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How to Divorce With Respect

by Barbara R. Keane, Ph.D., studioD

Anger, hurt, disillusionment – these are feelings frequently associated with the ending of a marriage, and often the driving force behind disrespectful exchanges. Retaliation is an instinct for many in response to injury, but it is a response that will simply maintain a painful cycle. While the need for respectful communication may be most obvious where children are involved, it is also a key to preserving self-respect. Put simply, uncoupling challenges individuals to maintain a marriage of intellect and emotion at a very difficult time, but it is a strategy that allows for a future unburdened by an angry past.


Researchers have defined respect as a positive feeling toward a relationship partner who is trustworthy, considerate and accepting. When a partner’s behavior violates that perception, it is tempting to surrender to anger and disappointment and behave in ways that convey a lack of respect. However, healthy self-respect is preserved when you don’t surrender to the retaliation impulse. Staying true to values that require a basic regard for every human being is empowering. When you embrace head and heart as the pillars of your decision-making, you remain in charge of your own behavior. Name-calling and vindictive actions may be satisfying in the moment, but they take a toll on self-esteem.


When feeling devastated by the end of a commitment, it is easy to become overwhelmed by emotion. Lashing out and angry cut-offs are common responses. While coping through divorce, perfect behavior is not a realistic goal, but a respectful course is quite possible. It is important to abide by a clear code of conduct through difficult times: sticking to the topic at hand, staying in the present and maintaining a polite tone are a few examples. When you find yourself straying, it is wise to get back on track or to take a time out. Accessing additional resources to cope with stress can be very helpful in maintaining self-control. Regular exercise, yoga, meditation and counseling are examples of activities that can help you stay in control.


Often, the need for respectful divorce focuses on the benefit to any children involved. The life-long connection partners have as parents makes the need for respect particularly clear. To ensure you aren’t contributing to a hostile environment, address marital issues away from your child. Set clear rules with your partner about when and where marital discussions should take place. This might include weekly counseling sessions or daily phone conversations, but they should be constructive, goal-oriented conversations that keep your child’s best interest the priority. Parents who are able to communicate respectfully are positive role models.

Professional Help

Professional assistance can be helpful whenever one is faced with significant challenges. Aside from counseling, there are approaches to divorce that are designed to minimize adversarial exchange. Collaborative divorce, a process where the involved parties are encouraged to make their own settlement agreement, with the aid of attorneys, is an option geared toward respectful resolution. If productive discussions are not possible, the support of a mediator can prove valuable. In extreme cases, where there is abusive behavior, community resources are available to assure safety and support.


Divorce is a time when individuals can feel overwhelmed and powerless, so it is helpful to realize that there are choices. You can choose how you want to behave, you can be a positive role model for children and you can seek support. There are legal options available that are empowering rather than disrespectful. You can choose one. Controlling what you can, rather than reacting to what you cannot, will ease the frustration inherent in this difficult life transition.


  • The Healthy Divorce: Keys to Ending Your Marriage While Preserving Your Emotional Well-Being; Lois Gold M.S.W.
  • The Truth About Children and Divorce: Dealing with the Emotions so You and Your Children Can Thrive; Robert E. Emery

About the Author

Barbara Keane is a licensed psychologist who has enjoyed a variety of experiences in 25 years of practice, including work with adolescents and their families. Dr. Keane, who believes that warmth and humor are essential components of the therapy process, emphasizes creative problem-solving based on the individual's strengths and resources.

Photo Credits

  • Pixland/Pixland/Getty Images