Anticipating How Your Spouse Handles Relationship Stress Can Give You the Edge in Divorce Negotiations
Have you ever considered how you and your spouse typically resolve conflicts within your relationship? We as Dallas divorce lawyers feel it could be well worth your while to do so, even if the relationship is ending. Why?
We live in a world that thrives on negotiation. Whether you are trying to close a big sale at the office or haggling over a Beatles’ LP at the local flea market, you’re negotiating virtually every day. But, unlike traditional “arm’s-length” negotiations between relative strangers, in divorce cases each party possesses a wealth of insider’s knowledge about the other. Ironically, in most cases neither side uses that knowledge to good effect.
Recognizing and anticipating how you and your spouse are likely to respond to the stress and conflict that invariably accompany divorce can give you a distinct advantage during the divorce negotiations. There is nothing unethical or disingenuous about understanding your audience and tailoring your divorce strategy and communications to that audience. Let’s begin by looking at some concepts and defining a few terms.
There is a growing body of research that suggests that spouses can form emotional attachments to each other that are similar to attachments that young children form with their parents. For example, when a happy toddler lives in a secure environment and relationship with his parent(s), he has what is called a “secure base” and he tends to want to explore the world around him. Further, when this “secure toddler” is then separated from his primary attachment figure(s), a predictable reaction of fear and anxiety is triggered and would be expected.
Similarly, most adults living in a secure and healthy relationship tend to view the relationship as essentially safe and they are open to feedback about negative behaviors without feeling threatened or abandoned. But what happens when that security is stripped away by divorce or other significant stressors? Like the toddler, the loss of the attachment figure (in this case, the spouse) triggers a predictable reaction. The specific kind of reaction usually correlates closely to that person’s individual style of attachment.
The three primary attachment styles identified by researchers are “secure,” “anxious,” and “avoidant.”
People with a secure attachment style generally channel distress fairly well because of their “strong base.” They tend to apply effective conflict resolution strategies and can integrate their own interests with their partner’s interests.
Individuals with an anxious style of attachment tend to become more demanding, jealous, and ruminate obsessively about the relationship when placed under stressful situations. They are likely to appraise conflict in catastrophic terms and dwell on negative emotions.
Persons with an avoidant style of attachment tend to lack empathy for others and present themselves as highly self-reliant. Even though they are just as sensitive to rejection as others they can appear to be distant or detached. They are likely to downplay the significance of conflict and focus on the “bottom line.”
It is important to keep in mind that these descriptions are generalized and are, by no means, indicative of an underlying pathology. Rather, they are descriptive “lenses” through which we can view certain personality traits and tendencies for a specific reason.
Anticipating and Adapting
Experienced Dallas divorce attorneys will tell you that knowing and understanding your spouse’s attachment style (as well as your own) can be advantageous to you as you negotiate through the divorce process. Does your spouse have good communication skills? Does he or she try to solve conflicts cooperatively and constructively? If so, what is your best guess as to your spouse’s attachment style? If you believe your spouse has a secure attachment style then you can anticipate that he or she will attempt to apply a constructive approach to the negotiation and you can respond in kind.
What if your spouse has an anxious attachment style? Does he or she try to dominate the interaction? Does it seem as though your spouse easily shifts blame from the situation to you personally? Does he or she complain about not being “heard” during discussions? Do you ever feel that no matter what you do it’s not enough? During the divorce try to help your spouse establish a new “safe” base, either through his or her family, friends, or even your spouse’s divorce attorney. It can be very important that your spouse feel as though someone “has his back.”
Additionally, try to balance your communications with a combination of objective information and subjective, positive feedback. Listen more than you talk. Reflect on what is said and show your spouse that you value and respect what he or she is saying to you (even though you are not necessarily saying you agree).
If your spouse leans in the avoidant direction then you may have to work a little harder to get your spouse to engage in the discussions, as individuals with avoidant attachment styles are motivated to — you guessed it — avoid conflict at all costs. Start by trying to set clear goals by agreement and work cooperatively to achieve milestones throughout the divorce process, Your spouse may not value or appreciate hearing about your feelings or those of the children, so try to shield him or her from those emotional expressions. Instead, emphasize concise, friendly communications that are solution-focused.
Of course, your spouse’s attachment style is only half of the equation. In order to anticipate, adapt, and optimize your negotiations, you need to have some understanding about how your own style of attachment. If you would like to learn more about the theory of adult attachment, start by taking a look at a couple of well-written books on the subject.
Now, more than ever before, knowing and understanding how your spouse handles relationship stress can give you a negotiation edge during divorce. That is because over the last 20 years there has been a gradual societal movement away from divorce court trials and toward negotiated resolutions. Spouses who want to preserve a co-parenting relationship or want to avoid the cost and collateral damage caused by a final trial are increasingly finding solutions through mediation, collaboration, and other alternative means. Although each process is unique, the common thread that runs through each of these methodologies is they rely upon a process of negotiation to achieve their objectives to one degree or another. The best negotiators learn how to anticipate, adapt, and customize their messages in order to achieve an optimal result.
If you would like to learn more about finding creative solutions to resolve divorce conflict, contact a Dallas divorce lawyer at GoransonBain Ausley for a consultation.
This article is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon for any other purpose.
 Levine, Amir and Rachel Heller. Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – And Keep – Love. Penguin Group (USA), 2010; Tatkin, Stan. Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship, New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 2011.
 The author would like to thank the following individuals and institutions, from whom the author has drawn heavily in preparing this article: Yuval Berger of Vancouver, BC; Lisa Alexander of Vancouver, BC; Dr. Honey Sheff of Dallas, TX; Winnie Huff of Dallas, TX; Tracy Stewart of Bryan, TX; and the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas.