When it comes to strong, personal emotions, how we feel inside and other people’s expectations for how we should feel inside don’t usually match up. The relationship you experience and the one that friends and family see at gatherings and other events can often lead friends and family to think that everything is ok, or that perhaps that you have worked it out.
But if you can’t reconcile with your partner and repair a damaged relationship, or if separating is the right path toward a happier and more satisfactory life, you’ll need to break the news eventually.
Before I write further, I must warn that there is a danger in searching for advice on how best to communicate sensitively or emotionally charged information with someone. An effective way for some might be a terrible idea for others to try. It would be unethical to try to convince you otherwise. That’s why this article won’t be a list of overgeneralized, feel-good tips. Instead, I aim to walk you through a clinically developed system for dealing with conflict and discussing complex or controversial things with others.
The D.E.A.R.M.A.N. Skill
I feel the DEARMAN skill is an excellent communication tool to guide these sensitive interactions with loved ones. However, I would consult with a child therapist before deciding on the best plan for telling your children about your divorce. Though elements of the DEARMAN approach will no doubt be useful, some specialists focus exclusively on divorce trauma for children, and you should absolutely consult with them and discuss the best approach for your child’s needs.
Clinical psychologists developed the DEARMAN skill as a mnemonic system to help a person remember seven words to keep in mind when trying to persuade another to do something without damaging your relationship or either party’s self-respect.
This skill helps you manage your own behavior when trying to get someone to accept or to do difficult things – like asking them to accept your divorce. Focusing on managing your behavior and not on the other person’s reaction allows you to stay on task and accomplish the conversation’s goal. No matter how the other person responds, you are calm, confident, and assertive. If you adhere to these seven principles when telling your loved ones about your divorce, you’ll present a reasoned and articulate request to them.
You are not responsible for their reaction, which hopefully is sympathetic and supportive. The DEARMAN skill is beneficial for talking with people who might not react so well to the news but is effective for any interaction where you must express your needs and desires, which may counter the other person’s own needs and wishes. If you’ve followed the steps, you’ve ethically and responsibly done your part in relaying the news.
D for Describe
Describe the situation exactly as it is, free of judgment. In this case, you should cut right to the chase.
“Jon and I are getting a divorce.”
Getting right to it keeps the conversation focused and doesn’t allow for conversation to distract you from accomplishing your communicative goals. It also doesn’t give you time to delay or procrastinate the delivery.
E for Express
Express how you feel and why using only “I” messages.
“I believe that this is the best path forward for me. Jon and I have talked it out in therapy, and we’ve decided this is what’s best for our mental health.”
Accusatory language or attacking the person you are trying to communicate with will only get you further from your conversational goal. Express your position only.
A for Ask
Assert what you need from the other person. Specificity here is vital, especially when making requests that conflict with the other person’s interests.
“I need you to accept and understand that these changes are taking place.”
You should tailor how you say things based on who you are talking to and their relationship with you and your soon-to-be-ex partner. Precision is paramount! If you are telling close friends or in-laws you’ve grown close to, this part of the process can seem blunt, terse, and cold.
But, if you remember that there isn’t an easy way to talk about this and stress the importance of this conversation with your loved ones, they should understand that long-winded arguments will only make the conversation more painful.
R for Reinforce
Use positive reinforcement if they respond supportively and sympathetically by showing gratitude that they heard you out and were respectful of your needs.
If they don’t respond well, you should never play into their emotions. Always be anchored and calm. If the other person’s emotions begin to escalate, matching their emotional state will only agitate the situation.
M is for Mindfulness
Keep focused on your goal and dispel attempts to redirect the conversation. Also, be mindful of your own emotional response. This can be difficult because there is no way to avoid feeling strong emotions while discussing difficult things. Try some grounding exercises to keep you focused and attentive.
A grounding exercise is basically anything that redirects your attention from anxiety-inducing stressors. Focusing on your breathing and keeping it steady and calm is one of the easiest and most effective grounding exercises you can practice.
A is for Appear Confident
Even if you aren’t feeling confident, you need to be sitting or stand upright, with good posture and maintain eye contact. This lets the other person know that this is serious and sets the tone of the interaction. Body language is another tool for effective communication.
N is for Negotiate
Though you aren’t going to renegotiate your divorce, this part of the skill helps settle areas of conflict with inlaws and friends who will be affected by the split. Maybe skipping out on future gatherings involving friends and family might be an excellent conciliatory offer.
You can also apply this skill to negotiate different parameters of your request:
“I’m open to talking about this more in the future if you need some time to digest this information.”
Stick to Your Plan
The most challenging part of the conversation is dealing with the anxiety leading up to it. This is where your mind will try to come up with all the reasons why it’s not the right time. That is your own anxiety and fear attempting to sabotage a conversation you know has no better time than ASAP. Getting right to it is the best way to relieve the stress and get the difficult parts behind you.
Remember D.E.A.R.M.A.N., and I wish you the best of luck!
About the Author
Veronica Baxter is a writer, blogger, and legal assistant who writes for a Lee A. Schwartz, a family law attorney in Philadelphia.