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We blog about helping Long Island families to resolve conflicts in the most productive ways possible.

Apr 24, 2017BY: Neil Cahn
IN: Conduct and Communications

Can You Really Have a Dignified Divorce?

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Alec Baldwin was recently asked by Ana Sale, host of WNYC Public Radio’s Death, Sex & Money, “At this point in your life, if a buddy comes to you and says ‘I love my kids. I think my marriage is breaking up.’ What’s the advice that you give him?” His answer:

“Find a way that you can get into therapy and get into the collaborative divorce. The dignified divorce. You’re gonna regret if you don’t.”

So what is dignity? And what is a dignified divorce?

Dignity has been defined as the state or quality of being worthy of respect. Dignity is about our inherent value and worth. And each of us wants to be treated with dignity.

Donna Hicks, Ph.D., is an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, at Harvard University, and the author of Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict. In her article in Psychology Today, Dr. Hicks tackled the definition and vital role dignity plays in resolving conflicts. That role is not limited to international and political matters. Each of us wants to be treated with dignity. Resolution of a conflicts can be more easily reached, and more quickly, if both parties feel that they have been treated with dignity.

But how do you treat someone with dignity?

To answer the question, Dr. Hicks identified the 10 elements of dignity.

  1. Acceptance of identity: Everybody wants their identity accepted. People want recognition for their unique qualities; they want the freedom to express themselves without fear of being negatively judged.
  2. Inclusion: People want to feel that they belong; people want to be understood.
  3. Safety: People want physical and psychological safety. They want to be from humiliation. They want to speak without fear of retribution.
  4. Acknowledgment: You treat people with dignity by listening, hearing, validating and responding to their concerns, feelings and experiences.
  5. Recognition: People want to be appreciated; they want gratitude for their contributions.
  6. Fairness: People want to be treated fairly; to be treat treated evenhandedly according to the agreed-upon rules.
  7. Benefit of the doubt: People want to be given the benefit of the doubt; for trustworthiness, good motives and integrity to be assumed.
  8. Understanding: People want to know that what they think matters. They want the opportunity to explain and express their points of view. And they want to be heard.
  9. Independence: People need to feel in control of their lives, and experience a sense of hope and possibility.
  10. Accountability: People want others to take responsibility for their actions. If you have violated the dignity of another person, apologize.

Can I have a dignified divorce?

It’s not hard to see how these elements of dignity could be applied to the process of resolving the issues surrounding a divorce. It’s also not hard to see just how difficult applying these elements during a divorce negotiation could be.

In a traditional litigated divorce, dignity is not addressed at all. You don’t interact with your spouse. It’s  a lawyer-to-lawyer process, with the judge getting involved to resolve conflicts between the lawyers. Your involvement is often limited to signing scathing affidavits prepared by your lawyer attacking your spouse; or having your integrity questioned during a deposition; or sitting in a courtroom while the lawyers go into the judge’s chambers for a conference. Treating you with dignity is not on the menu.

However, you can have a dignified divorce. A properly trained and experienced team of Collaborative Divorce professionals work from the outset to ensure that each spouse feels that they are being treated with dignity.

The couple actively participates in the discussions.

Each spouse has his or her own attorney, for advice, and to feel safe. The attorney helps the spouse express and explain their interests. At the same time, the attorney also makes sure that the non-client spouse is being heard and understood.

The divorce “coach,” a mental health professional specially trained to monitor and assist the couple to deal with the emotional issues arising at the divorce discussion table, steps in when fear and anger threaten to interfere with the resolution.

This is not fun. This is not easy. There are no miracles. It’s hard work, for the professional team — and the couple. But the work gets easier as the professional team models and reinforces the couple’s efforts to communicate, respectfully.

The process begins with the couple committing to each other to resolve this conflict without going to court. They express to each other their goals and interests. They are made to feel safe and in control. They are willing to work toward building a future where each spouse will leave the marriage with the ability to move on with their lives, separate from each other, yet able to co-parent. They will be able to sit in the same room together, for the negotiations, for their children’s graduations and weddings, . . . .

There is no such evolution with Mediation. And with Litigation, from the outset, the goal of every pleading and affidavit is often to demean and humiliate the other spouse.

The couple works, hard, through the Collaborative Divorce Process taking some comfort from knowing that years from now they will not regret seeing the effect on the children, and their own lives, caused by continuing and deepening the conflict through an acrimonious divorce.

You have a choice: to begin to construct your future, or face perhaps years and tens of thousands of dollars tearing down the past, and deepening the anger, hurt and resentment.

Alec Baldwin learned the lesson. “Get into the collaborative divorce. The dignified divorce. You’re going to regret it if you don’t.”

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