Fighting Fair in a Divorce

Fair fighting rules in a divorce may seem like a contradiction in terms or even impossible, but rules of engagement resolve conflict, solve problems and help couples heading to the sunset of their marriage to get on with their lives.

Naturally, emotions run wild during separation or divorce when alienated partners try to decide alimony and property division, child custody and support. Lawyers unwittingly and wittingly can add fuel to what becomes a raging fire that left unchecked consumes the spouses, their children and their money.

The rules of engagement establish acceptable ways to resolve the inescapable differences that separating partners face. Fighting fair can save thousands of dollars in legal fees and months of stress for couples negotiating divorce settlement issues.

The fair fighting rules keep exchanges civil. Ripping into a spouse – a person once loved – may bring some short-term relief; in the long run, however, when negotiations seize shut because of angry words, only the lawyers benefit because they are paid win, lose or draw. Every time spouses disagree, overreact, or storm out of a discussion, the attorney gets paid for that appointment and the next one to go over the same cratered turf all over again.

But that is only money. The emotional cost cannot be calculated. Dwelling on frustrations makes a person even more frustrated, and battling wears on your ability to settle the past, regroup, and look ahead.

Cobb & Associates of Calgary, who are psychological counselors, offer these nine rules for couples to argue productively and creatively:

  • Rule #1: No degrading language: Avoid name-calling, insults, put-downs or swearing.
  • Rule #2: No blaming: It is pointless to blame each other. Blaming your spouse distracts you from solving the problem at hand. It invites your spouse to be defensive and escalates the argument.
  • Rule #3: No yelling: If it feels like yelling to your spouse, it probably is. Make a conscious effort to lower your voice.
  • Rule #4: No use of force: Including pushing, shoving, grabbing, hitting, punching, slapping, restraining, damaging property and throwing/breaking things. Each of us has the right to be safe & free of abuse.
  • Rule #6: Define yourself, not your spouse: Use words that describe how you feel, what you want and what is important to you – not what your partner feels, wants or believes.
  • Rule #7: Stay in the present: Keep your focus on what can be done today to resolve the issue at hand and go forward.
  • Rule #8: Take turns speaking: Let one person speak at a time. When one person speaks, the other should be listening – really listening, not just planning a rebuttal. Take turns speaking and listening so that both of you have a chance to say what you really need.
  • Rule #9: When necessary, use time outs: Remember: No amount of talking will lead to problem solving if you are not in a state of mind for solving problems.

Rule #5, which is “No talk of Divorce,” was left off the list because these rules are set forth for people who want to work things out. According to Nathan Cobb,“[i]n the heat of an argument, threatening to leave the relationship is manipulative and hurtful. It creates anxiety about being abandoned and undermines your ability to resolve your issues. It quickly erodes your partner’s confidence in your commitment to the relationship. Trust is not easily restored once it is broken in this way. It makes the problems in your relationship seem much bigger than they need to be.” Tellingly these fair fighting rules work for both people trying to work out a marriage and those who are trying to end one.

For some people, fair fighting rules represent a completely different way of fighting than what they know. Many people grow up in homes where yelling, blaming, name-calling and finger pointing are normal methods for handling disagreements.

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