Divorce Panache: A Coaching Session

by: Patty Swyden Sullivan

Coaching a person to let go of negative emotions during and after a divorce is not a career choice; it is a calling. I feel this calling the strongest during sessions with someone like Helena. The basis for her dilemma was resistance, the nemesis of happy endings. Embracing the Principles of Panache was key for Helena in her divorce recovery.

Helena’s Story

Helena began her story by telling me that the world was punishing her. First, her husband left her. Now three years later, her husband was in a serious relationship. Helena’s two teenage daughters adored their father’s girlfriend, Nancy. This was an unexpected dilemma that increased Helena’s perception of being penalized. Her emotional whippings continued: Helena’s friends were married and busy with their families or couple activities, leaving little or no time for her. And while Helena’s ex and Nancy were in high demand for social events, Helena’s romance with a colleague had cooled to below zero—ferocious accumulative punishment in Helena’s heart.

Utilizing the Principles of Panache

The Principles of Panache are based upon the experiences of women who have not only managed divorce successfully – ridding themselves of the pain and angst – but who have also come out on top, emerging into a better self than ever before.

According to the Principles of Panache, resistance decreases the chances for a successful transition to move past the emotions of divorce. Embracing is a stronger strategy for a new life filled with joy and a sense of well-being.

Dissecting Resistance

Resistance is not inherently evil. Biological resistance to disease is good. Resistance to tyrannical dictators is a healthy choice. However, resistance to changes in our lives for the sake of ego is damaging.

How do we recognize when resistance is ego driven? We recognize resistance when we first, define our resistance, and second, we stop to check our motivations. What is the source of Helena’s resistance to Nancy’s role in her daughters’ lives? Helena feels diminished by her loss of stature in her daughters’ eyes, friends, and co-workers. Her motivation is to remove the focus on Nancy and place it back on herself so she will feel good about herself. Her sense of well-being is derived from external sources instead of internal sources. This is ego driven motivation. One way to realize our ego is out of control is to ask ourselves if we need affirmation from others as opposed to feeling good about ourselves intrinsically. Contentment is temporary when it is dependent on outside sources. Contentment with one’s self is permanent when derived from internal sources.

Helena needs to retrain her senses to recognize that her interpretation of what feels good is not always what is good. Along with this awareness, Helena must also train herself to focus on what she values, not what her daughters value, or Nancy, or her ex-husband.

Coaching Sessions

I asked Helena to identify one question that held the key to her unhappiness. What one question, if answered, would help her find her way out of pain and on the road to life of contentment filled with joy?

At first she could not identify her one question, but after we worked together to isolate it, she asked quietly, “Why have I lost standing and respect with everyone I know when I have done nothing wrong?”

I reframed her question with these words, “How can I command respect from family, friends, and co-workers?” Why questions ask for explanations from an outside source; a place over which we have no control. How questions asks for action that we can control. We control our behavior and our reactions.

Helena agreed to the word choice more out of fatigue than will, but at least I had her acceptance on the semantics. Next, I inquired about the greatest source of her pain. This question she answered loudly and immediately, “The greatest source of my pain? Nancy! I told my daughters that I consider it a blatant act of disloyalty for them to engage in a relationship with her.”

Life Lessons

Helena was experiencing a primal form of territorialism. In our culture, from the moment we enter this world, we are jockeying for positions of favor. Sibling rivalry is our first relationship competition. Tommy Smothers captured this dynamic for an entire generation in his famous line to his brother Dick, “Oh, yeah!?! Mom always liked you best!”

These early struggles to claim our parents’ sole attention and affection are the teaching fields to learn about acceptance and unconditional love. Human frailty can interfere with learning this lesson well. For most of us it is not until we are faced with a life-altering event that we go deep enough within ourselves to discover that the key to joy is not resisting a set of circumstances, but embracing them.

Coaching Dialogue; A Condensed Excerpt Between Helena and Coach

Coach: How will you know when you regain the respect of your family, friends, and co-workers?

Helena: When I show everyone that I am better than Nancy.

Coach: How will people recognize you are better than Nancy?

Helena: When they see my daughters reject her and choose to stand by me.

Coach: So this is a competition between you and Nancy. What if Nancy wins?

Helena: I cannot bear to think of that happening.

Coach: What if you could both win?

Helena: I don’t believe that is an option.

Coach: It isn’t an option if you are competing against her. In a competition one person wins and one person loses. If you had to risk Nancy winning and your losing, against both of you winning, which would you choose?

Helena: I want to win. I don’t want to lose.

Coach: How would it feel to embrace Nancy?

Helena: [Silence]

Coach: Helena?

Helena: I don’t understand how that could help. Are you asking me to get close to her to spy on her?

Coach: No, I am asking you to embrace her as a significant person in your daughters’ lives.

Helena: But then they will feel free to be with her as much as they want. And they want to be with her a lot. Where does that leave me?

Coach: Moving away from resistance towards acceptance. Embracing opens up your mind, your heart, and with those, your life. How does your life feel to you now?

Helena: As if I am suffocating and no one cares or even notices me gasping for air.

Coach: Let me ask again, will you consider trying something different from resisting the presence of Nancy in your daughters’ lives? Will you go through the motions of embracing, even if you don’t fully believe in its powers?

Helena: [capitulating] I will try anything.

Helena’s willingness to try is a huge step forward.

Steps to Decrease resistance:

  • Change Language

How do you respond when someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do? Typical responses begin with because or but. Instead of using because or but, respond with “I will consider that option” or “I am willing to try this diet.” You don’t need to be 100% sincere in these statements. This simple exercise of reducing negativity by deleting but and because is enough to open pathways in your brain to allow for the possibility of acceptance rather than resistance.

  • Practice the Action of Mind-Opening

Look for opportunities to open your mind by viewing inspiring imagery. If you are right handed, use your left hand to write a few minutes each day, change one element of your daily routine, rearrange furniture, or speak to someone you usually pass by without a word.

  • Practice the Art of Embracing

Physically embracing is important. Hug people, children, pets, pillows, and don’t forget to hug yourself. Massages are also wonderful forms of acceptance and embracing. Allow a masseuse or masseur to take control of your muscles for 50 minutes.

  • Use Your Cognitive Skills

Finally, use your cognitive skills to recognize the need to explore all options before making decisions or taking rigid stances. Don’t be a book burner. You are strong enough to consider different points of view and then choose your own. Just remember to search out all options before selecting and adhering to your initial course of action.

Back to Helena:

Helena fully believed that her only option was to coerce her daughters into staying away from Nancy. What are the possible outcomes of this path?

  • They do as Helena wishes.

  • They resent or pity Helena.

  • They secretly see Nancy.

  • They grow closer to Nancy and tell her how paranoid their mom has become.

  • They tell their dad that Helena is applying pressure on them; he gets angry and confronts Helena.

  • He marries Nancy and asks the girls to come live with them.

If Helena manages to change her thought about Nancy being the enemy by using the steps to lessen resistance and embrace Nancy, what are the possible outcomes?

  • Although it is tough, Helena supports her daughters’ enthusiasm about Nancy.

  • She wishes them well in their relationship.

  • She smiles and laughs with them over bits of conversation they share with her from their visits with their dad and Nancy.

  • Her ex-husband marries Nancy. Helena wishes them well.  She helps the girls pick out the perfect wedding gift.

  • Helena’s face relaxes, her shoulders relax, and people around her notice that her mood no longer casts a gray shadow. People seek out her company.

  • As Helena’s life opens up, she is ready to receive joy.

Happy Endings?

For those who respond to the above examples of embracing with disdain or absolute rejection, your resistance is high. Consider experimenting with the exercises for reducing resistance and re-evaluate the consequences of resisting. Like, Helena, you don’t have to believe in it to try it, the actions of lowering resistance and embracing work whether you believe in the strategies or not.

For those responding, “Well, maybe this idea of embracing could work, but it sounds a little too warm and fuzzy for my personality,” you have recognized a crack in the wall of resistance and created space for experimenting with embracing. Good for you.

For those who are saying, I get it, even though I know I will be taking a risk that the future may or may not unfold as in the examples above, I can see the futility in a walled-off viewpoint. My choices are limited with resistance, so I am willing to try another strategy,” you are the ones who will come to know embracing as the surest way to a future endowed by an expansive vista filled with joy. Congratulations!

Patty Swyden Sullivan 

May, 2009 © All Rights Reserved Patty Swyden Sullivan

Author Bio:

Patty Swyden Sullivan is a Divorce Recovery and Relationship Specialist and the founder of The Principles of Panache. To learn more about these principles or to contact Sullivan visit her web site

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