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About this Blog: Divorce is something you do, not something you are. It is not easy, but it can be funny. I know hanging on to my humor gave me hope and courage. Divorce shouldn't cramp your style. There are whole industries devoted to helping brides plan their weddings -- why shouldn't we have a style guide for divorce?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Language of Divorce, Part I: my life as a dog

I guess if I could effectively speak with the person I used to be married to we'd still be married, but if it weren't for my divorce, I would not have been able to learn several new languages.  The first one that's relevant is canis lupis familiaris - dog language.

There's a book that was circulating a few years ago that talked about how to use the techniques that dog trainers use to communicate with your spouse more effectively, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons from Animals and Their Trainers.  What I recall the author, Amy Sutherland, saying is that when your spouse says something to you that's completely idiotic, you should not react.  This is not only because your emotional reaction impairs your ability to communicate and make decisions.  The reason you should not react is because your spouse, like a dog, will react to your reaction in a counter-productive way.

Here is a perfect example of the scenario -- imagine you are talking to your dog, a sensitive golden retriever.  Imagine yourself shouting at the dog in a really angry, aggressive way, pointing your finger and stomping your foot.  Imagine that as you are doing this yelling, you are actually saying "Good Dog!  I love you!"  When you do this, the dog will cower, and lower its head and tail.  It might even try to slink away from you.

Now imagine that you are petting your dog's head lovingly, scratching its ears, and speaking in a soft, soothing voice.  While you are doing this, you are saying, "Bad dog. . . . you are going to spend the night outside because I am so very mad at you."  The dog will smile (as they can really do) and wag its tail, and nuzzle its head against you.

The message of the book was that men, including your spouse, are pretty much like dogs.  If you are yelling and crying at them, it doesn't matter what you are saying, they fear a woman's anger and a woman's tears more than anything else they could ever encounter on a battlefield.  So your demonstrations are going to be incredibly counter productive.  Sutherland claimed that by remembering this concept and changing her behavior in a few ways, her husband became much more receptive to her needs and did not object to her opinions.

It was helpful for me to remember this on many occasions during my divorce process.  I found that if I made a conscious effort to not react to my feelings of anger and sadness when I spoke to him, and stayed focused on the facts of the conversation, he was completely thrown off his game.  I was now acting completely the opposite way that he expected.  Things just didn't escalate into a major fight where I would lose my temper, despite how he tried to rile me.  If he didn't agree with what I said, I would just calmly say, "okay, that's the way you look at it" or "I disagree with you" and move on.  Instead of ending up in a fight with me over an issue (and being able to complain to others what an unstable harpy I was), he'd now be stuck with his untenable position.  I would still object to his point of view, but it would be a case of "we agree to disagree."

As an added bonus, I learned I could now say mean and negative things to him, like "I've always felt you had difficulty with _____" or "I don't trust that you will follow through on this," because I was just putting it out there in the same tone of voice that I'd say, "Excuse me, but I ordered wheat toast and this is an English muffin."  He'd flip out:  "How dare you say that to me!"  But since I was consciously emotionally disengaged from his signals, it was no big deal.  It was like listening to a dog that is freaking out and barking at you for no reason.  I'd just sit back, watch, and think, "Bad dog, bad dog, no treat for you."


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