Seven Principles of Parting

I created these seven principles of parting while writing my book and going through my own divorce.  I honed them while talking to hundreds of people about their divorces, interviewing researchers, clinicians, lawyers, mediators, legal scholars and child psychologists, and reading studies about happiness, coping, thriving, resilience and post-traumatic growth. These principles are strongly informed by the positive psychology movement, and by the urgent and incredibly valuable work of the family law reform movement.  

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(To learn more about the ever-evolving field of positive psychology, check out the first-ever Master's degree in the field.  My favorite family law reform organizations is the Honoring Families initiative at the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System in Denver.)

Principle 1: Commit to self-compassion.

A composite idea borrowed from Buddhism, self-compassion includes seeing your problems as part of the universal human struggle rather than some unique personal failing, remaining calm and mindful in the face of a negative experience rather than letting it overwhelm or define you, and viewing yourself with understanding and forgiveness.  In one of the most interesting studies done on positive divorce recuperation, by David Sbarra at the University of Arizona, self-compassion correlated most strongly with positive divorce recuperation.  Unlike eye color or height, self-compassion is not a fixed quality. Self-compassion can be built.  

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Principle 2: Take ownership of the future (and the past).

Taking ownership means embracing your power to create your own future, and accepting your role in your own past.  It may sound harsh, but even in marriages in which one spouse cheated, the people who recuperate most thoroughly and bounce back more quickly are generally those who find a way to see themselves involved in the breakdown of the marriage—not in the affair, but in the marriage that preceded it.  Taking ownership lets you cast yourself as someone with agency.  Resilience after loss has been correlated with a sense of agency or control over your own life.  Even if the only control you exerted was the decision to keep working on your marriage for so long; focus on that.  You are someone who throws yourself into your goals.  If your marriage sapped your personal power, divorce can be a chance to take it back.  You’re in charge of what happens next.

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Principle 3: Don't confuse filing with closure.

While it can be tempting to hurry through the legal process to achieve a sense of closure, it takes time to get over a divorce, no matter how quickly you dispense with the legal details.  “There are five levels of separation: sexual, physical, emotional, financial, legal.  You could be legally separated and still totally emotionally enmeshed,” explained Forrest Mosten, a Los Angeles–based collaborative attorney, mediator and author.  Beware of rushing to make it legal when you're too upset to think clearly.  Agreements hammered out in a fog of resentment often look crazy when that haze clears.  Rushing to hire the first lawyer you meet also can mean missing out on the newer, collaborative forms of divorce that can save you tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and improve your relationship on the other side.

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Principle 4: Build a tool kit for divorce.

The immediate period of separation and early divorce can share some characteristics with a hurricane hitting your house.  As with a natural disaster, an emergency-preparedness kit, a “tool kit,” can help you weather the storm.  I decided mine should contain three things: new routines for daily chores, plans for dousing emotional flareups (mine), and an emergency responder.

Principle 5: Combat anger with empathy.

Everyone is angry at some point in a divorce.  We’re angry at our spouses, ourselves, life in general.  Anger may be protective, in small doses.  Long-term, it destroys relationships, happiness and health. Anger at your ex keeps you tethered to the past, and can destroy new relationships.  Or as the Buddha said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”

Many people mistakenly equate anger with power, “a tragic substitution of power for value,” said Steven Stosny, an anger expert in Maryland who has treated more than 6,000 clients for resentment, anger, abuse, and violence.  The more you can get in touch with the hurt under the rage, and empathize with the struggles of your ex, the easier it is to move past anger toward what you want and focus on building your own, far-more-fabulous life.

Principle 6: Beware of the urge to compare.

Your next-door neighbor’s ex-spouse slashed his tires?  That has no predictive value for your divorce.  It’s important to be self-referential in divorce, remain focused on your personal goals and challenges, rather than comparing your situation to someone else’s, or to (often biased) articles and negative input from friends and family.  This was your marriage that’s ending.   This is your new life.  You get to create your own vision. 

Principle 7: Create positive moments.

All transitions bring advantages, which we readily acknowledge in other areas.  But the judgment around divorce can prevent us from embracing the additions to our lives that come with this change.  We need to notice the positive moments, and create new ones.  Happiness is not just the absence of the negative experiences and feelings, but also the presence of the positive moments.  In times of stress or struggle, we may need to actively create these positive moment. 

Positive moments and the good emotions they create have an “undoing” affect on negative experiences.  They can create an “upward spiral of positivity,” said Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, author of Love 2.0.  If you can feel good about anything, even for a short while, it directly lessens the impact of, say, a court battle or telephone argument with an ex.  Positive emotions also help us connect with others, solve problems more creatively, and even lower stress.