Episode 55: How to Keep Your Peace Through a High-Conflict Divorce

by | Last updated: Jan 5, 2024 | Podcast

If you need to end a relationship, you want to try to do it in the most loving and peaceful way possible. This is something I say often, but there’s one problem with it: not everyone wants to be loving and peaceful about separating and some find themselves in a high-conflict divorce.

One of my clients, parent coach Julie Zivah, finds herself in a highly contentious divorce with her husband of 22 years. Yet she has found a way to keep her peace while still going through the process. And she wanted to be on the podcast to take us through her journey as someone in a high-conflict divorce.

In this episode of The Loving Truth podcast, you’ll hear about how Julie’s divorce has gone thus far and how she’s learned to stay calm and zen. You’ll learn about the hard realizations she’s had about her relationship with her husband and kids, the tools she’s used to help navigate her situation mentally and emotionally, and her supportive mindset and approach as her family’s dynamic continues to be in transition.

Listen to the Full Episode:

What You’ll Learn In This Episode:

2:20 – Julie describes where she was mentally and emotionally in her marriage when we started working together

5:40 – How Julie got to the decision to end her relationship with her husband

8:35 – Does Julie ever get cold feet and feel tempted to change her mind?

11:21 – The moment Julie knew her divorce wasn’t going to be loving and peaceful (and an important side note about her approach to this conversation)

14:15 – Julie shares one of the hardest realizations in this process and how her relationship with her kids has changed

21:57 – The importance of a dependable adult for kids and teaching your kids how to manage difficult people

24:05 – How Julie’s experience has changed her parent coaching practice

26:03 – Collaborative divorce proceedings with a high-conflict personality and what happened when Julie switched to a non-collaborative process

31:09 – The tool that helps Julie do things with love and kindness while going through a difficult divorce

34:40 – How Julie kept her peace when things got really tough and she had moments of doubt

38:47 – The importance of using helpful tools when you’re not in crisis

40:14 – Julie’s advice if you suspect a high-conflict separation on the horizon

46:01 – Where Julie’s relationships with her partner and kids stand today

Featured On How to Keep Your Peace Through a High-Conflict Divorce

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Welcome to The Loving Truth Podcast where it's all about finding clarity, confidence, and peace in the face of marriage challenges. And now your host, relationship expert, and certified master life coach, Sharon Pope.

Sharon Pope: Hello, loves. This is Sharon Pope and this is The Loving Truth. I have a real treat for you today. I often do not share my clients in a public way but this particular woman had an experience that I think is so important to share in a broader way and she also said that she wanted to be on the podcast so I said, “You know what, let's do it.”

Because sometimes when you hear from me, it's one thing, but when you hear it from someone who has been walking through this for the last year plus and still is walking through, it takes on a different life and it makes it more real. The fact that she's willing to share her experience, I'm just eternally grateful. My guest today is Julie Zivah. She was married for how many years?

Julie Zivah: Twenty-two.

Sharon Pope: Twenty-two years, you had two children together, and you're a parent coach.

Julie Zivah: I am.

Sharon Pope: Yeah, awesome.

Julie Zivah: Can I interrupt you just to say thanks for having me because I thank the world of you and the work we did together so I just want to say thank you.

Sharon Pope: Hey, I get some time to talk to Julie so it's a good day. It's a good day in Sharon Pope's world. Okay, as you know, I often will talk about how if you need to end a relationship, you want to try to do it in the most loving and peaceful way possible.

However, there is some fine print there, which is not everyone wants to be loving and peaceful and so how do you keep your peace while navigating what might be considered by many people a high-conflict divorce, and yet you still have to keep going? That's where I want to dive in with you today.

Let's start in an obvious place which is okay, we met, it's more than a year ago I feel like, is it a year?

Julie Zivah: Yeah, I think it was maybe even a year and like nine months.

Sharon Pope: Oh, my goodness. It tells you how long it's been going on. Okay, so tell me, if you can, take yourself back to where you were when we first met, what you were feeling, where you are at with your decision, how long you'd been in a decision, just if you can, give us a sense for where you were mentally and emotionally.

Julie Zivah: Sure. I had been at this for five to seven years at minimum wondering “Should I stay or should I go?” I was feeling obligated in many ways to stay because I was the most functional person in the relationship when we're talking about things like holding down a job or managing the children's needs. Our children also have some special needs and so everything was riding on my shoulders.

I really was feeling so, so, so exhausted by carrying all of it. So I think I felt lost. I could not get clarity on what I could do to save myself. I felt incredibly manipulated. I did not feel heard and I felt afraid for sure. I was scared of what might happen if I prioritized myself and spoke up, used my voice in my marriage.

Sharon Pope: What do you think was your biggest fear?

Julie Zivah: My biggest fear was the explosion that would happen and my bigger overarching fear was that my children would not be okay. They are now 12 and almost 17 so at the time, they're twins, they're not babies so they were old enough to understand that there was conflict in the home before. We were no longer in the same space and young enough to be heavily impacted by having two separate homes.

Sharon Pope: Did they ever say anything to you about the conflict that they would see, experience, or overhear?

Julie Zivah: Yeah. That was one of the very biggest challenges was they would have a conflict with their father and come running to me in their fear. “Dad's berating me. Dad's doing XYZ. Dad did this to me,” and they would tattle to me and then I would hold space for them to talk to him directly. As a parent-coach, I really didn't want to get in the middle of it and I knew it wasn't okay for them to continue to experience that in their lifetime.

Sharon Pope: Yeah. You had lots of really good reasons maybe from the outside looking in or maybe your girlfriends had told you for a long time, “Hey, you really need to consider potentially ending this.” As you look back at that time when you were able to come to clarity around the right decision for you and your family really was to end the relationship, what what do you think, and it probably wasn't one thing, but what were the inputs that helped you get to that decision?

Julie Zivah: A couple of things, one you're absolutely right, people in my life said, “This isn't okay the way you're being treated.” People in my life, when I tried to talk to them about it, they would say, “I'm surprised you stayed this long.” I guess I got some validation that I wasn't getting in my marriage about what I was thinking and feeling.

And these are loving people so they were also able to see me fully so when I said, “Here's where I think I'm really screwing up,” they're like, “Yeah, because you guys have an unhealthy dynamic.” So they didn't sugarcoat for me and say, “He's a bad guy,” because we both had responsibility in it.

But I think what really pushed me to make a final decision, two things, one is we were in couple’s therapy for the 9,000th time I had set up, and that therapist said, “I think you guys should separate for six months, take a break, and see what happens.” That happened for me in the context of being in your course. I was in your course and I have these words that of yours that come into my head.

Sharon Pope: I'm in your head, Julie.

Julie Zivah: In a really, really healthy way. No, but probably, if I thought about just the key words that stuck with me, one was stay in your lane, just stay in your lane. Don't try to solve things for him. Just stay in your lane and be loving. I was so centered at that point around not being angry, upset, or unkind but just exhausted.

When I stayed in my lane, it became crystal clear. When I didn't keep trying to fix it, when I didn't keep trying to fix him under your guidance, all credit to you, when I was able to step back and see it for what it was, that's when the clarity came and that came through working with you. Then the other, can I use foul language?

Sharon Pope: Yeah, for sure. The more, the better.

Julie Zivah: You know me, I'm not going to keep it quite. The other thing that happened is you said to me, “If it's not a hell yes, it's a hell no.” Not for the marriage itself but for the tiny decisions along in my day where if he did something and was asking something of me that was what, at the time, felt unreasonable, it was a hell no in a loving way.

I didn't use that language in my marriage but for myself in my own head. So staying in my lane and hell yes and hell no, those were big things I carried with me. But it was your program that gave me the clarity to see what was actually happening.

Sharon Pope: Did you ever get cold feet in a process, like, “Oh, maybe I should just go back and make it fine. I know how to do this. I'll just do all the things again”?

Julie Zivah: You know, Sharon, to be really, really clear, I have cold feet today even all the way through this whole thing, not cold feet that I shouldn't have done it but as I think we'll end up talking about, it's a pretty high-conflict situation and I have no regrets at all but I get cold feet about daily interactions and conversations I still have to have because I still have to interact, this is still the father of my children. Like I said, your voice in my head, it just carries with me, it keeps coming thankfully. I've done a lot of other work as well. Does that answer your question?

Sharon Pope: Yeah. I think what you're talking about though, maybe it's cold feet but it's more like anxiousness or a little like, “This is tough. This is still tough. This is not easy.”

Julie Zivah: It’s the old pattern that comes back for sure. If you think about cold feet like when I actually had made my decision, it took me months to formulate my words. It was a little bit of cold feet, it was a little bit of like, “Am I actually going to do this after thinking about it for almost a decade?”

Sharon Pope: I mean, that's a big deal because it's one thing to talk about it, it's another thing to think about it in your head, and it's a whole different deal to say those words out loud, and then really begin walking through what we call the ring of fire.

Julie Zivah: Oh, oh. I danced in that ring for [inaudible]. I wasn't going it alone. I knew that you were going to walk through with me.

Sharon Pope: You have great support around you too, which I've always loved. When you would share those things with me, I was like, “I love that you have really solid girlfriends that will tell you the truth and that will love on you, love you enough to tell you the truth.”

Julie Zivah: And I'm so fortunate to have that. I don't take it for granted for one day and I also have a loving family. But what I had to do is get honest with them. As I got more honest with myself, I also had to share some truths that were uncomfortable with them. But those people didn't leave, and you figure some stuff out, you're like, “Oh, I can actually be me.”

Sharon Pope: Yeah. I can tell the ugly and the people who love me will still love me.

Julie Zivah: Yeah. It's wild.

Sharon Pope: Yeah, alright. Give us a hint here as to when you knew that, “Oh, this is not going to be loving, peaceful, and simple.”

Julie Zivah: In retrospect, it's so funny because it's hard to separate what was happening in the moment versus what my actual reality is, I knew it wasn't going to be loving and peaceful because no matter how I attempted throughout my marriage to present something difficult, I was met with blame, shame, anger, defensiveness and there was never accountability on the other person's part.

One thing I want to say that's super important to me in this conversation is that I am not joining you in this conversation to create a picture of a horrible person. What I’m here to do is to say it can get really, really ugly and really hard and when you come into it with an assumption of everybody is doing the best that they can, my assumption is he's doing the best that he can. I think all of us have childhood trauma, all of us have adult trauma, all of us have pain, all of us experience the difficulty of being human, being human part of work.

Sharon Pope: That's a beautiful way to say it.

Julie Zivah: I think coming at it with some compassion is really important to me, so a little side note there.

Sharon Pope: It's important.

Julie Zivah: That said, I did get the opportunity to set a lot of boundaries around how I was going to be spoken to, for example, over the phone. I set a ground rule. If there will be yelling, I will be hanging up and then I follow through on that.

When did I know, Sharon, the minute I said the words I needed to say with loving kindness, it was met with an explosion, I suggested a separation and was met with an “FU, I want to divorce as fast as possible,” and it has been to fight from that day forward.

It has been, I believe, out of panic and fear. As I mentioned earlier on, I really kept this boat afloat and I was essentially saying to an adult, “Now you get to stand on your own two feet,” and for whatever reason, my shortcomings, his shortcomings in the marriage, that was not happening.

Sharon Pope: Yeah. That relates to what you were talking about earlier where stay in your lane because that might not make sense to people like, “Okay, yeah, one thing is when you go out of your lane, you abandon yourself because you're over here in someone else's business which means you can't simultaneously be there for your business.”

But that other piece that you're talking about is so important. Especially if you're over-functioning and someone else is under-functioning, the minute you pull yourself out of that dynamic, they have to find their footing and they're going to wobble. It's not going to just happen. They're not just going to step up, be the adult in their life, make the decisions, and do all the things because they haven't had a practice of doing any of that because you are doing that.

Julie Zivah: Right, 100%. It will take time to undo the pattern of, “Well, this isn't happening for me because of you. You're not doing something. I was doing something wrong.” That pattern takes a long time. I will say a year and it's been a year since he moved out. I will say, he, for the first time, is volunteering at my kids' school.

He’s taking my kids to a birthday party and buying a present and my kids are getting the best version of a dad they've ever had. I think despite the fact that we're still having tons of challenges bringing this to the finish line, I'm so happy for my kids.

Sharon Pope: Oh, my God. I love hearing that. It's not the first time I've heard it where literally, it ends up being the healthiest thing for that other person. They may not be able to see it that way, especially not at the time, but boy, on the other side of it, in hindsight, you can look back and go, “These were things that were never happening,” even if you just take the child-father relationship, there were so many points of connection or opportunities for connection between father and kids that wasn't happening because he didn't have to do those things.

Then as soon as you get out of the way, I remember one of my clients telling me, she goes, “Oh, my gosh. My kids have a better relationship now with their father than they ever did when we were married.”

Julie Zivah: And I will say, Sharon, that's one of the most humbling, hardest, biggest pieces of grief in this process for me is that I played a role in them not being able to be connected. I had to move through that. That came and went because I knew I was also doing the best. I have a lot of compassion for myself. We're all doing the best we can so I don't carry that with me like a heavy burden.

However, I want to be clear that that's part of the process you go through like, “Dang, I was in the way of them having that because of the role I was playing,” and you get to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and say, “Oh, I'm going to do it differently now.” They're still evolving in their relationship and my relationship with my kids has changed.

Sharon Pope: Ooh, how so?

Julie Zivah: I really was doing it all before like I was fun mom, I was getting-our-schoolwork-done mom, I was therapy mom. I homeschooled my kids for a while before the pandemic. I did everything. I'm not doing it all anymore and they're learning like, “Oh, maybe I can do this by myself. Maybe I can ask Dad for that.”

Also, it's their age, they're twins and teens now so I'm stepping back a little bit, and aside from this conversation, that's one of the hardest things parents don't talk about is the grieving process you go through when your kids outgrow you. It's good, it's a really healthy sign they're doing what they're supposed to do but my relationship with them now is [nitzy] during the day, but they probably wouldn't be cool with too many people going.

Also, what I can say is because of the way I think I carried myself through this process and probably their life, but especially during this difficult time, I have never spoken ill of their father to them, I have never put them in the middle of anything and I have worked really, really hard to be honest with them without oversharing. My kids will come to me and say, “Hey, Mom, we've got a problem.”

When there's something amiss, they will come and say, “Hey, Mom, I screwed up” without fear or “Hey, Mom, this doesn't fit right.” They're not afraid to come to me and say, “Hey, I'd like to spend some more time with my dad.” Inside, Sharon, I crumble a little bit when that happens because I'm like, “What about me?” Outside it's like, “Oh, cool, let's figure out how we can make that happen.”

Sharon Pope: Yeah. I have a good friend who has a saying or a phrase that she'll use oftentimes and she told me, she goes, “When you go through a divorce, you will be challenged a thousand different ways around the do you really put your kids first? Do you really put your kids first?”

Even what you're talking about, that little, “Hey, I want to spend some more time with Dad,” and it feels like a punch to the gut, but you don't show it because you want them to have a healthy relationship with their dad just like you want them to have a healthy relationship with you and everyone else in their lives.

One of the things that she says is people will always say, “I'll run in front of a bus for my kids,” and she's like, “Really? But will you be kind and compassionate to your ex-husband for the benefit of your kids? Will you give them the benefit of the doubt? Will you say they're doing the best they can even when it looks like a sh*t show, they're doing the best they can?” It's okay.

Julie Zivah: I've been so honest in a sense with my kids too around like, “Hey, guys, today I'm not my best self. Divorce is a really tricky thing. We got to deal with courts, lawyers, and just stuff and it's a lot to think about. I've had so many meetings this week and I'm tired. I just want you to know that's why I'm not my best self. It has nothing to do with your dad, nothing to do with you. It's just a lot because of our system.”

I do explain enough about the system because that's true that the system is challenging and then they know it's really not about our family dynamic because we're still a family, we just look different now.

Sharon Pope: Yeah. Oh, my gosh. Thank you for saying that because I think that gives people permission to not always have to put on the happy face and fake it in front of their children. Because I also think that there's this balance between are you lying to yourself and/or them?

Like, “No, everything's fine. It's just great” without putting adult burdens on children who don't have fully formed brains, who have no capability to wrap their minds around an adult relationship that's been together for 20-plus years and the challenges associated with that. We don't have to yank them into adulthood and smack in the middle of our relationship and yet it's okay to have a bad day and just own it. I think that is a really powerful thing for children to see their parents as human beings.

Julie Zivah: Oh, 100%. I think it builds up trust too, like if I go to them and just say, “Hey, here's what's going on with me,” then they learn that that's a normal thing to do and then they'll come and talk to me.

You asked me a question earlier though and it's making me think of something else if you don't mind me switching just a tiny bit. Parents, this is just hard but I think where we do have some influence is I go back to that saying that each child in their lifetime needs one adult to help them feel like they matter, they belong, and they have influence in their lives. They need one adult.

You can look at that and say, “Well, okay, I need to be that adult because my ex is who they are,” but the truth is that means you don't always have to be that adult. I can be that adult most of the time but when I'm having a bad day as you're saying, I can let someone else carry that. It could be grandma, it could be uncle, it could be their dad, it could be our friend. It takes one adult that's consistent in their life to do that.

I rely on that. Then the other thing that I rely on, this goes back a little bit to the high-conflict piece, is I can teach my kids life skills so that when my partner is not managing his own emotions with my kids, they know how to handle that so they don't end up 20 years later going, “I was being manipulated.”

This high-conflict piece that we were talking about, it's really important that we not only stay zen ourselves but then we're co-regulating with our kids and teaching them how to manage difficult people.

Sharon Pope: Yeah, because they're going to come up against difficult people. Not everyone is easy to love like you all. The kids can be easy to love, not everyone is as easy to love.

Julie Zivah: Well, and that piece I just mentioned about co-regulation is people aren't always easy to love but it's a lot easier to love someone who's not lashing out at you.

Sharon Pope: For sure.

Julie Zivah: Children are very hard to love sometimes. It’s our job though, right?

Sharon Pope: Yeah. Real quick, before we move into the high-conflict piece just because you brought it up and I am fascinated by it, I'm curious to know if this experience, because I believe it had to have, but did this experience change your parent-coaching practice in any way?

Julie Zivah: Oh, yes, 1000%. As you know, my background is I'm a dietitian so I was doing mostly parent coaching around feeding dynamics and feeding therapy. This experience however really helped me broaden that because the parents I was engaging with were having issues beyond feeding, which I've known for years and years and years and I really just reframed it to parent coaching because it's all the same thing.

It boils down to exactly what you talked about like the feeling heard, seen, and loved. That's it. That's the secret sauce for kids. It's a secret sauce for, as you would say, people in a relationship.

Sharon Pope: For human beings.

Julie Zivah: If you want to be in a relationship with other human beings, that's what we're all looking for, so 100%. I'm a firm believer that lived experience really is the pathway to coaching and now that I've had this lived experience, I'm working with a couple of people who are navigating their decision to stay or go, and specifically related to their children.

I think you go through life, things call you, you follow the light, and you go toward it, I mean not in a dead way, [inaudible] I didn't mean it that way, but you just pay attention and I think the work I did with you kept me grounded enough that I could pay attention.

Sharon Pope: Okay, well, let's go there. Let's talk about the high-conflict piece.

Julie Zivah: Yes. I went out of my way to work through a collaborative divorce. What I learned through that process after 10 months was that I had erroneously engaged in a process with a high-conflict personality. What that means is that the other party was not able to operate in a collaborative manner.

What ended up happening is they didn't choose to show up after 10 months of work, attorney fees, a collaborative process, which for people who are able to pull it off, I highly, highly recommend it. I think it's really important work to keep people out of courts. I think it's better for families. I don't want to undermine collaborative divorce at all.

However, for people who are in a situation where there are unmanaged emotions, there's defensiveness, there's berating, there's shaming, blaming, and punishing, there's an inability to answer emails, a lot of factors, I do think that it might be a feudal effort or at least something we're discussing with a collaborative person to find out if it's the right path for everybody.

It turned out I went through the whole thing, I thought we got to the finish line, we made agreements with each of our respective attorneys, we had a signing date, I signed, he didn’t show up to sign. So we started all over again with a non-collaborative divorce.

Sharon Pope: And that was 10 months in, or was that longer?

Julie Zivah: No, that was 10 months in. I think that the signs were on the wall, I was just continuing to refuse to see them in a lot of ways. I was still expecting it could be different. I could still negotiate with this person rather than stepping back and not trying so hard. As you talk about often, I was still over-functioning big time and I had to just let it go.

I had to let go of so much. I tell you, Sharon, the day I just met with my new attorney and I said, “Here you go. Good luck,” I changed my name at that point. I got on with my rebranding of my business. I just started moving forward. I started living my life.

Sharon Pope: That's so smart. I often tell people, it's like you engage with an attorney when that feels like the right next move for you but then I find so many people still carry all the stress, all the struggle, what should be done next, I need to make sure they're doing it. I'm like, “You're paying them a lot of money. Let them carry this for you. They're the experts in this. This is negotiation and paperwork.”

I think you did the most healthy thing which is just like, “Let me get back in my lane here now. This is going to eventually come to an ending.” Eventually, it has to come to an ending. It's just a matter of how and when. I do promise, it has to eventually come to an end.

Then you just started moving your life forward in a productive way. It wasn't an FU way, it was like, “Okay, someone else is going to manage this now. I don't have to do a lot of this heavy lifting. Now I'm going to focus on me a little bit.”

Julie Zivah: Yeah. How am I going to take care of my house? How am I going to take care of my kids? It would be dishonest to say I don't spend any time and energy on it anymore, it's still a ton of time energy, but on the daily, I don't have to manage it if that makes sense. It's created a lot of space for me to work more and I really enjoy my work. I'm fortunate in that regard. It's allowed me space to just go hiking with my kids. It's allowed me space to engage more socially, to travel with my friends, things that bring me joy.

Sharon Pope: You go see Pink.

Julie Zivah: Go see Pink twice or three times in one month.

Sharon Pope: Oh, my gosh.

Julie Zivah: I'm taking my daughter, yeah. I think we were talking a little bit about the high-conflict piece, and I think the word that came to my mind when you asked me that is just acceptance. Accepting it is what it is. I have to accept that I can't have it the way I want it.

Sharon Pope: Yeah. Byron Katie says, “Every time you argue with reality, you will lose.” This is the reality of the situation.

Julie Zivah: Absolutely, and it's once you let go of the piece about it's a bad person and you do things with love in your heart and kindness--

Sharon Pope: Okay, what does that look like? Seriously, what does love in your heart and kindness look like when you're going through a really difficult divorce? Give some sense of how does that show up? What does that look like?

Julie Zivah: When you get a message, a text, when you get something like that that is adversarial, your reply is calm, timely, and focused. What I did is I ended up studying with the High Conflict Institute with Bill Eddy who wrote a great book called Splitting, another great book for kids called Don't Alienate the Kids! Just some great places to go if you're in a high-conflict situation.

I got so into it that I ended up becoming a coach for people going through Bill Eddy's program. I meet with people, and that can actually be a court-mandated parenting program in some states, not where I live, but it's a great program for anybody and it's inexpensive. It's like $49. So compared to other parenting programs out there, it honors the fact that divorce is expensive. In any case, I digress because I do. But one thing I learned from Bill Eddy and other people is something called a BIFF Response, which means your response is Brief, Informative, Firm, and Friendly.

Sharon Pope: Brief, Informative, Firm, and Friendly, I like it.

Julie Zivah: I'm not thinking of a good example, I'm just going to make one up but if the text said something like, “You didn't bring back Sarah's lunchbox from your house so now I don't have anything to pack in their lunch,” my reply can be, “Thanks for letting me know.”

Informative can be like, “I can drop the lunchbox off at noon.” That was informative. The Firm part is “I was unaware that the lunch box needed to be there. If you need me to do that, please let me know ahead of time.” And Friendly, “Thanks so much. Have a nice day.”

Sharon Pope: There you go.

Julie Zivah: It's called a BIFF Response and it's so pivotal.

Sharon Pope: I would imagine that even after sending that text, you're able to just take a breath and go on about your day. You're not like, “Oh, how dare he? Who does he think he is?” You don't carry all that gunk around.

Julie Zivah: Absolutely. You're taking your power back. You solved the problem. You set a boundary that was kind and you also put in an action plan so that you're asking for something to be different next time without telling someone what to do and with zero expectation that their behavior will change because you can't have that because you're only in control of your own behavior.

I cannot control when the reply is going to come, if they're going to follow the protocol we agreed to. We have agreed to so many things that just don't happen. So I have no expectation that they will happen and yet I keep getting the opportunity to say, “Here's what I will do,” not “Here's what you need to do differently.” That BIFF Response just gives me that tool to say, “Hey, okay, here's what I'm going to do. Here's what I have control over. You do you.”

Sharon Pope: I love that. You said something that is so important which is you can only control yourself, you cannot control other people, which we all know but it doesn't stop us from trying to control the circumstances and people in our lives. Can you give a sense for how you were able to keep your peace?

It's not like you never take a dip, you never get upset, you never get frustrated, you never get sad, or any of that, it’s just like how did you keep your peace when things got really tough?

Julie Zivah: Alright. You said I could use my language. As you know, I came up with a little mantra during our time together and my mantra was I am zen as f*ck. I also had another mantra, which was I will not drown in your melancholy.

Sharon Pope: Good. I'm not sure I heard that one.

Julie Zivah: Those two mantras “I am zen as f*ck” and “I will not drown in your melancholy” because there was some melancholy going on and I didn't want to be part of it, I was choosing joy, so I have a mantra, I journal religiously. I'm not a religious person.

Sharon Pope: Journal all the time.

Julie Zivah: I also started studying some somatic work, some body-experience work. I had done some of that professionally as a dietitian and in some of my other work around the [inaudible] of awareness and how our body really is the tool that we have to heal our brains.

If we're having pain in our shoulder, our back, or whatever, we try to use our brain to heal it but if reverse that and we use our body to heal our brain, we can much more quickly get back into a state of a functioning brain rather than a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.

Things like tapping, things like rolling on the floor, things like dancing, lots of dancing. Just anything to get me into my physical body. Yoga, I like to pretend to run but it's more like a waggish waddle at this age but it's all good. A lot of movement and physical things.

I've also been in therapy. I did not do this alone. I can call a friend. I could do lots of things. It takes a process. I think you also have me write down, during our time together, I had two really important lists that I still reference to this day. One is you had me list the reasons why the relationship was not sustainable. What had happened to me over time that gave me clues of why it wasn't working, why the patterns were unhealthy.

So when I have those moments of doubt like he'll yell at me and that younger part of me will come out and I'll be like, “Oh, I did the wrong thing. I messed up here,” I go back and I look at that list, I'm like, “Oh, I didn't mess up. That's the pattern.” So I do that.

The other list I have is things I can do when I'm upset. I have those actually taped to a wall. I worked with you as a coach to say, “What can I do?” In the moment when my brain is upset and I am having a response, I'm not trying to figure out what to do in that moment, I already have a plan. That's been so pivotal for me because then I don't have to be like, “Okay, this time I should get out some essential oils.” I already know that's an option because I just have to look at the list.

Sharon Pope: The thing is it's so important to have tools. It's not just about like, “Let's just see where the process takes me.” But if you want to be intentional and a little bit more in control of your experience including your emotions and your emotional well-being moving through this, you need tools around you in terms of “Where can I turn when things get hard?”

Julie Zivah: 100%. It's also so important the way the brain works. You have to practice those tools when you're not in a fight, flight, freeze, fawn response. You can't just practice them when you're upset because you're trying to rewire your brain. You have to practice them when you're pretty zen, when you're pretty chill like, “Oh, I'm going to do some yoga today just because it feels good,” and then your body learns the pattern of “Oh, I can use that to chill out or to get back online with my brain.”

I hear people talking about working on themselves or doing the work, or people say, “Oh, you should really do some self-care.” I know you are aligned with it but I really hate it when someone tells me to go take care of myself, like awesome.

Sharon Pope: Right. What does that even mean? Of course, I take care of myself.

Julie Zivah: Yeah. It's not going to a spa, it may be a tiny thing like not engaging with a text for 10 minutes, that might be [inaudible]. I think that the more you can practice this stuff and it works I think for people who choose to stay as well because you're going to need those tools as a human. We're just human beings.

Sharon Pope: That's right. Human beings out here humaning, doing the very best we can. What would be one thing that you would tell someone who's staring at that ring of fire that we talk about, and they know that this is the right answer but they're just terrified and they suspect that their partner will not maintain this peaceful loving approach? What would be one thing you would tell them?

Julie Zivah: Oh, just one?

Sharon Pope: Well, or two or three, whatever.

Julie Zivah: Gosh, what a great question. I would say don't go it alone.

Sharon Pope: Community is so important, knowing that you're not alone.

Julie Zivah: Yeah. I think it helps to have people that know you really, really well. I think it helps to have people that don't know you since your youth. I think coaching matters. I think therapy matters. It was a whole package for me. I just have to pause for a moment to say what a privilege I have that I was able to provide that for myself.

However, regardless of where I am financially now, one of the first things you said to me is “I want this to be the best money you've ever spent on yourself,” hands down, no question. Going into that ring of fire, I would say invest in yourself whatever that looks like, be it getting more family and friends on board, be it taking whatever you can to bolster yourself to get through the ring of fire before you jump into it matters.

Go in with a plan. Go in with practicing your language. All of those steps really, really paid off because when the reaction with a high-conflict person was not what we might have hope, I just let that pass through me. I did not react to it because it was so well bolstered. That would be it. Just take care of yourself enough so that you can go into it.

I think Brené Brown says, “Strong back, soft front, wild heart.” That's the posture to take into it. That would be my response. If you're feeling like you still need to get to that place, ask for help. Human beings are not meant to go these things alone.

Sharon Pope: Right. We're not built for this. We shouldn't be experts in it. You haven't done this before or even if you did, you've done it like once and this time will be different no matter what. So yeah, there's no shame and just saying, “I need some help. I need some support around me right now.”

Julie Zivah: I was shamed with, my parents are divorced, “You're just like your mom. I knew you’d do this,” name call, name call. I just was able to turn around and say, “I am strong like my mother. I really admire her for standing up for herself.” I also had some thinking about myself that was really powerful that I could use.

Sharon Pope: Yeah. You get to choose that. You get to choose. He can say, “You're just like your mom,” and you can say, “Yeah. I absolutely am in many great ways.” I know everyone's going to want to know where are you now, how are you doing, how are the kids doing. I know it's still in process.

Julie Zivah: We are not going to sugarcoat things, Sharon. It's still a daily something that shows up in my journal every single day. I am not technically divorced. We have reached one piece of our settlement through a 13-hour mediation, which is unheard of. But when you are engaging with this type of situation, be prepared for it to be unconventional.

Things may go very slowly. Things may go really fast, I don't know. But my experience was it has gone slowly. There needs to be a lot of handholding sometimes. There needs to be a repeat like, “Oh, here's step A, just do first thing, then do step B.” The attorneys can handle all of that.

There is a tendency in the divorce world right now in my experience for people to really want to label people like, “Oh, that guy's a narcissist. That guy has a personality disorder. That woman is off her rocker,” whatever it is. One of the most powerful things that worked really well for me was never to label anyone something I don't know.

I am not a psychologist, I am not here to speak to their experience at all. All I can speak to is what's happening in my experience. One thing that is super freeing for people is to let go of the label, it doesn't matter. It absolutely doesn't matter.

Sharon Pope: Right. He’s bipolar, he has Asperger's that has never been diagnosed but you've diagnosed them.

Julie Zivah: And it could be nothing, it could be trauma, I mean that's not nothing, but it could be not a diagnosable thing. Where I am today is just leading with compassion like, “Oh, this is happening for a reason. Everybody's doing the best they can.” I am not divorced. I have something unimaginable in my life which is I have a 50-50 parenting plan.

That's in process still, we haven't finalized it but we listened to what our kids wanted and I went from being the primary parent doing everything, as I said earlier, this guy was not participating and I thought when I said it was over that the kids would stay with me until he got it together.

We did do a little bit of a gentle increase over time but the kids are week on, week off with Mom and Dad. It broke my heart initially because I was used to being with them all the time. It's one of the reasons I felt like I couldn't leave, and now I can just see them thriving and it's okay.

One of my fears was that they would have the experience with him that I did that he would continue to berate, belittle, feel small in front of them, and then that hasn't happened after about a year's time. It did happen for a while, the kids were put in the middle. That's gotten so much better.

Where I am today is we're splitting our time. I’m still working with an attorney and needing to pay for that. I'm working more. I am living more of my best life. I will say that when you are not yet divorced and don't have the paper, dating is challenging. I don't choose that right now.

Men don't really want anything to do with women who aren't really divorced, and understandably so. I wouldn't choose that on the flip side. My kids are good. They're communicating. My 16-year-old has a driver's license. Life has gone on.

Sharon Pope: Yes. Oh, that is so great to bring it to a close. Life has gone on. Life is going to keep rolling. It doesn't stop for anything or anyone.

Julie Zivah: Yeah. And some days, today I got an angry text out of the blue for something that was not in my control and I was just able to say, “Ooh, gosh, I'm sorry that happened.” This was another option on my end and that was it.

Sharon Pope: I love it. Julie, thank you so, so much, seriously, for sharing your experience with such a big open heart. You know I love and adore you and appreciate you in so many ways but I love also sharing your brilliance with my community so thank you.

Julie Zivah: Well, thanks, Sharon. Well, I would be remiss not to say that I would not be having this conversation if you had not helped save my soul so I am so indebted to you in a heartwarming way like in a loving way, not like I would jump in front of a bus for sure.

Sharon Pope: No one's doing that.

Julie Zivah: No one's doing that. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I'm so honored now to know you as a human. I found you as one of my people and I'm so grateful that you were able to see me, see my experience, and see what was happening for me because you had your own experience and your own wisdom and working with people. I just felt so seen by you and I still do to this day.

Sharon Pope: It is my privilege to see you, my darling.

Julie Zivah: Yes.

Sharon Pope: Alright. Thank you so much. I appreciate you taking this time. Alright. We'll talk soon, honey, love you.

If you're listening to this podcast because you're struggling to decide whether to stay or go in your marriage, and you're serious about finding that answer, it's time to book a Truth & Clarity Session with a member of my team. On the call, we'll discuss where you are in your marriage and explore if there's a fit for you and I to work together so you can make and execute the right decision for you and your marriage. Go to clarityformymarriage.com to fill out an application now.


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