Monday, August 18, 2008

Thinking the Unthinkable

Recently, a fellow blogger friend of mine and I had an exchange that sparked a conversation.

In his blog, he spoke of some of the things that he had experienced in his divorce. Things that seem outlandish to anyone who has never actually experienced them for themselves. We talked about the many times that he had been blind-sided by the antics that his wife engaged in, all in the name of "divorce war".

And, as you know, it's my passion to help people avoid such wars.

And, as most people realize, one way to avoid war, or even one skirmish in it, is to see it coming, so you can prepare for it. Yet, as I remarked to my friend, it's often frustrating in my line of work to warn someone who is smack-dab in the midst of the skirmish of an impending attack... and hear them respond "Oh, my spouse would never do that!" It happened often enough, that when my friend made mention of it as we commented about his blog, I realized it was time to think this through some more. If I could not learn a way to help my clients understand and get past their blindness, I would be doing them a disservice.

So, I thought about what causes a person who is going through divorce to get taken by ambush by the shenanigans of their spouse. And I am talking about the stuff that happens often enough (sadly) that it's easy for those of us who are familiar with the course of divorce to predict with pretty fair accuracy when then next stunt is going to get pulled. When you know what to look for, you can see it coming for miles.

I realized that a big part of the problem is that there is cognitive dissonance for a divorcing person, between the married life that they once knew, the marriage partner that they once knew, and the life they are transitioning into presently. I wrote about this in a guest blog on my friend's site (see

But mere understanding is not a remedy in and of itself. So, I also tried something new with one of my clients today, and asked her for permission to share how it worked with my readers.

As she and I spoke, I heard the classic sounds of "oh, my spouse would never do that!" In her case, the words were not exact, but the overall gist was the same. So I said "will you take a short walk with me?" She looked puzzled, but agreed.

We walked down the hall of my building and out onto the sidewalk. Across the street a man had just parked his car and was hurrying into a nearby building, carrying a briefcase. I asked my client "do you recognize that man?" She replied that she did not.

I asked her "what do you know about him?"

"Only that he looked middle-aged, seemed to be in a hurry, and was carrying a bag."

I thanked her for trusting me, and said "Let's go back inside." After we returned to the office, I explained: "Someday in the future, you will see your husband somewhere, a random glimpse, and it will occur to you that you know longer know him. He will seem like a stranger to you. You will hardly know more about him than what you know right now about that man on the street. It will probably even feel strange and quite distant to recall anything about him. That's the destination of this part of the journey for your brain. Can you imagine that happening?"

She struggled for a moment, but finally mentally merged the image of the stranger on the street with an image of her husband. I prodded her: "Imagine that all you know of your husband is that he is middle-aged, seems to be in a hurry, and is carrying a bag. Keep that picture in your mind until it seems real to you and not merely imagination."

I was really glad she was able to trust me! Finally, she nodded.

And I said to her: "That man you are picturing right now, that total stranger who merely looks like your husband... that is the person you are divorcing. You know no more about him - his intentions, his cares, his drives, his plans - than you did about the man on the street. From this point forward, you simply have no way to predict what he will do."

Now, I may have overstated the magnitude of the situation, to make an impact. But finally, it got through. My client needed to understand that the man she was divorcing was not the man who had bought her flowers, rubbed her feet, or gotten up early to make the coffee.

One need not transform their soon-to-be-ex into some demon, nor resort to paranoia, to avoid the surprise attack that can take place in divorce war. As I mentioned in the other blog post, we must always hope for the best behavior, of both ourselves and our divorcing spouse. But, to avoid a prolonged, painful, scorch-the-earth war, we must also prepare for the worst. And step one in that preparation, is to trust your coach when he or she tells you "oh yes, your soon-to-be-ex spouse would do that."



Dave said...

I think you are right on target
and would love to talk with you.
Please get back to me as soon as possible.


Shelley said...

I have to agree with you. I don't know how many times I have seen couples in the beginning of their divorce who think they can use the same attorney, or will work things out as much as possible on their own only to have it turn into a "divorce war." For those couples that can work it out amicably - Yahoo! Good for you. Unfortunately it often doesn't work out that way.

That was a great analogy of the stranger on the street.
When going through a divorce how often do you hear - He/she seems to have changed (referring to their spouse)- they are a different person, I don't know them any more....hmmmm!

It is easy to see how people get blind sided by their spouses. I think we inherently want to believe the best. How could this person we married ever do such a thing to us?

Good post!