The Budget: Conserving Mental Energy

Introduction. A high-conflict divorce is more than a legal battle. It is a contest of wills, mental strength, and character. Tactics will be used against you to break down your mind. You and your opposing spouse will face many of the same triggers, and you may each have a tendency to react in different ways. To get what you want and need, you need to understand the mind games in play, and maintain the mental energy to win them, a day and a moment at a time.

The other side will try to make winning easier by dominating you mentally. Everything the other side does is set up to have a negative impact on your behavior. For example, suppose that in every communication with your side, they’re dismissive, rude, and obnoxious. What happens to your self-confidence? No matter how sure you were of your positions, your confidence plummets, right? You feel like a victim, stripped of your right to respect, and you may begin to wonder if you have a chance against their stonewalling or ridicule or belligerence. But what looks like bad behavior is a dominance technique, and if you show them that it is having an impact, they will feel that they have the upper hand and you will begin to feel that you can’t win. You will communicate this back to them in many ways.

Most often, you’ll become more needy. For example, you might become more needy for settlement. When that happens, the other side may feel they can make unreasonable demands, while you feel as though you have no option other than to take it. But what happens if you communicate to them that you are not needy (even if it is true that you are!), that you are confident, that you believe in your positions, and that you are willing to do what is necessary to achieve your objective? How does this impact them?

Short answer: It throws them off their game, puts you back in control of your divorce plan, and conserves your precious mental energy.

When I was starting out, I worked for Michael Wolfson, an amazing attorney who hated divorce law and was all too happy to offload all his divorce clients to me. Eager to prove myself, I absorbed as much as I could from him. One day, Mike told me about working against a well-known divorce attorney. The man was a pleasure to deal with, Mike said, but it was extremely tough to get in touch with him. I asked him how they resolved the case if they never spoke, and he told me that the attorney eventually would return calls, but only right before court. I didn’t understand it clearly then, but I came to realize that what this attorney was doing was conserving his mental energy budget. It’s a genius strategy.

Never show need. You can conserve mental energy by never showing the other side what you need—even (or maybe especially) when it seems obvious, fair and non-threatening: A need for the other side to be reasonable. A need for this matter to end quickly. A need to be treated with respect. Any time you mention needs like this in emails or texts or social media and express your frustration with the divorce process because they’re not being met, you’re signaling that you need to get things over with. And that only fuels the other side. So I want you to think about it this way: The more you show need, the more the other side will try to fight you to the bitter end. No matter how you feel, present yourself as need-free.

Control tempo. The other side will also use up your mental energy by controlling the tempo. A common tactic is for less scrupulous attorneys to come to a court 30 minutes late when they know the judge is not strict on this issue. Do you show that this frustrates you? That you have a need for timeliness? To follow rules? What they are doing is trying to dominate you. Are you playing into their hands? Remember: You can’t win by complaining.

Focus on conserving mental energy, not worrying over every battle. To get around all these tactics by the other side and keep from using your mental energy unnecessarily, focus on your theme, your agenda. If you spend all your time obsessing about how the other side is making you feel, you’re not using your precious mental energy most productively. In a high-conflict divorce, the only way to get the other side to become more reasonable in their settlement positions is to show them that you can outlast them, or at the minimum that it will be too costly for them to take their chances at trial. Staying cool is a power move...

Next time, I will discuss more on conserving mental energy and introduce specific ways to do so.

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