Realistic Expectations in Divorce: Do Leopards Ever Really Change Their Spots?

© 2015 Shawn D. Skillin, Esq.

As a mediator, I met with a divorcing couple today.  I like both of them very much.  We are the same ages, have similar interests and if I wasn’t their divorce mediator, I could be friends with each of them.  But what struck me again today, was how divorcing spouses treat each other and annoy each other, and yet at the same time they find this surprising and frustrating.

You are getting divorced.  There are multiple reasons why you are getting divorced.  Many of them boil down to that fact that you each have a different perspective on various issues.  One of you likes the house neat and tidy, the other leaves dirty socks and wet towels on the floor.  One of you is fussy about the budget, the other just wants to know if the ATM card works.  You each have a different set of expectations for the children and approach discipline in different ways.  You both have frustrations, disappointments and hurt feelings.  You have argued over these issues many times, you can recite each other’s point of view word for word.  You have stopped even pretending to listen.

Yet when one of you decides to file for divorce there is often an expectation that somehow this will change.  The other person will now see your point and finally change their perspective, after all you must have gotten their full and undivided attention now!  Right?  Mmmm…not so fast.

In divorce, your individual perspectives don’t magically change.  Divorce is not a cure to relationship issues!  You still see things differently.  These differences continue to annoy and frustrate you.  Yet, both parties often continue to treat each other in the same way and expect a different outcome.  These communication styles didn’t work during the marriage, they aren’t going to work during the divorce.  The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. 

You each need to consider learning new ways to approach your issues.  You need to be able to use Flexible Thinking, Managed Emotions, and Moderate Behaviors.  This sounds simple, but is difficult when under the stress of divorce.  Being aware of your words and behaviors are the first step.  Remember your feelings are yours, they are what they are, but how you manage them and what you say, out loud or in writing, is up to you.  Consider how your former partner reacts to you when you state your feelings or make a request in your customary manner.  If their reaction is generally negative, consider a new approach.  It may be as simple as trying a more neutral tone, or asking a question instead of stating a demand.

Consider using the BIFF Response® method as you your guide.  Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm.

  • Be brief, keep it short. Your ex probably tunes you out fairly quickly. If you can keep it brief you are more likely to be heard.

    1. Be informative but stick to the facts and limit the emotional content. The emotional content can be the distracter, the thing that makes your partner tune out and miss your actual point.

    2. Be friendly, even if you may not feel that way, your approach can go a long way in determining whether your communication is successful or not. You don’t need to be overly accommodating, just polite.

    3. Be firm, the object is to bring the conversation to a close and not open the door to more issues, especially unimportant ones.

Here is an example I use in mediations frequently:

Your son, John, has returned from his time with the other parent and he has an ear infection from swimming in the ocean only one day after a big rain storm.  You both know that the recommendation is to stay out of the ocean for three days after a rain storm to allow any contamination from storm drainage to clear.  You son has a fever, his ear hurts and now you have to find the time to make a doctor’s appointment, get him to the doctor, go to the pharmacy and pick up his prescriptions and probably miss out on some sleep with a cranky child the next night or two.  You are furious that your ex was so irresponsible.  You need to communicate with the other parent and you want to unleash your fury.  But is that really what you should do?  Will that solve any problems or make you feel better?  Will it change your ex’s behavior?  Probably not.  If you just unleash, will he/she even listen to the important information you need to convey?  So why not try a BIFF Response?

You send an email like this. 

“Dear Ex – Hope you are having a good day.  I just wanted to let you know that John has an ear infection.  He’s OK, but has a fever and his ear hurts.  He is on antibiotics for the next 10 days and he has some ear drops for the pain.  I will put the medications in his backpack when he comes to your house on Monday.  The schedule for the antibiotics is 6 am, noon, 6 pm and bedtime.  Ear drops for pain every 4 hours as needed.  Doses are on the bottles.  The total co-pay for the visit and the medications was $40.  Receipts are attached.  If you could reimburse me for your half by Friday, I’d appreciate it.  Thanks.”

Sometimes it helps to construct a BIFF Response by pretending you are writing on only one side of an index card.  This forces you to think of being brief, because of the limited space.  Therefore, you have to include only the most important information or requests.

Try a new approach, you know the standard one doesn’t work, so what do you have to lose?


Shawn D. Skillin, Esq. has practiced law as a family law litigator and minors counsel, and became interested in finding a more collaborative and solution oriented approach to family law cases and since 1999 has successfully mediated hundreds of family law cases. In addition to maintaining her own private practice, she is an educational consultant, speaker and trainer with the High Conflict Institute. She speaks frequently on issues related to mediation and family law. She presents monthly at “Third Saturday” a divorce workshop sponsored by NCRC. She has been a guest lecturer on mediation at the University of San Diego School of Law, San Diego Christian College and Legal Assistance at Marine Air Station, Camp Pendleton. She is a senior mediator with the Divorce Mediation Group with the National Conflict Resolution Center as well as a mediation trainer. Click HERE for more information about Shawn or to ask about training opportunities for your group.

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