some emotional intelligence, self-restraint and some self-discipline. Nobody has perfected this. That is why it requires toughness.
Collaborative clients need to be able to give grace to their ex-spouse. Grace in this context means giving their spouse some room to say the wrong thing, roll their eyes, display negative body language, and otherwise not be the perfect communicator or co-parent. They don’t have to like it, approve of it, enjoy it, encourage it or necessarily tolerate it. But, it’s worth trying to moderate reactions so that one molehill does not become a mountain. No one can do this all the time. And it requires grace in return. But, it can be done and is in fact done even in the midst of difficult divorces. And, that takes a lot of emotional toughness.
Collaborative clients and attorneys need to be able to push through apparent stalemates and dead ends. The perfect solution may not, and in fact probably doesn’t, exist. One spouse’s “obvious” solution or perfect spreadsheet may not work for the other. The solution that originally looked great for everybody may turn out to have unforeseen roadblocks. Clients (and even attorneys) may feel diametrically and inextricably opposed on some issue. Frustration and fatigue may set in. And yet, clients and attorneys have to continue to look for new options, analyze them and make decisions to adopt or pass on them. They have to continue the dialogue. That is tough.
It’s tough being patient. But, people process information and make decisions at different speeds. So, one spouse may need more time to get comfortable with information or resolutions. In that situation, both parties needs to be tough. One has to be tough enough to take the necessary time to process and decide. Their spouse has to be tough enough to fight back the frustration and impatience so that resolution can be reached. And the attorneys and other professionals have to be tough enough to prevent their own frustration or impatience from rushing the clients.
Divorce, even collaborative divorce, requires toughness. But, to have your best outcome, consider what kind of toughness is more likely to lead you towards your ultimate goals. I believe toughness in divorce consists not of aggression, but rather in utilizing your best attributes to facilitate your best resolution.