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Voice Male - Summer 2004

Men in Divorce

The Heart and Soul of Divorce

By Carl Erikson

Divorce, as columnist Carl Erikson reminds readers, speaks to a large percentage of men (and women) and cuts across boundaries of class and race. Its impact on men often continues for years after the decree is signed. Like women, men need support and information. To help provide both, with this issue Voice Male inaugurates a new column, "Men in Divorce." Readers are invited to send Voice Male stories of successful strategies that resolved or significantly reduced divorce and custody-related problems.

Many men process divorce the way they process so much else: a problem to be solved. They figure out the systems and the rules, apply them to the problem, and accept the solution. Things, agreements, and actions constitute the whole of it. We can process our divorces like this, no question--but doing so is like saying a football game is just a matter of moving the ball or a painting is just a matter of paint and brushes. If we do that we are missing the heart and soul of divorce and ignoring its doorway to a more satisfying life.

The heart and soul of divorce are the basic personal truths that lie within the man, in the woman, and in the children in the divorce. What these truths are. What they say. Why they are ignored, repressed, denied, exploited, misunderstood. How they can expand and nourish the people whose truths they are. How they drove the people into places they didn't want to be or to actions they didn't want to do.

Men tend to be not only ignorant of their truths, but in apparent denial that they even exist. In fact, men in their guts know these truths exist and that they constantly challenge the way men actually live their lives. Society, from the time a man is a little boy, trains him to deny these truths and works to keep him ignorant of them. From the first "Big boys don't cry" to the last "Suck it up, man, life's tough," admonition, men are kept in bondage to some unknown god bent on denying reality.

Come divorce, therefore, we just keep doing the same old thing.

Processing divorce without participating fully in its heart and soul, however, leaves a man standing alone and unprotected before the grindings of the system and its rules. It leaves men without purpose or direction, without the assurance to make good choices for themselves, without seeing the possibility of salvaging one or more good human relationships. It leaves them without flexibility.

The heart and soul of divorce is about emotions, feelings, intuitions, the small voice that keeps whispering ugly little statements we know are true. Recognizing emotions, naming them, understanding them, reading them, and moving with them are all things that men should know at the time of divorce. Given the near total ignorance of these things by most men, a man entering the divorce experience faces a steep learning curve with little time to master it. Quitting, therefore, at the first incline looks awfully good, and many men do pack it in. Trying to learn all this at the same time many of the largest foundation pieces in his life are shifting under him expands the confusions and fears exponentially. Refusing to learn--or even refusing to recognize he needs to learn--leaves a man awash in seas so high he's sure he's going to drown, and often sets off anger driven by panic or depression fed on a diet of helplessness.

How can men touch the heart and soul of their divorce experience and understand the emotional content of their families while coping with the systems and rules of divorce? In "Men and Divorce," a six-session workshop for men entering the divorce transition which I co-lead, we give a man three tools to use in this effort. First, we slow his tendency to problem-solve way down, or get him to set it aside temporarily. This gives him space and time for reawakening his emotional intelligence. For some men, this proves to be the biggest trauma of all. Instead of fleeing from emotions, we're deliberately asking them to move toward them. The most effective way we've found to lead these men toward their emotions is simply to acknowledge that they have lots of strong feelings right now, sitting in the workshop. Instead of ignoring them, we talk about them.

Second, we remind the men that their emotions are a natural part of their makeup, not an aspect of themselves to be demonized or whose expression should be viewed negatively. Emotions, we tell them, are normal in human beings, not dangerous, or for sissies. Emotions contain important messages for us about ourselves; they're not signs of some weakness or failure as a male. Emotions can be managed for our benefit; out-of-control scenes are not the only, unavoidable result of expressing feelings. Many men find it hard to believe that the truth of this assessment, and almost all men need help to build their capacity to accept their emotions.

Third, we help men develop their emotional literacy. At the most basic level, this means literally helping them find words for what they feel, for the various levels of feeling, for the connection between themselves and their emotions. When they can name their feelings, men can learn how to read the messages in those emotions, how those emotions show up in their bodies and minds, how those emotions play off of each other. (Of course learning these skills is useful for all men, regardless of whether or not they are going through a divorce.) Finally, they learn how to respond to the feelings they now have enough words and understanding to talk about. They learn how to use the messages of their emotions to benefit themselves and the people around them, particularly their loved ones who are also going through what I have to call "family reorganization." They learn to choose ways of releasing the energy of emotion without harming themselves and while respecting others.

With their emotions better understood and the energy of their emotions dispersed, men can reach the heart and soul of their divorce: the truths they, their wives and children are living. These truths can be ugly, funny, surprising, stressful, joyful--a wide range are experienced. Little ones, big ones, new ones, old ones. Truths we lived by consciously. Truths we never recognized except as stabs in the gut. Truths we didn't know were true for us. Whatever the truths, they affected us, our family, and our marriage, and will affect our divorce. A truth controls our attitude or action, or our denial or suppression of that truth controls our attitude or action. Either way it played its part, and will continue to play its part unless we choose to change that truth about ourselves. For most of us, we lived our lives unconscious of these truths and often at odds with them.

Knowing truths about themselves opens men to gaining new perspective. Men gain a choice of accepting or changing their truths. They gain the ability to express these truths more effectively and safely because they're doing so consciously. They gain strong tools for making choices and for knowing when to defend themselves. They gain the ability to look at others around them, particularly the people closest to them, and identify what their truths (and therefore their choices, responses, and lines of defense) might be.

This moving toward emotion, the heart and soul of divorce, is not easy for us, and some of us have more difficulty with it than others. Some of us have a tough time just accepting our emotions, but once we can accept them acquiring the rest of the tools happens quickly. Some can accept their emotions easily, but have a tough time reading the messages their emotions are delivering or finding good ways to disperse the accompanying emotional energy. Others do fine with all of it--except they just don't want the responsibility of consciously acting on their truths. However men adapt to their emotions and to their truths, will slowly lead them--or push them--along the path to a fuller understanding of who they've been and a more conscious expression of who they are.

As men move in this direction, they begin to see divorce less as an ending and more as a beginning, less as a problem to be solved and more as a difficult passage to experience. This change in perspective enables men to focus on the doorway to a more satisfying life.

Carl Erikson, who writes frequently for Voice Male, is the Men's Resource Center's director of operations, as well as a writer and textile artist.

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