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By Irving H. Zaroff, JD LMFT and Dana Schutz, MA LMFT
Agreements that come from working together last longer, are less likely to be challenged later, and help to create an atmosphere of success. You don’t have to like your spouse to reach a workable divorce agreement (but it helps). You should know, however, which factors are friends of cooperation and which are its enemies.
A divorce involves three dimensions: the physical (separation); the financial (providing quality of life); and the emotional (grieving and healing). The emotional dimension is often the enemy of cooperation. Feeling hurt often fosters a desire to hurt back, leading to a cycle of non-cooperation and hostility. This is a key function of the mediators: to help couples separate the emotion from addressing the physical and financial issues that need to be resolved.
A second enemy of cooperation is a negative attitude about creating agreement. The most current evidence highlights the power of attitude over most other factors in a relationship. A positive attitude will overcome poor communication skill, stressful circumstances and intermittent disappointments (those “bumps” in the road). Mediators can help couples focus on issues in a positive way by offering new and creative perspectives on problems.
Friends of cooperation include the abilities of separating emotion from the task at hand, creating a positive attitude, and setting clear goals. Divorce is often seen as a tug of war. Each spouse will look to “maximize” their position (at the expense of the other spouse). Why not, instead, negotiate a plan that addresses agreed upon goals (i.e., what is in the best interests of the children (see article in January issue); how do we maintain, as close as possible, the pre-divorce standard of living; how does distribution of assets best address the needs of each spouse, etc.). Instead of taking sides, try sitting on the same side and looking at the landscape of what needs to be resolved. Taking an honest look at the needs of the family “community,” can lead to faster healing and greater satisfaction in the agreement each spouse has contributed toward creating.
In the absence of cooperation you find competition. By definition, competition creates winners . . . and losers! Agreements competitively arrived at open the door for continued challenges. Cooperation leads to a balanced sense of success in the end result – a key factor in the long-term viability of any agreement.