July 22, 2019 Practice Management

Practicing Family Law with Civility: The Success Principles of Divorce

(Adapted from Jack Canfield)

By Elise F. Buie

Jack Canfield’s The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (with Janet Switzer, 2005) is a self-help book that outlines 67 principles you must follow to achieve your goal, any goal, whether that goal is making money, losing weight, or, as I am about to discuss here, helping your clients get back on their feet after a divorce. Canfield asserts that “the principles [of success] always work if you always work the principles.” In other words, knowing the principles is not enough for your clients. They must actually take them to heart and then apply them to their lives. Below are five (paraphrased) principles featured in The Success Principles, which, after more than 25 years since I was first licensed, I have taken the liberty of coining “The Success Principles of Divorce.”

1. Take Responsibility for Your Divorce

It is easy to think of divorce as a tragedy that is entirely out of your hands: “My ex blew up the marriage.” “She cheated.” “He behaved like a jerk.” It is all so familiar but, of course, not entirely all true. Your ex did play a role in your divorce. But the truth is that you were a player in your divorce, too. Until you grasp this concept, your divorce seems like simply another catastrophe in your life where you are the victim and a perfect example of how unfair life is.

Deflecting responsibility impedes your ability to achieve success during and after your divorce because this mind-set will alter the way you approach your divorce. You may let other people, such as your lawyer, take charge of your divorce. That may easily prolong the divorce process, which would, in turn, hurt you and your children. What you need to realize is that you are, in large part, responsible for your divorce, so you must take the reins and lead. Set an example to your ex and make the divorce as civil and respectful as possible and encourage your lawyer to follow suit.

Your relationship with your ex in the present will set the foundation for your relationship with your ex in the future. It is essential to make sure this foundation is sturdy, built brick by brick with stability instead of strife. The realization that you are responsible for your divorce, not external forces, is essential to setting the foundation for the future you will share with your ex as co-parents. More times than not, your ex will follow your example and return your cooperation with more cooperation. This course will trickle down to your children, who will learn to associate healthy relationships with collaboration.

2. Decide What Type of Divorce (and Co-Parenting Relationship) You Want

The realization that we must take responsibility in our divorce ushers in another realization—that we are the makers of our destiny. Our choices matter. There is no such thing as “having no choice.” Making such an excuse is merely a deflection of responsibility. The reality of divorce is that you must decide what you want for your children. In doing this, there are two things you should focus on at the outset: your parenting skills and the level of conflict you are willing to live with during and after your divorce.

There is no better time than the present to work on your parenting skills. However, during a divorce, it might seem tempting to escalate the conflict between you and your ex. You could try to justify doing so in your mind by blaming your creation of conflict on external factors—a typical example is that you don’t like what your ex is doing—but this would be you chalking up your parenting problems to fate and, again, denying responsibility.

Instead, it is best to internalize the realization that conflict is a choice. You do not need to fight with your ex over every little thing. You can resist the temptation to create unnecessary conflict by making the “right” choice in situations, which may involve making compromises. The nature of conflicts is that there must always be two sides to them, so by saying no to arguing, you are already prioritizing your children’s psychological health because discord will hurt them in the long run, which will hurt you.

3. Commit to Constant Learning about Co-Parenting and Best Communication Practices

This principle is of paramount importance to your children’s continued well-being; it means that you must accept the fact that co-parenting will now always be a part of your life. As such, you must do more to understand and improve your co-parenting skills. A useful place to start when it comes to building your co-parenting skills is assessing how well you communicate with your ex. Are you expressive about your needs? Tolerant of his or hers? Do you listen well? Or are you ratcheting up the stress level either for the sake of it or because you never knew any other way before?

To be a successful parent, other aspects of parenting, including children’s diet and medical issues, are often emphasized. So why not focus on communication skills as well? After all, you must first learn how to properly communicate with your ex if you ever expect to successfully manage those diet and medical issues that so frequently arise, in addition to any others, and co-parent children who grow up to be physically and mentally healthy, not to mention happy.

The most important question to ask yourself as a co-parent is: How do the kids feel? Everything you say and do in your life has a bearing on your children. You must continuously brush up on your communication skills with your ex. Always consider how miscommunication with your ex could impact your children, as opposed to how it affects you and your ex. Continue to assess the impact of your words and actions, and internalize the fact that the love you feel for your children must triumph over the animosity you feel for your ex.

4. Drop Your Membership in the Victim Club and Sign up for the Empowerment Retreat

Closely connected with the denial of responsibility in your divorce is your voluntary membership in the victim club. You may believe you are a victim of your divorce. Woe is you, right? It is a dangerous mind-set to maintain because your permanent victim status will prevent you from ever getting back on your feet and succeeding, in relationships and everywhere else.

Stop blaming your ex for everything. It is unhealthy for you to continually reaffirm the false belief that you have no control over your destiny. More importantly, it is harmful to your children to listen to you berate your ex over and over again, or yourself for that matter. Children are conscious, especially when it comes to emotions. They will pick up your negativity and follow your example as adults in their relationships as well as the one they have with their other parent.

Instead, set a positive example for your children by treating yourself and others with the respect you deserve and should want. Only you can pull yourself back up after you fall, and that begins by showing your resilience to your children. They will gladly follow suit because it takes much less energy to love than to hate and, as a result, they will grow to have more optimistic mind-sets as adults.

5. Keep Your Eye on the Prize

The prize is, naturally, your children’s psychological health. As a parent, there is nothing you want more than to have your children grow up into functional, social adults. Your divorce shouldn’t prevent you from achieving this goal. Children follow your example, so show them through your interactions with your ex that they can maintain positive relationships even though their parents are divorced. A useful way of demonstrating functional behavior post-divorce is through co-parenting. Cooperate with your ex. Work together to show your children how to maintain healthy relationships.

As co-parents, your job is to ready your children to be integral members of society by the time they reach adulthood. To do that, encourage your children to achieve their own goals, despite what is happening or has happened at home. Help your children understand that there exists strength within both of their parents, even though there are also flaws. Children’s acceptance of their parents comes with an understanding of both the good and the bad in them and that nobody is perfect. Nobody is perfectly imperfect, either. Cooperating with your ex despite his or her flaws demonstrates to your children that dealing with others is a necessary part of life. That lesson will bring you—and them—closer to the prize. Your children will internalize your relationship with their other parent, and by witnessing a cooperative relationship, what your children will ultimately internalize is that divorce doesn’t necessarily spell failure for a family, but, rather, it can spell success.

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Elise F. Buie is the founder and principal of Elise Buie Family Law Group, PLLC (elisebuiefamilylaw.com), in Seattle, Washington. Her practice focuses on family law, dependency, and guardian ad litem work, and she strives to bring civility into her professional world through each and every interaction.