Civility in Conflict – Getting Even, or Getting Back to Even?

Divorce is a tumultuous undertaking. The emotions most typically associated with death: Denial, anger, bargaining (the predisposition to ask countless “What If’s” or “If This… Then This… ” questions) and the depression that follows are commonly felt emotions that lead us back to psychological health and finding even ground. However, unlike death, where there is a sense of finality, within the context of severing a relationship, there oftentimes is no finality between the two opposing parties.

In the severance of a relationship, people must undertake the grief process, go within to see what went wrong, re-develop their sense of self as a single person, and make sense of the here and now so that they may move onto brighter futures. While in some cases may be brief (cases where children are not involved), in many other cases the grief cycle continues because of the products (children) the physical bonds of marriage created. While property may be easy to divide during the process, people, on the other hand are much more difficult to divide, and the natural working of life events will force the dividing parties back together for the special life events children take part in during their lifetime.

As a therapist, I have often seen the ugly head of divorce up close and personal. Individuals who would be normally rational, choose to engage very ugly emotional states. Jealousy, anger, hatred, envy, and plots for revenge are all common emotional responses seen during divorce. Tactics such as splitting (attempting to drive one’s love for one parent versus another), alienation (keeping one parent divided from their child), and triangulation (using litigation as a means to get even with one’s spouse) is common territory in a divorce proceeding. However, why does this need to be the case? Why is it that two people, who were once committed to spending their life with one another, find themselves so willing to engage in behaviors that cause emotional trauma to all who stand in the wake of divorce? Furthermore, why is it that in the quest to move on with one’s life, we fail to “get back to even” because of the pure and simple pursuit of “getting even?” Let us explore.

At the beginning of marriage, two people commit to spend their lives together. This is based primarily upon the professing of vows to commit one’s undying love in exchange for the securities a relationship offers. We yearn to be together in relationships due to the innate human fear of loneliness. This fear, potent in its realization, can drive even the most a-social individual  to strike out into the world and stake their claim in the social arena to find a significant other to share their life. We yearn for love, and this in turn curbs our fear of loneliness. While fear and love are intimately linked in our drive to find a significant other, the emotional euphoria that love produces is inevitably short lived, as the real work behind a relationship is quick to begin even before the first “I do” is ever said. This is the time, where the euphoria is replaced by planning, and planning becomes the catalyst for the real work of the relationship that is to come.

As the dust settles from the marriage ceremony, and the hangovers of the reception are suffered through, the work of building a relationship bond quickly replaces the planning stage of the marriage. This is where the true beauty of the relationship lies, and provides each willing participant a metaphorical mirror that shows and amplifies one’s personal strengths, shadows, and downright problems. This is the realm of the reflective, and is oftentimes quickly replaced by the innate drive to generate in love and relationships that which we cannot do individually. Whether children, pets, finding one’s true meaning, or engaging fully in career generation, we rely on the mirroring capacity of relationships to promote our individual and relational growth patterns.

It is from this foray of problems, that a relationship ultimately find its demise. Problems did not just occur due to the last lie, the last drink, the last act of abandonment to be with friends, or the last indiscretion to be with someone else. The seeds of the marital demise began before the relationship began, and the problems that existed prior to the marriage only amplify to create more compounded problems as the marriage becomes more deeply engrained. It is much like a plane that has engine problems on the ground. If detected early, the problems are easily fixed on the tarmac, and tragedy is avoided. However, in mid-flight, the dangers become intricately more compounded, and the risk becomes inherently more prominent as the plane ascends to ever increasing heights. While relational problems are easily solved during the preliminary stages of a in the relationship, as the relationship continues and the ties become increasingly intertwined, the consequences and liabilities for the parties involved become increasingly compound with each “I do” the couple chooses to engage in. Whether it be the purchase of personal / real property, or the decision to have children, the consequences of severance WILL affect each and every “I do” that the couple chose to engage within. This sets the catalyst for “getting even” versus “getting back to even.”

In the idea of “getting even,” one party is often blamed for whatever the indiscretion was that lead to the severance. This is a child’s way of thinking, is unipolar, and does not take into account the complexities that lead to the severance of the marriage. While the choices made by one party will inevitably affect the life of another, relationships are not linear in nature. Instead, they are intricately interconnected at multiple points, much like the design of a spider’s web, where one course of action can not find its cause in any one event, but instead, have been affected by a myriad of decisions made that may or may not seem to have direct cause to the events that ultimately lead to the event. It is from this child’s way of thinking, and jealousy, revenge, and envy rear their ugly heads, affecting everyone in their wake. However, this need not always be the case.

In divorce, a death has occurred. Even though you may be forced to have contact with your ex, especially in situations where minor children are involved, it is imperative to undertake the self-reflective process the grief cycle offers, accept the end of the relationship, and let go of the hurt present. The sooner you let go of the need to “get even,” undertake the grieving process, and learn to let go, the sooner you will be on a road of “getting back to even.” It is a process, and like relationships, is also not linear.

During the grief process, there will be good days and bad days. Take account, and be accountable for the events that lead to the way your day was perceived. These events hold the key to your stability, and ultimately will open the path towards your renewed sense of self-esteem, self-love, and empathy needed to get on with life, and re-engage with others to find a sense of true happiness. “Get Even” or “Getting Back to Even?” What path do you chose to act upon during your divorce process?