In prior blogs in this series, we wrote about the natural desire to prevail against perceived rivals and the potential use of game theory to understand obstacles in the current legal system as it takes families through separations and divorce. We next focused on how the legal system can trap people into self-defeating patterns of decision making: Trap #1 – distracting people from their life goals into thinking that legal outcomes are goals; Trap #2– treating divorce as a zero sum game; Trap #3: the system assumes disputes and seduces parents into thinking the same; Trap #4: treating children as property; Trap #5, that selfishness is the best strategy; and Trap #6, that winning is critical.
Trap #7 is that the legal system inadvertently plays on human emotions and encourages anger and blame rather than resolving sadness. Divorcing spouses are particularly vulnerable to this trap because anger has likely been used to avoid addressing sad for at least the last few years of the marriage. A marriage that is drifting towards a divorce involves a good deal of sadness. Sad is the feeling that we have when we lose something that we care about or love. That loss can be the feeling of connectedness, passion, affection, empathic concern for one another or even the dream of what could have been or what was expected. We all enter marriage with hopes, even a template of what it should be, and experience loss when our hopes are dashed or the gap between the reality of the marriage and the expectations becomes evident. The transition from the beginning of the marriage to a divorce involves emotional stages, but these usually involve blaming the other spouse for the loss, and rather than being sad, people are inclined to feel anger.
The legal system fits like a hand-in-glove with this self-defeating human dynamic by promoting anger and blame. Letters written by attorneys for home consumption sometimes do this very deliberately. Proposals might do this by threatening more loss or by widening the gap between hopes and expectations and reality. There is also real loss, of money and of time with children, and the other parent appears to be the cause of those losses by wanting money and time with the children. An affair signals the loss of loyalty and commitment. The divorce also signals loss of hope, the final loss of the dream of what might have been, for themselves and for their children. All of these losses are sad, but rather than process sadness, the legal system encourages defensive blaming and anger.
Anger and blame lead to self-defeating choices and strategies, chiefly by creating even more loss. For example, separating parents mourn the loss of the family experience that they hoped to give their children, but by making choices out of anger and blame, they diminish that family experience even more and substitute a painful one instead, for themselves and for their children. Anger and blame can lead to poor financial decisions, and transaction costs in the divorce driven by anger and blame can increase the loss of money for both spouses. Anger and blame might be easier than sad, but certainly is not better.
The antidote to this trap is to focus on the core emotions, especially sadness. Other core emotions might include guilt and shame. Anger and blame distort core emotions. The guilt of having an affair never resolves if the response is to blame the innocent spouse. Making the divorce the other spouse’s fault hides shame, but never resolves it.