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Cooperation During Divorce Negotiations: Guilt and Shame Matter

Let’s face it: Many marriages end. Divorce occurs for a variety of reasons, but regardless of the cause, ex-partners often need to negotiate with one another during the divorce process. For example, if there are kids in the picture, how is custody resolved? How does the couple divide up their friends? Who gets to keep the reality TV show that helped pay the bills?We’re talking to you Jon and Kate Gosselin (and Hulk and Linda Hogan….and Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries...and Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey…and Carmen Electra and Dave Navarro…).

Some of these negotiations can be quite contentious, whereas others can be relatively amicable. New research indicates that an individual’s emotions about the breakup influence how he or she approaches divorce negotiations.1 An examination of 457 individuals at divorce court hearings revealed that individuals who felt guilty about the divorce (e.g., felt responsible; were sorry for their actions) engaged in more of a yielding negotiation style (which involves sacrificing and giving in to the ex-partner) and a problem-solving style (which involves trying to find an acceptable solution for both parties). Those with guilty feelings were also less likely to engage in a forcing style (which involves trying to dominate, coerce, threaten, and bully the ex-partner). In contrast, individuals who were ashamed about the divorce (e.g., felt unworthy; felt like a failure) exhibited more forcing behaviors, tried to avoid the conflict altogether, and were less likely engage in a problem-solving style. In other words, people who feel guilty about the divorce tend to be cooperative during divorce negotiations whereas individuals who are ashamed about the divorce tend to be uncooperative.

Given this bit of knowledge, why do I feel like Jack and Meg White (divorced couple who went on to rock stardom together in the White Stripes) felt guilty about their divorce, whereas Jon and Kate Gosselin (of “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” and mass-reproduction fame) felt ashamed?

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1Wietzker, A., Buysse, A., Loeys, T., & Brondeel, R. (2012). Easing the conscience: Feeling guilty makes people cooperate in divorce negotiations. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29, 324-336.

Dr. Brent Mattingly - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Mattingly's research, broadly conceptualized, focuses on the intersection of romantic relationships and the self. His specific lines of research all examine how individual-level constructs (e.g., motivation, attachment, self-regulation) are associated with various relational processes.

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