Utilizing the Aikido Philosophy in High Conflict Divorce
BY BRUCE DERMAN, PH.D. AND MARY STODDARD, PH.D.
Divorce is not an easy life passage in the best of circumstances, since it involves making crucial lifetime decisions about marriage, children, money and property at a time in which we all feel very vulnerable and fearful. Despite those dilemmas a somewhat amicable divorce is possible until we add to the mix intense emotional agendas and personality disorders such as narcissistic, borderline and passive-aggressive, or just an overall refusal to cooperate, trust, and participate.
When encountering these personality obstacles and roadblocks, divorce professionals, including attorneys, mediators, therapist coaches, and financial experts, are vulnerable to being seduced into some of these common patterns.
1. Objecting to a particular behavior
2. Trying to convince the person to listen or change
3. Prodding in different ways in order to get someone to respond in a desired manner
4. Aggressively opposing what the individual is doing
In one instance, an attorney and a divorce coach were trying to make an impact by trying to help this extremely passive-aggressive woman to become aware of her self defeating process. They tried all kinds of ways to reach her but she deflected them with silence, distrust, brief answers, and just repeating over and over again her same points. After an hour of relatively gentle but constant explaining and convincing, they asked her if she felt heard and she simply said “No.” They each leaned back in their chairs somewhat exhausted, not even realizing that they had been seduced into an unproductive pattern of convincing due to her powerful passive behavior.
In another situation, a collaborative divorce team of two attorneys, two coaches and a case manager were engaging this divorcing couple around the issues of dealing with their children and respecting boundaries. The husband dominated the session by maintaining a constant banter of displeasure, hostility, entitlement, and aggression. In reaction to this behavior, each of the team members robotically attempted to oppose his verbalizations in letting him know that he wasn’t being constructive. In turn they told him to “stop his accusations”, “realize that he was getting a divorce”, “lectured him on hurting the children”, and “reminded him of his agreement not to blame.” He in turn would provide some lip service that he heard them, but then within minutes he would be back to the behavior in question. In this case the professionals had also been seduced into a ineffective repetitive pattern similar to the convincing pattern in the first example.
Convincing and objecting are reflective of an overall conditioning pattern which we are all have been subjected to in our lives, namely “oppose what we don’t like.” We are trained in this pattern from birth by our parents and the culture itself, so it is not surprising that we fall into this sequence when challenged by the intense, unrelenting, and overpowering behavior of high conflict clients.
In order to not to become entangled in any of the various reactive emotional spirals produced by high conflict couples, it is imperative that divorce professionals develop a philosophy and methodology which is equal in power to the clients they are dealing with. We find the aikido philosophy offers the greatest flexibility in approaching the intensity and power struggles presented by this population. While aikido is mostly known as a martial art, the principles inherent in this model are very applicable to addressing the seductive behavior we frequently encounter.
The mentality of the divorce professional who chooses to integrate Aikido into one’s practice asks for a very different mind set. Words such as permission, allow, utilize and anticipate are preferred over instruct, tell, impose, or direct. Thus this approach and philosophy involving extensive flexibility and acceptance will not feel comfortable for many who would prefer a more structured right –wrong view of life. In order to develop this approach one has to face and confront his or her own internal judgments of themselves Aikido is personally more challenging, requires more skill acquisition (e.g., learning and mastering mental and emotional adroitness) and is definitely not for the faint of heart. It requires more internal strength than a structured approach which provides a greater illusion of control.
The Aikido process is very client centered. The route and pacing in achieving each task in the Aikido divorce process is different in each case and is guided by each couple’s unique “voice” (personality, needs, issues, value system, historical patterns, etc. The flow of client centered work addresses everything the traditional approach does, but arrives at these tasks of dissolution differently for each couple.
Main Aikido Concepts
The main concept within aikido is to not attempt to control what an individual presents with a more powerful force. That type of thinking is more congruent with the philosophy of Karate. Instead the object here is never to oppose a force, but to join with it in a harmonious, accepting, and energetic way. In this way you learn to “dance” with the energy that the person offers you without judgment or emotional reaction.
Don Saposnek, Ph.D. refers to professionals who use this approach as Aikidoists. We have expanded this term to refer to a divorce professional as an Aikido Divorce Warrior. The aikido divorce Warrior accepts the client’s various challenges, their reluctance to change, as well their attempts to prove that they are more powerful than you and that you will fail them. Saposnek says, “The Aikidoist perceives the challenge not as a competitive or conflictual one, but rather as an opportunity both to learn about and to
guide the challenger toward more constructive and less harmful ways of asserting his energy.”
An example of this philosophy and approach:
If one is presented with rage, the object would be to invite and join with that behavior rather than objecting to it, by asking some of the following questions:
1. How long do you want to rage?
2. Would you like to rage more intensely?
3. What would that look like if you did?
4. How would you like your partner to respond to your rage?
5. Does your rage control you or do you control the rage?
2. Blending and extending
In addition to the premise of joining with the individual’s struggle, the questions allow you to approach the client displaying two other Aikido principles; blending and extending. Blending involves identifying with the rage in the previous questions, and wanting to understand all of the nuances of it so that you can fully appreciate it. In extending one invites the person to go further with any behavior they express than they are used to. If someone is passive for example, you would ask them to be more passive in ways they never have considered. At the point where they go beyond their usual comfort zone of passivity, their ability and desire to use that behavior to control will lessen.
If one is presented with a client who continues to take positions the object would to clarify where the person is going with that position. Asking the client if he or she is intending to work toward an agreement or has decided to polarize and create disagreement. We might say “It appears that you have decided to change the mediating dance to an I want what I want and I won’t settle for less dance. We are impressed with the degree in which you are willing to stand up for your way. What do think we ought to tell your spouse about their needs?”
3. No attachment
Another primary aspect of the aikido approach is the lack of attachment to any one spot. Instead the aikido divorce warrior is willing to be wherever the person is in whatever form it is presented. A common hazard for those working with divorcing couples is to become attached to the apparent goal of completing the divorce. When the couple or one of the parties continues their myriad of ways to not complete the process, the professionals become frustrated, angry and polarized. In contrast the aikidoist is just as willing to meet the person in not completing the divorce, as he was in completing it with absolutely no value judgment, loss of energy, or investment.
The last principle that we want to identify as essential for an aikido divorce warrior to master is the idea of utilization. This term was created by the famed hypnotist Milton Erickson, M.D. Utilization is the acceptance of the pattern of behavior which the most strongly characterizes what an individual or couple offers and using that as a way of connecting with them. For example, perhaps a client shares with you in a divorce situation in many ways that they are the one with the biggest hurt in this divorce. The tendency is reflexively want to get them to see that it isn’t true, try to convince them to let go of this position, or tell them that this view is not good for them. Here again the Aikido Divorce Warrior regards any of those attempts as just sophisticated ways of opposing an unacceptable behavior. Instead, the aikido divorce Warrior uses the perspective of having the biggest hurt to form a connection with the client such as:
I really understand that you are the one who suffered the biggest hurt in this divorce. (Utilization) It is quite impressive how you have managed to cope as well as you have given your degree of hurt, (blending) but I am just not sure what you would like to do with that belief. Do you want to spend the rest of your life making him pay for hurting you, and what do you think would be sufficient payment? Or maybe you would like him to apologize to you forever. (Extending)
By using the client’s own material with total acceptance, a dilemma is created in which the divorcing couple needs to choose to follow your direction or make a constructive change. You win either way. In either case the professional is not opposing their beliefs, nor are you telling them to change. The aikido divorce warrior is just aligning themselves where couples choose to spend their energy. However we are not just acknowledging their dance we are magnifying it and bringing it more into their conscious attention where they can see it as a decision that they can control and change.
Whether we work as mediators, divorce coaches, or on collaborative teams, we are constantly developing and integrating the art of becoming Aikido Divorce Warriors into our work. It is truly an art. From the moment a client challenges or seduces us there is tendency to want to revert to our objecting or oppositional conditioning. We have seen on numerous occasions professionals who declare themselves as collaborators become scared in a particular interaction and as a result begin to argue and defend themselves, reflective of more litigation thinking. However, we have found that the more we can accept our fears and hold onto ourselves in the presence of the client’s powerful seductive ways, the more we are able to utilize this model in helping our clients reduce their aggression or oppositional resistance. As a result we then able to experience a loving and authentic connection with ourselves and the divorcing couples we work with.