In Your Spouse’s Shoes: The Importance of Empathy in a Divorce

divorceWhat is the single quality that has the power to re-define the outcome of a divorce?

Perseverance, clarity on what is most important, and focus all come to mind. However, I would argue that empathy is the ultimate answer. That may look like an unlikely choice given the traditional idea of a divorce. After all, divorce conjures up images of courtroom battles and bitter arguments, not conversations that are centered on understanding the other person’s point of view. Why, might you ask, should I have any empathy at all for the spouse I am about to divorce? In my experience, that is what makes empathy a key tool.

Divorce time is when couples often feel at their lowest in terms of resources, resilience, acceptance and patience. A typical response to the stress and the pressure of the pending divorce is to fight: after all, financial future and critical parenting choices are on the line. While the instinct to fight is reasonable and valid, it is not always the most constructive path to follow. A request for empathy at this time might feel like a big stretch, but you will find that the effort is worth it.

What exactly is empathy, and how can you tap into it during the divorce?

I think of empathy as an ability to accurately perceive someone else’s perspective. In most cases, simply listening to your spouse and acknowledging his or her needs can have a positive impact on how the conversation goes. It makes your spouse more likely to listen to you, and improves the chances of creating a solution that works for both of you. It is powerful. It is also more difficult than it appears.

divorceGiven that hearing is a natural function we are all born with, what is so hard about just listening? I think it’s the fact that so few of us actually practice true listening. While the other person is talking, we often simply wait for an opportunity to interject or argue our own point. That does not make for effective listening because we are too busy shaping our own arguments!

Here is a visual that I have discovered when researching the topic that illustrates the concept nicely. The Chinese symbol for “listen” has the elements that mean “you”, “ear”, “eyes”, “undivided attention” and, perhaps unexpectedly, “heart”.  Doesn’t that bring to mind the idea of listening with your whole body? Sounds like a lot of work, but that is what it actually takes to tap into empathy.

Why go through the effort?

There is a time and a place to fight, and I am not suggesting that you must sacrifice your goals and personal interests in the process of separating from your spouse. What I do recommend is that you get clear on what’s most important to you, so that you can know which boundaries are worth fighting over, and where there is room for flexibility. Remember that an adversarial approach is unlikely to bring forth creative solutions that work for the entire family, while a collaborative process gives you a better degree of control over outcomes.

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