Weaponizing Speech: The Politics of Divorce
There is a crisis in this country. I am not the first, only or last to note it. People are angry and also afraid. I am not going to choose sides here (I do that elsewhere and in other more private ways). As such, nothing that I say should be taken as a brief in favor of or against any one party, person or philosophy. For present purposes, let us treat almost everyone as feeling equally justified in whatever their “deal” is - the merits of their positions aside. As I have written earlier, in the divorce context, positions are simply stances that we take. But we ground that position with something that precedes it - and that something is often far less objective and purely rational than we like to think it is. It is emotion and feeling, what the philosophers used to call “passions.”
And it is our passions that we will address today. Not the sexy passions. But this other kind. And while the lens we apply will be our politics - the point here is solely for purposes of sussing out communication in divorce and marriage. Sometimes, it is useful to mediate a claim through another setting. It could be film, sports, or almost anything. But given the heated nature of today’s politics, I think it will prove most useful at this moment. On Twitter, I will periodically unfollow almost everyone I agree with on politics and follow a bunch of people I don’t. Then I switch it up and play with the calibration of my feed. I do this for several reasons. I like to see the kinds of things that people are thinking and saying. I like to see where people are focused. I am interested in watching how different people feel about different things. I am open to having my mind changed about certain specific things despite having certain overall commitments and a particular world view. And I like to observe how people communicate with each other. And the thing that strikes me about Political Twitter are the ways in which it recapitulates so much of what is going on in divorce. There are, broadly, a handful of camps on Twitter relative to politics: people who do politics, people who cover politics, and people who follow politics. Within what is, at a gross level, the Left and the Right - there are of course factions. Some of the most “engaging” content on Twitter involves internecine combat from within a political group. And it is here that I will focus momentarily and a it relates to divorce. The easiest comparison of politics to divorce would be to make the Right a Husband and the Left a Wife (or vice versa). It makes sense at first, you’ve got two sides opposing each other. There are a lot of ways that rubric works. Indeed, Bill Eddy and Don Saposnek wrote a very good book called “Splitting America: How Politicians, Super PACs and the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce.” Their book compares contemporary politics to high conflict divorces very thoughtfully. Mr. Eddy is a nationally recognized lawyer and mediator who is well-regarded for his work in conflict matters. His own particular thesis and approach is compelling and should be considered. My own general view is consistent with that set forth in Eddy’s book. However, to become yet even more granular, I am also fascinated by the exercise of extending that notion to the intramural disputes of politics and their relation to divorce. Whether it is the Left or Right, the “family dispute” on a particular side highlights a lot of the emotional content that is happening in divorce as well. Eddy rightly identifies the narcissism, zero sum game and name calling of partisan politics. His focus relative to “high-conflict” people is not my focus here however. In the intramural political dispute, we see even more acutely, perhaps, the manifestation of certain specific emotional content that is also present in divorce. In a marriage, two spouses have been together for some period of time. They know each other’s habits, likes and dislikes, sense of humor and taste. They know how to get under each other’s skin and they know where the soft spots are. In certain ways while the disputes seem like the Red versus Blue divide, they are unlike partisan political battles and play out very much like the Bernie/Hillary or Trump/Never Trump examples of 2016. In 2016 we saw a level of infighting that we have not seen for a long time. In somewhat of an expression of what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences” - people voting in the same party took each other and their respective parties to the brink in very cruel, cutting and creative ways. Even today, the rifts that formed and then widened have become hardened and are continually reopened and exposed as people relitigate matters from two years ago. Having very specific familiarity with one another and their generally shared commitments, political people on “one side” are like family if not spouses. They may have backed Obama or Bush together at one time, they may have once followed and liked each other’s stuff and now they are at odds. And their internal battle over who is now right and wrong is quite an ugly one at times. This is, to me as a divorced person and divorce lawyer, very recognizable stuff. For example, I know that I annoy or infuriate Vanessa with certain tics and habits of action and speech. I can see her body language and facial expression change appreciably when I act or speak in one of these ways that activates her. The same can be said for me relative to her. In addition, we are all tempted in divorce, to rehash old events and open old wounds. We know the power of the cutting comment and the force of the mistake made and resurrected. The sheer magnitude of the damage that can be done between spouses lies in their ability to use the storehouse of shared emotional and experiential content against the other. To use a term of current relevance, we often “weaponize” our speech with one another in marriage and divorce. I hear often from clients about how “he knows this will get to me” or “she always does this.” Sometimes, if we are honest with ourselves, we know full well that when we act or speak in a certain way we do this to the other person on purpose or with the knowledge that it will impact the other in a certain way. It is this “weaponizing” that concerns me. Regardless of one’s stance on the weaponization of free speech in the political context, the verbal arms race in marriages and divorces deserves our shared attention and consideration. Spouses have lived thousands of days and nights together. They have shared vacations and births and parties and events and all of the stuff that makes it onto Facebook. They have also shared vomiting babies, bouts of diarrhea, fights over the toilet, disputes over the bills, periods of boredom, screaming matches, cold silences and heated disputes. Life is messy. Life with another person for a long period of time is hard. Out of all of that, our partner or spouse or ex-spouse gets a lot of material to work with, as do we. And like the political in-fighting between fellow travelers, the relationship fight can be a whole order of magnitude different from the partisan fight. I may fight with a colleague or friend. That is very much like a Red/Blue or Democrat/Republican dispute. The rules of engagement in this setting are broader and the form of conflict is more diffuse. With a spouse or ex-spouse, by contrast, we are like old school Marxists bickering about marginalia of theory and praxis or libertarians in some feud over an aspect of Austrian economics. These close quarters battles are often the most damaging and painful to experience or witness. So, what is the solution? I think the solution lies in what we have explored here previously - paying greater attention to our inattention in speech. Working toward maintaining a level of mindfulness and compassion in speech. Consciously attempting to achieve descalation of verbal combat (whether oral, email, text, etc). We often see threads go wildly off the rails on Twitter very quickly. There are takedowns, owns, self-owns, trolling, subtweeting - all words describing how we (or others) are engaging in verbal combat of an aggressive or passive-aggressive nature. In our relationship lives, whether married or divorced, we have these same or similar concepts. We can all be very artful in the deployment of words and deeds - but we often succumb to our feelings and emotions and passions and we allow them to drive the communication bus more than we should. Our feelings are our feelings. It is ok to have them and it is ok to engage with them. But when our feelings manifest in words or actions relative to another person, we should tread carefully. Now, I’m not one of those people encouraging more civility on Twitter - that is up to each Tweeter and it isn’t my concern. However, I am encouraging more civility and caution when you’re dealing with that flesh and blood human who you married and with whom you share a child. Any of us can be vitriolic with people we don’t know and who we likely will never cross paths in real life. It is cheap and easy to take potshots remotely. But let us all be very conscious of our words in real life. Where it counts. You can create a lot of mayhem and sow seeds of havoc and hurt when you speak with a tongue that drips with anger, condescension, belittlement, sarcasm or indifference. We experience so much pain in divorce, in part, because there is so much feeling there. Years, decades, lives spent in close proximity to another person as part of a coupled pairing. That time and closeness, when the relationship ends, can easily turn into something dark, angry and negative. Recriminations and blame can abound - somewhat like Democrats blaming Bernie or Hillary or Republicans blaming Trump, etc. - only worse. Nothing is quite like that relationship we have over a long period of time with a person who is close to us. In marriage and divorce we will all grapple with the weight of blame and guilt and shame. Those three features are always going to be there no matter what. Whether we deal with them in a way that elevates us and our spouse/partner or drags us both down is up to us. I would suggest to you, regardless of your political stripes, that at least when it comes to dealing with your spouse or ex-spouse - follow Mrs. Obama’s advice and “go high.” And if you can’t muster that at some hard or trying point, that is ok. No one is a saint. Just remember what your mom always said “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Either way, keep the verbal armaments safely secured and out of the way. You’ll be glad you did.