One of my favorite parables is that of the Two Wolves, attributed to the Cherokee people, in which the grandfather explains to his grandson that he has always been witness to a terrible, ongoing inner conflict between two wolves: one full of anger, envy, greed, self-pity, guilt, arrogance, and self doubt; the other full of peace, acceptance, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, compassion, truth, and faith. This conflict is occurring inside every person.
The grandson asks “which wolf wins?” The grandfather replies: “The one you feed.”
Many couples are clear that they want to feed the second wolf, but they often need help to get aligned together and to act in accordance with that intention. Sometimes in just one couples mediation session these people learn how to feed the right wolf on a regular basis, and start to forge an extraordinary relationship.
When it comes time to divorce, the choice of which wolf to feed can be relentlessly present. Fear and anger are common and natural reactions to being faced with radical change and uncertainty. Each partner blames the other for myriad failings, or they are scared of what their partner might do as the relationship transitions legally. What our experience and extensive research tells us, however, is that when people’s choices during divorce are primarily and consistently driven by fear and anger, the outcomes—be they financial, emotional, health, or children’s well being—are consistently and predictably negative.
On the other hand, people who are able to stay grounded in their future-oriented desire to produce a healthy long term outcome for themselves and their children do remarkably better.
Sadly, the first call made by many people facing divorce is to a lawyer who is all too ready to feed the first wolf. Faced with a menacing adversary, the other partner then feels forced to feed the first wolf in himself or herself. The war that ensues is bloody and terrible. Without fail, children (and parents) of such divorces suffer badly; far more than those in families who divorce consciously.
Part of the mission of our company is to support people to feed the second wolf even during the scary and profoundly challenging context of divorce or legal separation. Even when your instinct is to clutch to your possessions, to protect your children from uncertainty, or to raise a wall to ensure your former partner cannot hurt you, if there is a voice deep inside you that knows the future of your family will be better if you feed the second wolf, we will help you to listen to the truth of that voice, and to act accordingly. And we listen for the truth of that voice as well, as independent professionals, to make sure you are not compromising your or your children's ultimate best interests.
A common refrain is that people have to respond to force with force when one partner is committed to war. No doubt, aggressive tactics by one spouse’s lawyer must be met powerfully and effectively, to minimize harm. But what we see is that spouses who can keep their eye on the ball even when faced with aggression from their partner can often reduce the cost and damage of their divorce.
Taking the high road doesn’t mean giving in. It means staying motivated by the future health of your family, rather than by fear and resentment. I am proud to be co-founder of a law and mediation firm that works with people to recognize and commit to acting in a way that will nourish the second wolf, and to help navigate a legal and practical path forward that avoids feeding the first wolf whenever possible.
John Hoelle is a couples mediator and family attorney. Learn more about his work here.