Separation and divorce create chaos in our lives and force us to make one difficult decision after another. How do I care for the children? What is mine? Is this fair? Am I asking for too much for myself? Am I asking for too little? Do I care enough to fight for this? In big decisions and small, we are forced to balance our values and self-perceptions with our fears and hopes. How do we make these decisions? Who can guide us?
Certainly, this is one of the reasons people turn to lawyers when divorcing. We believe that Lady Justice holds scales that fairly balance our rights and responsibilities with the others’ and this will help answer some of our thorny questions. A good lawyer can tell us what is fair, at least when it comes to equitable distribution, child support, alimony and the rest of the tangibles. In this storm of confusion, the law offers a beacon of light, but it doesn’t erase the confusion caused by the upheaval of order.
I’ve yet to meet a divorcing couple with a clear-cut situation. Every single one faces some exceptional circumstance in which one person sees the situation one way and the other sees it another way. What each believed to be true when they made the decision to buy the house, have the child or move in together becomes a backdrop to a litany of spoken and unspoken disagreements. To know what is truly right for our particular complex, nuanced, gray mass of conundrum requires what Barry Schwartz refers to as practical wisdom.
“We’re always solving the ethical puzzles or quandaries that are embedded in our practices because most of our choices involve interpreting rules, or balancing clashing principles or aims, or choosing between better and worse. We’re always trying to find the right balance….Practical wisdom demands more than the skill to be perceptive about others. It also demands the capacity to perceive oneself—to assess what our own motives are, to admit our failures, to figure out what has worked or not and why… Such self-reflection is not always so easy when … we feel we’ve been wronged. And it’s also difficult when we’ve been wrong — thoughtless, careless, too self-interested. Being able to criticize our own certainties is often a painful struggle, demanding some courage as we try to stand back and impartially judge ourselves and our own responsibility”
There is certainly no easy path through this storm, but this is one more way that the process of separation gives us practice in some of the most valuable work we do in life. Here are 5 not-easy steps to making solid decisions based on your own inner wisdom:
1. Acknowledge your bias and perspective.
We tend to believe the stories we tell ourselves about our experience, forgetting that it is a construct of our mind. The first step toward making sound decisions for ourselves, it recognizing that we begin from a biased, incomplete, inexact perspective.
2. Cultivate empathy.
The last thing we want to do when we’re separating from someone is to get into that person’s mind and heart, but that is necessary for expanding our own. Empathy is like a muscle that strengthens with practice, becomes flaccid with lack of use and clenches when we’re strained. Practice using it to help guide you through the storm.
3. Listen to others with an observing mind.
Remember that every single person you encounter and share your story with responds to you from his/her own story. There is no purely neutral response. Even the facts someone chooses to share with you are chosen based on that person’s experience. Other people’s enthusiasm, sadness, fear, anger, and sense of righteousness seep into our experience and easily foment our own reactions.
4. Quiet your mind.
During this stressful time in your life, commit to spending 10-30 minutes every day watching your thoughts and calming the chorus of noises that erupt inside. Use the tools that help you best- soothing music, guided meditations, breathing techniques- to separate your Self from your experience and to take a little break from the drama of life.
5. Listen to your inner voice.
Once your brain is quiet, listen carefully to the voice inside you that gives you guidance. If you find yourself retelling your story or responding to the voice of others, gently resume quieting your mind and waiting for your own truth to emerge.
If you have done all of these steps and still feel uncertain about your answer, you are human. The muddy waters you navigate have no certainty so embrace the less-than-perfect best answer and move forward to the next challenge.