Divorce and the Practice of Gratitude

For many people, going through a divorce is one of the most painful events of their lives.  When I ask my clients how they’re doing emotionally while we’re making our way through the legal process, I usually hear responses such as “ugh, it’s tough,” or “it’s so painful,” or “I feel afraid and uncertain of the future,” or “I don’t know, actually, because I’m in such a fog right now.”

What I don’t generally hear is this:  “Oh, I am so grateful for the process – and for everything, really – and all I’m learning!”

I hear you chuckling out there!  I’m laughing a bit, too, because I can count on one hand the number of clients who have had this level of positivity, present moment awareness, and gratitude over the span of my nearly twenty (20) year family law practice.  And yet, we all should be cultivating a practice of gratitude, because the research very clearly demonstrates the positive effects it holds for us.

The Research.

Three (3) leading researchers on the issue of gratitude include Dr. Robert A. Emmons (University of California, Davis), Dr. Michael E. McCullough (University of Miami), and Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman (University of Pennsylvania).  In one research study conducted by Drs. Emmons and McCullough, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and pleased with their lives than were other participants who wrote about irritations or events that had affected them.  In a different study, Dr. Seligman found that participants had a substantial, immediate, and relatively long-term (a month in duration) uptick in their happiness scores from writing and personally delivering a letter of gratitude to someone who had not ever been properly thanked for his/her kindness.

Gratitude has also been shown to affect stress and depression.  In 2007, Alex M. Wood (Department of Psychology, University of Warwick, England) and his colleagues published the findings of two longitudinal studies, both of which showed that gratitude tended to “protect people from stress and depression.”

Gratitude can also positively affect work relationships and may motivate employees to work harder.  This finding came out of a study of fund-raisers conducted at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  Fund-raisers who were thanked by the director of annual giving for their efforts made twice as many fund-raising calls as compared to fund-raisers who were not thanked.

Perhaps not surprisingly, personal relationships are positively affected by the expression of gratitude.  Gratitude in the context of relationship is more than just saying “thanks for picking up the kids from soccer practice.”  It means being appreciative of who our partners are as human beings, and remembering their best traits (which is why we entered a relationship with them in the first place!).

Sara B. Algoe, from the University of North Carolina, and her research colleagues from the University of California (Santa Barbara and Los Angeles) found that couples who expressed gratitude felt closer to each other and were more satisfied in their relationships.  Dr. Amie M. Gordon (in research conducted through the University of California – Berkeley), found that partners who felt gratitude toward their mates were more likely to stay in their relationships (over the following nine months).  Why?  Dr. Gordon suggests that gratitude fosters a cycle of generosity between partners, which, in turn, helps relationships thrive.

How Does Gratitude Relate to Divorce?

The research on the effects of gratitude is pretty clear.  Gratitude is associated with the enhancement of optimism, happiness, motivation, and satisfaction in relationships.  It also appears to help reduce stress and depression.

How does this sound to you, especially if you’re currently struggling with the pain and difficulty of divorce?  If these benefits are enticing, are you willing to take a couple of small actions steps to cultivate gratitude and help yourself feel better?

First, start a very simple, but daily, gratitude journal.  It does not need to be an exhaustive list, which only adds to the angst and stress related to an already busy life.  Three things.  That’s it.  Each can be one word (or more, if you like).  Write out the list on your iPhone on the subway on the way home from work, or while you’re waiting to pick up your children from school.  It doesn’t take more than twenty (20) seconds, and we all can find twenty (20) seconds to bolster our happiness, while reducing stress and depression.

Look for new things to appreciate and add them to the list.  Record the joyful things, certainly, but also give thanks for the difficulties in life, too.  Why?  The difficulties are the cracks in the veneer of our lives, which let the light in, according to Leonard Cohen.  The light can help illuminate and shift our outdated perspectives and long-standing negative, self-limiting beliefs and patterns.

Painful experiences can also help remind us of the simple joys that we often overlook and take for granted.  For example, watching my father (who has emphysema) struggle to breathe reminds me what an amazing gift it is to be able to take a deep breath. The trials and tribulations of life also reveal our strength, courage, and resiliency.  They assist us in developing character and depth.  Elisabeth Kübler-Ross had this to say about how we can be tempered through life’s difficulties:

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.  These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern.

Beautiful people do not just happen.”

In addition to keeping a daily gratitude journal, the second action step is to make a one-time list of three attributes of your spouse for which you are grateful.  Yes, that’s right, I am asking you to express gratitude for your spouse.  It may be as simple as “he’s a good dad,” or “she can be funny,” or “he goes to work every day.”  If you struggle with this one, think back to the reasons you married your spouse in the first place.  Your spouse’s admirable traits, with which you presumably fell in love, are probably still there, even if you no longer experience them.

Once you create the list, reflect on it from time to time.  It can be very helpful to review the list right before mediation or a meeting in which you have to interact with your spouse.  Why?  Remember, expressing gratitude helps reduce your levels of stress and depression, while elevating your happiness and optimism.  So, use gratitude for your spouse as “a shot in the arm” before dealing with a stressful situation.

I will also tell you that I have seen miracles occur in divorce when one partner utters a few grateful words to his/her spouse, especially in the context of mediation or in a joint meeting involving the parties and their attorneys.  The words tended to soften the other party, and seemed to assist in bridging what appeared to be an intractable impasse.  Given these experiences, I personally believe that gratitude literally changes the energy of the room.  It’s as if the expression of kindness creates a portal that promotes and elevates each party’s willingness to cooperate and collaborate.


Conclusion.

Simply put, gratitude works.  The research shows that being grateful can help us be happier, more optimistic and motivated, while simultaneously reducing levels of stress and depression.  If there is any time in life when we need more happiness, optimism, motivation, and less stress and depression, it is while going through the process of divorce!  Consider adopting a gratitude practice to enhance your own resilience during this difficult transition.

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