The Three C’s of Managing Divorce:
Calmness, Consciousness, Clarity

By Rebecca Dnistran, MA

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Over the past fifteen years I have had the opportunity to learn from my clients as to why they had either initiated or been the recipient of a divorce decree.  Often, the decree was a rational solution to a difficult situation that may have involved abuse, alcoholism or abandonment. More seemingly ambiguous decisions were based on earlier resentments in the marriage that were never addressed. An example of this would be one partner who is less interested in sex and does not recognize that infrequent or unsatisfying sex is a problem for their partner.  Additional reasons are one partner’s own personal growth or a change in values. I have often heard stories how a partner had not “been there for me” in times of sickness or in times of grief, such as the loss of an extended family member or the trauma of stillbirth. There were also those in search of greener pastures or an earlier adolescence.  The most often sited reason for divorce is issues over finances. Abigail Trafford, in her book, Crazy Time, attributes many a marital breakup to the imbalance of power in the relationship. There are many reasons that may contribute to the breakdown of a marriage.  These issues often take time to germinate and grow and without attention can take over a relationship and develop a life of their own.  In other words, there is you, and there is me, but there can also be this problem between “us.”

One partner may hold in his or her heart the hope for an “amicable” divorce. Think for a moment which partner this would be. Would it be the one who is pushing for divorce or the one who is pulling for reconciliation?  In North Carolina this push/pull can go on for 12 months during the separation process. The partner who is pulling for reconciliation often has difficulty knowing when to stop pulling and let go…. letting go of the marriage, the possibility of letting go of the house, letting go of time with the children and retirement packages. All of the letting go is summarized in a wordy compilation of paper known as a Separation Agreement. What the agreement doesn’t address is the psychological fallout and supportive tasks needed to get through those12 months and beyond.   

During those twelve months life as you know it can be turned upside down on its head. Your frame of reference is disintegrated. You may feel that all of your choices are being taken away.  Here is an image that may help you visualize the disorientation you will feel. Recently, I was flying from Florida to North Carolina on clear sunny day. I looked out the window at one point and couldn’t tell if we were flying over water or if I was looking at more blue sky. It was all the same color. I imagined that if our plane had done a few loop de loops it would have been difficult without gauges to tell which end was up. To find the horizon and check a compass would be reorienting.   But divorce doesn’t come with a compass. But that does not mean you have to go through the experience with no tools.  This article will describe four basic behavioral strategies you can use to take  care of yourself during the ordeal.  The first is vitally important.  We can preface it by asking a question: Do you remember the first thing you were taught as a child about handling the situation if you ever got lost in a department store or the woods?  The same rule applies here.  Stay calm. 

REMAIN CALM and stay where you are. What we often feel we need to do is buck up and forge ahead. We think we know the way out of the woods. We dam the torpedoes rather than taking the time to regain our strength and bearings. If you have the time, take some time to find a solid piece of ground to sit on so you don’t fall down. Some people find this in family, others find it in God, still others in friends. There is wisdom in a multitude of counselors.  For those that don’t have the time, they may go into fight mode, fighting for the reconciliation of the marriage or fighting to salvage their life with thoughts regarding custody and finances. The alternative is flight mode with thoughts of strategies to avoid thinking about all of the potential loss. Neither the fight or flight mode are wrong. There are times to fight and times to find shelter from the storm. The trouble is that in this time of shock, fear, denial and anger you are without a true compass and you may go down a path that ultimately is not in your best interest. 

To find your bearings, take the time to listen and see what is happening around you. Now is the time to be “wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove.” (Matthew 10:16)  If your spouse has initiated the separation know that most often this initiation was not a spur of the moment event. If it feels like the pronouncement of separation came out of the blue there could be two reasons for this:  

The first is when there has been a serious lack of communication in the relationship and one partner is doing a slow burn over months or even years just waiting to explode. That partner may have made attempts to get to discussion but it didn’t happen for all sorts of reasons. Conflict avoidance is often the primary culprit.  That explosion can come with a seemingly innocuous event. I often tell the story of a woman who said she left her husband because he wouldn’t remove a bug that was crawling on her back. This was the bug that broke the camel’s back so to speak. She had already made up her mind. It wasn’t the bug really, just one more event in a series of many but he was caught off guard and couldn’t recover at that point.    

The other situation is when one in the partnership behaved badly in a BIG way, got caught, and their partner determines that the marriage is beyond repair. This divorce was induced by bad behavior but the behavior was an indication that divorce would have been delivered in its own time inevitably. Yet, having said all this, in both of these situations there is the possibility of reconciliation and perhaps a better union can be gained from the crisis. How do you know?  The answer to this question comes in our next section.  It’s all about remaining “conscious.”


Like Kenny Rogers confirms, “You gotta know when to fold them, know when to hold them.” This takes wisdom.  I have seen couples reconcile six months into a separation agreement. But to quote a more reliable source than Kenny, “You shall know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16)  Fruits are often the result of what lies in the heart. If it seems like there are many more signs of your spouse emotionally and behaviorally distancing from you rather than seeing efforts of moving towards you than there is not much fruit and what there is may be withering on the vine. Remember the saying that “Faith without works is dead”? (James 2:26)  Well, it is also true that Hope without works is dead.  If she or he is telling you that they want to sell the house, they want the separation agreement signed yesterday AND you don’t feel like they are giving you any indication they want to reconcile AND they are telling you that on a scale of 1 – 10, 10 being divorce, that they are in the top quartile but haven’t made up their mind, AND you have exhausted yourself with trying to reconcile AND then exhausted yourself some more AND you have listened to what your spouse is saying as if the rest of your life depended on it, because it does, then you may need to splash some cold water on your face and realize that reconciliation may be impossible.   

In order to nail the other party down, it is helpful to use reflective listening.  Listen and reflect back to him or her, asking questions such as:

“Are you really saying _______?”  Do you really mean _________?”  

When you do ask this question you are asking him or her to question what they are saying. When you hear the same thing over and over again THEN it is time to fold.  You have clear direction and a confirmation of a conscious decision on both of your parts.

And what then, if the answer is “Yes” and you find yourself moving towards divorce?   

If you are dealing with a slow burn situation know that your partner may be ahead of the game. They have been thinking about their options and may have checked out of the relationship months ago and checked into an attorney’s office.  So, what about your options? Now is not the time for flight but the time to figure out what is in your best interest. How do you know what is in your best interest? The broad based brush stroke on this one is a very simple answer.  Your best interest is to take care of yourself mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. If you took a moment to consider how you have taken care of yourself in these ways in the past you may find that you have missed a few strokes.  If you have neglected yourself in any of these areas, stop doing it.  Take care of YOURSELF.  That is your top priority right now. 

Find Someone in the Know 
The most obvious first move is to assume first and foremost that you are naive in the ways of separation and divorce. Find an attorney if your partner already has one. You aren’t out of the woods and your reorienting may require the expert support of a guide.

If your spouse hasn’t retained an attorney than it may be possible to work through the separation with mediation services offered by your county. Be sure that you and your partner have an understanding that you are working towards mediation and an amicable divorce. If this is the case, you may each hire an attorney to look after your interests through the process of mediation but you both need to be clear with the attorney that you want to keep the solution as amicable as possible.  Find a tax accountant that can help you work through your finances and tax law. Consider with them the implications of keeping or selling property, social security law as it relates to divorce, 401K’s and the like. Both an attorney and your accountant can help you know those things that you didn’t even realize you needed to know.  

Take care of yourself physically.  If you ever landed in an airport in another country what is the first thing you want to see as you are leaving the airport with your bags in tow? The guy holding a sign with your name on it? He was going to take care of you at least for a little while and lead you to a roof over your head. One of the initial realities of separation is the necessity to find a place to stay if you are not the one staying in the family home.  Many a spouse finds him or herself on the couch of a friend or in an apartment their children wouldn’t want to visit. If you can afford a place your children would feel comfortable coming to go for it and make it big enough so they can stay for overnight visits. Avoid any attempts to get your children to feel sorry for you.  Martyrdom does not play well with adolescents.  If that is the game they will catch on and resent it.  Your second priority is to find a way to be comfortable in a very discomforting time.  At the time of separation we can fall into a black and white mentality. “He/She can just take it all, I don’t want any of it” and so he/she does. You may later regret that decision. The same goes for the decision as to who will leave the home.  This is one of the biggest decisions early on in the divorce process. Each state has different laws so consult an attorney. Before one of you leaves, it would be best, in a sane moment, to divide those items that would make life in two households comfortable.  

Stay Emotionally in Control
Your emotions sometimes can be a necessary evil.  You may be experiencing a grief that you have never felt before. Welcome to the world of humanity. Later in your life you may be able to reflect on the strength you displayed in this awful time and be awed by the breadth of the emotions you felt. You may also be experiencing anger. Even hamsters have a flight or fight response (that’s a story for another time) but as human beings we have a more developed brain that enables us to be constructive with our anger instead of being a bag of skin full of intense rage waiting to explode. 

Anger has been an emotion that has gotten a bad rap and for good reason.  When we experience anger in its raw unbridled form it is scary both on the giving and receiving end. It can be out of control and ugly.  I once worked with a couple who were in conflict over their anger issues.  In other words, they had anger over anger.  He told me that his wife had a problem with anger and she disagreed. She noted that yes, she did yell at him at times, but this was a vast improvement from the home she grew up in.  She recalled people standing on tables, screaming at the top of their lungs at each other and throwing things. She wasn’t doing that so what was the problem? She saw herself as very much in control of her anger but her husband didn’t. Certainly they had different perspectives.   

There is anger and there is toxic anger. Redford Williams at Duke University showed three major factors in toxic anger: cynical thoughts, angry feelings and aggressive behavior.  Put them all together and what do you get?  Hostility. Anger at its best is expressed towards the goal of resolution between two people and/or, the resolution of your marriage. Anger can be the emotion that provides the energy to get through the divorce emotionally. Hostility, on the other hand, can be expressed in order to goad the one you once loved as you now have a score to settle. There are therapists who can help you gain control over your emotions and the thought life that drives them. You, after all, want to know that you have a choice and are in control of your self.   

Other common yet difficult emotions are fear and anxiety and the experience of loneliness. It is these three that cause many a man and woman to hit the dating scene as a way to get around their anxiety and cope with the loneliness. It’s tempting. This works to ease the pain and if you are fortunate enough to meet someone right, right out of the gate, more power to you. The problem with this solution is an obvious one. You haven’t taken the time to put yourself back together enough to recognize the lessons learned from your first marriage and secondly, there is the concern of “rebound”. It is best to finish the tasks at hand and in the process of doing that, add to the circle of people you would like to be a part of  your life to make up for those friends and acquaintances that you have lost.


Find a trusted source to lean on. This would be a person who preferably has a history with you and can support you with reality checks instead of being a “yes” man. It can be family member, minister, Rabbi or monk.  You want someone who is not afraid to disagree with you when you swing from fight to flight and back again. This person can add balance. It might be a new friend who is willing to listen to your emotional catharsis about the divorce for the 50th time as well as sit with you when you are having thoughts of ambivalence or doubt.  Divorce is experienced as a rejection and a friend or minister can help you remember your value and self-worth.

Whomever you lean on, remember that the ultimate authority of your emotions needs to be you . The key is in your own ability to put your head on the pillow at the end of the day and feel a sense of well being.  You need to feel confident, comfortable and clear that the conscious decisions and behavior you exhibited that day are going to be actions that you will not be embarrassed by a month from now. The smallest of behaviors that can have a big impact are the words you speak about your spouse. Choose two or three people at most from those listed above to be your confidant and limit your communications to only these few people, other than your attorney and accountant of course.  

Another way to ensure a sense of peace at the end of the day is to do the following: There is a verse in the Bible that states, “A child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). I am taking this totally out of context but if you have children think of this….. Would you be able at the end of the day to say something like the following to your child? Keep in mind that I am not suggesting that you actually would talk with your children about the details of your interactions with you spouse.  

 “I really screwed your father over today” or, “I took all of your mother’s stuff and threw it out in the trash today”.  Hopefully, if you raised them right, your child is going to look at you and think:  

“What the H. E. double L is my parent thinking?”  

Behave “as if” they are watching your every move, because, they are.

It is NEVER too late to change the way you communicate.  No matter how you slice this loaf of bread, in most cases, your spouse is still going to be a parent to your child and if you diminish their estimation of that parent, you are eroding over time their estimation of you. As tempting as it is, don’t do it. You are not ultimately responsible for their ongoing relationship with the other parent but your words have impact.  


What is it that we really want in a relationship? According to John Gottman, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,  what couples most want from each other is friendship. 

If you are reading this it may well be too late for you and your spouse to have a friendship. Often, when a couple decides amicably that the marriage is not working they have nothing left to loose. It is at that very point when they got honest with themselves and with each other.  They may share themselves with their partner without the anger and resentment that fueled those boxing matches in previous years.  There can be an openness to sharing that was not there before. Often, when there is nothing left to loose, they can listen to each other with an openness that wasn’t there before and accept the partner’s true self for what it is. Where there had been misunderstandings between the two of you, you might, in the best of circumstances, be able to clarify with each other the following three things,

A – What was your individual responsibility for the ending of the marriage?

B – What do you regret about the ending of the marriage?

C – What have you and do you continue to appreciate about your partner?

Do not use this sharing to throw darts but rather use it to gain clarity for yourself.  

There is a saying that “you can’t see the forest for the trees.”   In going through a divorce, you are in every sense of the word doing your best to navigate a dark forest.  Yet, in the midst of the chaos of disengagement from a marriage you can remain proud of yourself if you have remained calm, moved forward with sound advice, and attempted to maintain emotional control. At the end of each trying day, you could be most proud of yourself simply for the way you have behaved.   And in maintaining the highest standards of behavior for yourself, you may soon realize that you are almost out of the woods. You have created a compass of self-confident and self-controlled behavior that can guide you for the rest of your life.  This compass keeps you oriented. Additional guides may be needed from time to time to help you reorient, but at least you have the most important things in place. 

The ending of a relationship provides an opportunity to take the time to understand how you may have contributed to the ending of your marriage. What role did you play in the breakdown of the partnership?  Take the opportunity to choose who and how you want to be for the rest of your life.  For some of you this is a second chance for getting it right. For others it may be a third chance and for others, a fourth. It is only you that is now responsible for your happiness and you have no one else to blame if you aren’t. It is this YOU that you will bring to your next relationship. Take the time to find yourself and when you are ready to begin a new relationship, you can approach it with perspective, clarity and peace of mind. 

Rebecca Hope Dnistran is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with the State of North Carolina. She also holds a Diplomate in Sex Therapy with the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists,

You can find out more about her services at or or you can contact her directly at 919 789-4673.

If you have any comments or thoughts about this article please direct them to

This article is meant as a generalized overview of the divorce process. It is not meant in any way to provide individualized advice and should not be construed as such.


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