Divorce Dynamics: Managing Feelings to Get What You Truly Want

About Emily Chaffin | Divorce.com

By Emily Chaffin, MA Updated Jan 15, 2024


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Imagine you are sitting in the passenger seat of a car at the beginning of a road trip. As the driver pulls out of the driveway, they jerk erratically to the left, swing back to the right, and begin to gain speed.

Your car is approaching a stop sign too quickly, and you instinctively press with your right foot on a brake pedal that isn’t there.

When you look at the driver to your left, you are distressed to notice that the driver is yourself as a child, propped up on a couple of pillows, straining to reach the pedals and see over the dash!

This is how many of us are navigating life emotionally, and it can be just as ineffective and unsettling. And nothing brings out our child self like the stress of a divorce, especially if we need to continue to interact with our ex.

Even worse, reactive patterns are usually triggered for both people in the divorce, so it is as if two cars on the road are being driven by little ones. No wonder people usually find divorce incredibly stressful.

Should I Submit or Should I Rebel?

Reactive patterns that arise from our child self often show up in the way we respond to requests. Many of us have a knee-jerk “no” or “yes” when we receive a request, which could be thought of as our inner rebel or submitter.

When we rebel, it is often in response to a perceived demand. If we tend to submit, it often results from a fear of possible consequences.

Making decisions this way can amplify the stress of a divorce because these choices may give us short-term satisfaction but cost us getting what we truly want in the long run.

For example, you might receive a request from your attorney or mediator to provide all of your financial statements going back years.

If your inner child tends to rebel, you might ignore the message or put off getting them the documents, feeling irritated by the intrusion into your privacy and delaying the completion of your divorce.

girl quarrel with her boyfriend

If your inner child tends to submit, you might drop everything you had planned for that day in order to get the documents to them as soon as possible, missing some other important deadlines or activities.

The number of interactions like this over the course of a divorce process can range from several to countless, depending on the complexity of your situation and the responsibilities you share with your ex that it will continue after the divorce is final.

You can’t control your ex and how they regulate their feelings and make decisions, but making a bit of conscious effort with your decision-making and emotional regulation skills can transform your life.

Get Your Inner Adult in the Driver’s Seat: Four Steps to Empowerment

In a process for relating to others outside of a right-or-wrong paradigm, psychologist and creator of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) Marshall Rosenberg proposed a solution for moving emotionally from a place of reactivity to a place of choice.

In order to say “yes” or “no” to requests from a place of choice, he invited people to shift their focus away from their perceptions of power plays and possible consequences to uncovering the universal human needs that are present for the people involved in any situation.

To gently move your inner child to the passenger seat for these interactions and put your adult self firmly in the driver’s seat, there are four steps.

The first step is to acknowledge the feelings and needs of the inner child – the irritation, fear, and the other emotions that are present, as well as the reasons for those feelings.

This might take only 30 seconds, or it could take longer, depending on how accessible your feelings are to you.

For a list of feelings words to help you figure this out, see this list of feelings.

Once you are able to detect and validate your reactive feelings and the important reasons for them, your inner child can loosen their grip on the steering wheel. If you feel stuck with this step, getting the support of a counselor or therapist can help you develop this capacity.

The second step has two parts. Initially, clarify what is most important to your adult self in this decision.

Is delaying the intrusion into your privacy the most important thing? Or is it more important to you to complete this process so that you can free yourself up to have more time for things you enjoy?

Notice when you are listening to what is most important to your inner child versus your adult self. They have different tones, and it’s important to distinguish them.

The second part of this step utilizes the power of the NVC process; take the time to translate what is specifically important to you in this decision into a more general need or value that you want to uphold here.

Naming the universal human needs that motivate our choices can connect us fully with our adult self, and liberates us to act from a place of choice because true choice requires this awareness.

beautiful woman smiling

In this example, your adult self’s specific intention might sound like, “I want to be finished with this negotiation process so that I can spend my weekends focused on my kids.”

As you think about spending time with your kids and being done with the divorce negotiation tasks that take you away from them, some needs of yours that you notice underlying this statement might include freedom, presence, and love. For help with this step, see this list of universal human needs.

Third, consider what needs might motivate the person who is making the request.

For example, in this case, your attorney might be making an effort to collect all of the records necessary to correctly complete your paperwork, motivated by a need to offer support and acting with integrity.

The fourth step is to respond in a way that prioritizes honoring as many of the needs as possible.

Here, identifying the needs of freedom, presence, and love, as well as the need to offer support and act with integrity, you might choose to send an email to your attorney, letting them know that you will get them the documents by a certain date, and asking them to further support you by sending you a reminder email if they haven’t received them by that time.

How to Say No Like a Boss

If you don’t trust that some central needs that are on the table will be upheld by saying yes to the request, you may decide to say no. This differs from saying no from a place of rebellion, where you haven’t taken the time to clarify the needs that are relevant to the situation.

In saying no from a place of full choice, you are essentially saying yes to something else – your needs. You can make it easier for the other person to hear your “no” by letting them know about the needs that are behind it.

For example, here, it might sound something like, “I know you want these documents to support me in completing the financial paperwork, but I need to know who will have access to them before I decide how to proceed.

“Could you let me know who will have access to them if I send them to you?”

This response is not the rebellious “no” of the inner child but the responsible “no” of the adult, who recognizes both the other person’s desire to offer support and their own need for choice in how their information is distributed.

It can also be helpful to continue the conversation in an effort to find other strategies and requests that would honor all of the needs that are present.

For example, “Could we find 20 minutes to discuss other ways for me to share with you all the financial information you need that would be more comfortable for me in terms of my privacy?”

This is different from a compromise, in which both parties give up some things to get other things, and neither party ends up getting fully what they want.

Instead of compromising, the intention here is to find a creative solution that encompasses all of the central needs that are present for the people involved.

If you realize through dialogue that no amount of creativity is going to result in a strategy that includes all of the needs that are present for both people, this process invites you to mourn these unmet needs rather than simply dropping them.

This could take many forms, such as a spoken acknowledgment of the need that’s not being included in the decision.

The Best Place to Start Is Wherever You Are

Noticing the universal human needs underlying every action is a humanizing way of approaching life, which is foreign to most of us in this fast-paced world.

Some of us grew up in homes where we were encouraged to pay attention to our feelings and the needs underneath them, as well as the feelings and needs of others.

However, many of us instead learned to ignore them or to pay attention to a select subset of them that were considered more socially acceptable. This comes at a great cost to us and our relationships as we make self-sabotaging choices.

The good news is that we can all develop these skills for relating to ourselves and others with compassion, which turns out to be a seat of power and choice. Then we can safely and deftly navigate the road with access to our full capacity.

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