Moving through divorce, or any major conflict, involves moving through stages of conflict. My friend and fellow mediator KK Peabody has created the schematic above that shows the cycle of grieving. Everyone moves through this cycle in their own way, and, despite what the arrows indicate, it is entirely possible to move backwards in the cycle too. That said, most people seem to get stuck on Anger for a long time. But Anger also seems to serve as the umbrella label for a vast range of emotions that need to be explored and identified so parties can move forward on the cycle, and hopefully reach Acceptance.
People talking about conflict talk about anger and seem angry, angry at a business partner or colleague, angry at a spouse, sibling or parent. While anger may be the emotion that is most recognizable in conflict, demonstrated with swearing, yelling or other agitated behavior, it is rarely the emotion driving the conflict. To actually move through a conflict and resolve it, both with the other party and internally for each party, it is critical to think more about what emotions are really feeding the conflict and causing it to perpetuate.
Consider, for example, two adult siblings fighting over how to care for their aged father. When the sister describes the conflict she seems very angry; she bears the burden of most of her father’s care, dealing with day to day household management, medical care and financial decision making, and now suddenly her brother wants to sell the father’s house and put him in a retirement home. She is angry, but when the conversation continues, other emotions reveal themselves: frustration that she bears so much of the burden of her father’s care; sadness that her father’s health is in decline; fear of managing the estate after he dies. There is also some ambivalence about playing the role of the favorite, responsible child. After more than 50 years, that role feels suffocating and the sister is starting to regret not being more rebellious and free, like her brother. The whole situation also makes her feel old, conscious about her own mortality, and worried about how her children will treat her when she is in 80s.
In this instance anger is one of the emotions driving the conflict, but the emotional reality is so much more nuanced and complex. Acknowledging only the anger, and then moving towards resolving the conflict, cannot work here because the sister may not even be conscious of all the emotions that are hiding behind her anger. A mediator has to explore the emotions that are feeding the conflict so that the parties can recognize why the conflict exists and work to move past their emotional turmoil to focus on a rational solution.
Exploring emotions also helps to reveal which solutions will be workable. In this case, for example, if the sister is really overwhelmed and sad, and not really angry, moving to a resolution that has the sister continue to make all the decisions, and forcing her brother to back away from selling the house, will not solve the conflict. She may want control over decisions, but she also wants more support. Unless the mediator really talks to the sister, the mediator cannot know what a good resolution would include. It’s possible the sister would also like to sell the house, but needs the brother to help prepare it for sale, and also wants his help finding a retirement home. Exploring the emotions that feed the anger can allow the mediator to understand what is really driving the conflict and actually help the parties find a resolution.
In divorce anger is often masking deep sadness and fear. Even when both parties want to get divorced, it can be very sad to face everything that is being lost. Particularly as parties get close to finalizing their divorce, and the reality of the decision begins to settle in, a spouse may feel shame about the divorce, it may feel like a stigma for them, or their children. The other spouse may be facing economic uncertainty and feel sad, or scared, about the future. The prospect of splitting holidays may feel overwhelming and lonely. Parties may mourn the picture book holidays they had hoped for, or feel sad about explaining this new setup to extended family members who will be impacted. As a result of the onslaught of these varied emotions, spouses will suddenly begin to revisit the terms of their agreement, very often fighting about assets, or the kids. They seem very angry, but it is more likely they are sad.
For those of us who are accustomed to working in the traditional legal framework, it feels like the natural impulse to tell the client, “this is a good deal for you” or “don’t start renegotiating now.” Instead we need to pause and try to identify what the parties are feeling, and to help them understand what they are feeling. It’s probably not angry. If we can help the party name the emotion, then we can think about what can be done to address the concern, getting specific allows for practical solutions that can move the parties towards Acceptance.