September 21 is the UN International Day of Peace (also known as World Peace Day), with various activities and events held globally. But you don’t have to go far out of your way to do your part. And even if you are in the midst of a divorce, there are many ways you can honor and even create peace in your little part of the world.
Having practiced in Family Law litigation, and now exclusively in family-focused out-of-court solutions, it’s clear to me that language plays a driving force in conflict. In contested court battles, even when the lawyers are friends, every email begins with “Dear Ms. Litigator” and refers to “your client” and “the minor children” and will inevitably include some demand or position. For example: “Dear Ms. Litigator, my client informed today that the minor child was completely distraught after your client dropped him off at school. Please note that this is the third time this has happened, and it is our intention to request an immediate termination of your client’s visitation pending further investigation and appointment of a custody evaluator.”
As a collaborative lawyer and mediator, I either call the other lawyer directly or, when appropriate, craft my emails to reference the actual people involved and to address the problem while alleviating the conflict: “Dear Michelle, I spoke with Carol today about Timmy’s behavior in school yesterday. I’d like to speak with you and see if David shares the same concerns and go over some ideas on how to best support Timmy and his teacher.”
Language can be a powerful tool in either increasing conflict or diffusing it. The words used, such as “I was informed” vs “I spoke with”, an accusation rather than expression of concern, “you did…” vs. “I felt”, the use of capitalization, “I HAVE NEVER” vs “I didn’t”, and, of course, the 10-minute read email with underlines and different colored text all add to the tone of an email and will likely result in no response, a negative response, and/or being read by a judge.
A small shift in language can have a big impact. You don’t have to be overly friendly, but you can take a few minutes to (1) breathe before responding to someone, (2) write an email to the other person, but send it to yourself only, then go back over it the following day and consider if you had received such an email, what would be your reaction, (3) edit, edit, edit, (4) be brief, as if you’re speaking in a work environment… or to a judge, and (5) consider if the email is even necessary or is just meant to give you a temporary feeling of satisfaction – what might be the consequences? Consider if there is any opportunity to be kind: “Thanks for letting me know” requires little effort, even if you’re being blamed for something that you didn’t do or intend – “I can see why you felt that way” or “I wasn’t aware it sounded like that” can go a long way towards making the other person feel acknowledged and heard, without agreeing with them. When you really cannot communicate without conflict, there are great programs that alert you when it detects high conflict language, such as Our Family Wizard’s tone-meter. By practicing with such programs, you can learn to spot the conflict language more easily later on.
Adversarial language Neutral/Cooperative Language
My children Our children
I’m entitled to… My hope is to…
I demand… My request is…
The law says… The law is one option we can consider
You should… What would it look like if…
Make a list of words that trigger you and see if you can come up with more neutral language.
Take a look at your home and work environment. Clutter creates stress. In a divorce, the volume of paperwork can frustrate even the calmest person. Start small; you don’t have to go full on Marie Kondo. Maybe start by organizing your divorce documents. Create a “Divorce Book”. Purchase a simple (but large) 3-ring binder with plastic slots on the outsides. Fill it with anything meaningful to you: pictures of loved ones, places you’d like to visit someday, inspirational sayings. Scatter these through the binder. Add tabs for Court Filed Documents, Fees and Costs, Notes, Drafts, Financial Documents, and Agreements. This keeps you prepared for meetings, you can easily find important documents, and you can keep track of the process with less stress. You can apply a similar process to your nightstand, keeping it organized, adding things that make you feel good, then your bathroom, then your kitchen.
Eliminate the “Divorce Gene”
Many of my clients feel doomed: their grandparents divorced, their parents divorced, and now they are in a divorce. It is not genetic. We learn relationship and problem-solving skills from our parents, who learned it from theirs, and your children will learn from you. It takes one person to find a different way and teach a new lesson. Working with a therapist, both on an ongoing basis and with a divorce coach during your transition will give you the tools to break unhealthy patterns. This is a life choice that requires dedication and constant practice. You didn’t learn the harmful tools overnight and you won’t unlearn them that way either.
Exercise, Health, and Nutrition
Divorce is a trauma that affects your overall health. I’ve never understood why we separate “mental wellness” from the heart, lungs, muscles, liver, kidneys, etc. We are one unit. Depression and anxiety have physically manifestations. We don’t shame people for seeing a doctor when they break their leg, and yet people “whisper” when someone goes to see a therapist. But I digress: keeping the mind and body healthy during your divorce can greatly improve your outlook and create peace within yourself. Overeating, over drinking, or engaging in other “overs” can leave you feeling like a victim and lead to serious consequences in court. You don’t have to be an athlete to exercise and eat right. A simple 5-minute walk before starting your day, another at lunch, and another right after dinner gets the oxygen and blood pumping, gives you a change of scenery, and engages your other senses. Try to do something that gets you in the sun so you can soak up that Vitamin D. Join a walking club or bicycle group, go to a dog park, anything to get you in a different environment with people who have a positive focus. Focus your calories on fresh fruits and vegetables and try to keep sugars, salts, and fats at a minimum. Like your fears and anger, heavy foods will just weigh you down more.
Focus your Story
What do you want your story to be? What is stopping you from getting there? For many people going through divorce, they become the divorce. Especially if they are in court each month or gathering decades worth of documents as proof of some wrong done unto them. When they go out with friends, they talk about the divorce; at work, they can’t focus because they are thinking about the next court hearing, or how good or bad the last one went. Then, they can’t understand why they feel so alone, why friends are not returning their call. The negative vibes are palatable inside every family court room. You don’t have to take my word for it – go and sit in on a morning of court hearings at your local family court; you will feel it in your stomach. This is what your friends feel every time you bad mouth your soon-to-be ex. And if you are lucky enough to have someone stick by you as you vomit your pain, consider if they’re helping you or just keeping you stuck there. For those with children, this negative energy will land on them as well. If you know your co-parent is stuck in pain, it benefits your children if you can offer even one small gesture of kindness to that person: pick up dinner one night and drop it off at their doorstep with a note “I hope your evening is less stressful”; or let them know you’re available to dog sit if they need to stay late at work; or, maybe just let them have the Kitchen Mixer you’ve been fighting over. At the end of the day, you have choice to change your story from one of constant battle to one of peace.
When all is said and done, no one wants to be remembered for the anger and misery they carried during their lives. I know people who lived long bitter lives, only to die with regret. It takes so much more energy to live in constant battle than to let go of the rope that keeps you tethered to the conflict. It isn’t about giving up or giving in; it’s about making a conscious choice to create peace in your world.