Selected excerpts from the book Divorce: Making the Break
by David Bell, published by Siles Press


A marriage is a series of innumerable daily contracts between partners. When we analyze the layers of a marital relationship, it’s remarkable how complicated the coexistence really is.
        As individuals, we need a safe, supportive emotional and physical environment that allows us to grow. Each of us has a strong will to shape and control our life environment.
        All group dynamics—whether in a corporation, a sports team, or a marriage—have an inherent tension between the needs/wants of the individual and the needs/wants of the group or partnership. Finding an appropriate balance between them can be difficult.
        Almost every minute of married life represents a negotiated contractual agreement with a spouse—our job, our house, the car we drive, how money is earned and spent, which side of the bed we sleep on, where our toothbrush and comb are stored.
        A surprising number of these are unspoken contracts that just evolve into the fabric of daily life. And, being unspoken, they may not be good contracts but are assumptions that each partner has about the marriage. Assumptions are often a result of poor communication—one partner can assume the other has entered into a contract when the other has no clue a contract existed.
        Many of these assumptions may be carryovers from the family life each partner experienced as a child (Dad maintained the house and car; Mom was primary child-care provider) and may not have a major effect on the partnership. However, other assumptions may indeed have a negative impact on the partnership.
        Throughout the marriage each partner has a conscious or unconscious list of which marital contracts (and assumptions) he/she would like to see remain intact and which he/she would like to see change over time. These lists may not be the same for both partners.
        As the years go by, the contracts that were clearly articulated and understood by both parties face the test of changing times and changing life situations. The assumptions face the test of becoming clearly defined (and sometimes surprising) realities—or the assumptions may never be clearly defined. For many people, these changes, clearly defined realities or lack of resolution creates conflict that can become intolerable.
        The marital contract is broken.

Marital contracts come in different shapes and sizes.
        Small broken contracts can begin to accumulate and cause stress on the marriage. The bemused tolerance we exhibited at the start of the marriage about her not putting her shoes in the closet, him leaving the toilet seat up, her not changing the oil in her car, him watching sports on television may, over years, change to resentment and begin to take a toll.
       The next level of broken contracts is more serious: promises to stop smoking, to get and keep a job, to curtail excessive spending, to spend more time with the family, to communicate with each other, to commit one’s energies, love and dedication to the marriage and the family.
        The most severe level of breaking the marital contract involves such things as sexual infidelity, drug or alcohol abuse, emotional or physical abuse, addictive gambling or addictive spending of the family money, withholding love and support in times of personal tragedy. These are difficult to overcome.
        Not all marital changes or broken contracts are entirely negative or ill-intentioned. What one spouse regards as growth or change, the other spouse may feel is betrayal. For example, one partner may make drastic changes in employment choices, religious beliefs, life philosophies, definitions of intimacy, even changes in declared sexual identity.
        And sometimes chaotic life events completely out of our control can destroy a marriage.
[Continued on page 7 of the book.]


As the reality of separation and divorce set in, you may experience a whirlwind of emotions: disbelief, anger, sorrow, shame. You may also experience symptoms typical of mild depression: lack of concentration, bouts of crying, fatigue. You may even experience relief. While in this emotional maelstrom, you must make some of the most important choices of your life.
        The choices you make during the divorce process may set the tone for many years—perhaps forever—of your dealings with your ex-spouse. In the future, you will need to cooperate with the other parent of your children; now is the time to create an environment that makes this possible.
        This is a time when your humanity and morality will be tested, a time that will define your character. It is easy to be moral when life is flowing smoothly. You must look beyond the pain and turmoil of the moment and make choices that will best serve you, your children—and, yes, their other parent—in the long run.
        You know your estranged spouse’s weaknesses, his or her most vulnerable spots. You can choose to use this knowledge as a weapon in legal paperwork and court filings, or you can act with restraint. It is one of the moral challenges you will face in divorce.
        As Judith Viorst notes in her excellent book Necessary Losses, “No two adults can do each other more damage than husband and wife.
        This can be especially true in divorce.

The greatest challenges in divorce are to:

1) clearly define goals that have integrity (for instance, minimizing the negative impact of the divorce on your children, keeping parent/child relationships intact and healthy, not using your life energy to punish or harass your ex);

2) figure out how to achieve those goals with the least conflict and least expense.

It’s beneficial to use these two points as a framework for decision making and for discussions with your attorney if you retain one. The clarity and communication achieved in these conversations will help your case in many ways.
        Stay focused and keep your eyes on the prize. Do not allow yourself to be knocked off course by your own negative behavior and emotions, your ex-spouse’s negative behavior and emotions, or the weaknesses of the family law system. Think before acting.
        Exercise restraint. React slowly to conflicts with your ex-spouse. Try to keep your interactions on a “strictly business” level until you are able to handle closer ties. Take time to cool off if you are placed in an emotionally volatile situation. (“I’d rather continue this discussion when our emotions are not so high. I promise to call you tomorrow”). Hot-button issues may need to be dealt with in mediation and/or counseling.
        Many of the issues that seem absolutely crucial to you during the emotionally charged period at the beginning of a divorce will have little or no importance in a year or so.
[Continued on page 11.]


A child is being brainwashed when one parent does or says something in an attempt to undermine the child’s relationship with the other parent.
        Brainwashing children can be subtle (one parent minimizing the existence of the other by erasing any reference to him/her in conversation or photos) or overt (“Your father doesn’t love you—he doesn’t send me enough money to take care of you!”).
        Brainwashing is sending the child a message that says, in effect: “You and I are allies against the world. We are best buddies. I wish you didn’t have to be with that other parent, but there’s nothing I can do about it—you and I are victims of a system that wrenches you away from me three days a week and that forces me to share you with the other parent. Someday you’ll be old enough to choose where you want to live, and I just know you’ll choose my house.”
        Brainwashing or programming children is usually done to convince the child that one parent is better and more loving than the other. Parents who excessively demonize the ex-spouse want their viewpoint to be validated by others—especially by the children. If they can sway the children to “vote” for them, it validates them as the good person and the ex-spouse as the bad person.
        A 1991 study of 700 families titled Children Held Hostage: Dealing with Programmed and Brainwashed Children (Clawar and Rivlin, American Bar Association, 1991) reported that brainwashing and programming occurred at least occasionally in eighty percent of families. The study found that some level of brainwashing and programming occurred more than once a week in fifty percent of families and, in the families who were experiencing high-conflict divorces, brainwashing and programming commonly occurred more than once a day.

In the book Healing Hearts, author Elizabeth Hickey writes:

According to the Clawar and Rivlin study, women are often the worst offenders. Bitter mothers represent the majority of likely programmers. The study contends that women have a sense of ownership of their children and a conditioned view of their role. Also, women are overwhelmingly “awarded” custody of their children and thus spend more time with their children.

Remember that once upon a time you, too, could see the good in the child’s other parent. Your child now stands at that point.

What is best for [children] is a healthy relationship with both parents, and they need permission from each parent to enjoy a relationship with the other.

Brainwashing can result in severe, long-term emotional damage to children. It distorts their perception of reality. For instance, they may perceive Mom as a good parent, but that doesn’t coincide with what they hear Dad saying about her. This can result in children doubting their own sense of reality, having low self-esteem, withdrawing from relationships, becoming mistrustful or misinterpreting the world around them—in extreme form, all symptoms of paranoia.
        Brainwashing children may backfire against the parent who does it. When children grow up and learn the truth about both parents, learn that they have been lied to and used as a tool for one parent’s vindictiveness, they sometimes limit or sever contact with that parent.
        In extreme form, the programming of children is known as “parental alienation” (PA) and “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS). In the book Divorce Casualties, Douglas Darnell defines the difference between the two:

Parental alienation focuses on how the alienating parent behaves toward the children and the targeted parent. Parental alienation syndrome symptoms describe the child’s behaviors and attitudes toward the targeted parent after the child has been effectively programmed and severely alienated from the targeted parent.

       Excessive brainwashing or parental alienation may result in a court cutting back or terminating child custody for the offending parent. [Continued on page 64..]


Unless your divorce is very amicable and your financial situation is very simple, I highly recommend some degree of involvement by an ethical family law professional. I have heard it said that it is possible to file your own divorce and also possible to cut your own hair, but doing either carries great potential for an unhappy result.
        Even if you retain attorneys and accountants, it is crucial that you and your soon-to-be-ex-spouse communicate directly or through a mediator to keep the family law professionals from escalating the hostilities. In this book you will find guidance in helping you choose an ethical attorney.
        In most cases, the divorce turmoil will eventually settle down. It will probably take two or three years after a divorce is finalized for most of the healing process to be completed. This is why finalizing the divorce as quickly as possible and setting up a cooperative shared-parenting relationship with your ex-spouse should be your main goals—and the goals of your attorney. An ethical attorney will promote this even though it may not be what you want to hear (throughout the divorce process, keep in mind that an ethical attorney will tell you the painful truth, but an unethical attorney will tell you what you want to hear; more about this later).
        I do not believe there is such a thing as winning in the family court system. Perhaps it should be viewed more as minimizing your losses. In divorce there are many losses, both emotional and material. You will need to compromise on many issues, and it will probably be painful. Divorce is the dismantling of a union or partnership that took years of love and effort to create—it is the end of something that was dear to you at one time.
        However, divorce can also bring hope. Hope is one of the most crucial elements in human existence, and, in a bad marriage, there is very little of it.
        You now have a chance to build a new life.

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