EXCERPT: Michele Lowrance's 'The Good Karma Divorce'

Read an excerpt from Lowrance's book about achieving an amicable divorce.

ByABC News via logo
September 28, 2009, 2:27 PM

Jan. 6, 2010— -- In her new book, Michele Lowrance, a domestic relations judge who has gone through a divorce herself, draws from her personal and professional experiences to guide her readers through the steps necessary to achieve a "Good Karma Divorce."

After reading the excerpt below, head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.


How did I end up in this nightmare? I am a stranger to these dark emotions now living inside me. Who am I? When did I cross over the line, and will I ever cross back?

From across the bench I hear the whispers from their hearts. Beneath the fluorescent glare, the parties appear hostile, their arms tightly folded as if in straitjackets. A deputy stands behind them, menacingly, with a gun. These two people, who had once flirted, courted, and exchanged wedding vows, now seem to regard each other as kryptonite. I can see their hands trembling; my black robe often has that effect. Each comes to court with an agenda. Each seems determined to achieve vindication by convincing me of the other's loathsomeness. Then, and only then, can they ensure that the court punishes the guilty party for the personal wreckage they suffered. With the steam of hatred coming off their bodies like smoke from a greasy hamburger, they will attempt to raise children together.

I have been a judge in Domestic Relations Court in Chicago since 1995. For two decades prior to that I had sharpened my skills as a divorce attorney, but then I gave up being a warrior for the "right side," because it became clear to me that there was no right side in a divorce. Like "an eye for an eye," the only thing that happened in the end was that everyone was left with no eyes. As a survivor of divorce, my goal was to get through to this couple, and the thousands just like them, before they took the next step forward. How could I implore them to alter their perception of their divorce and of each other? Was there a way to restructure this heartbreaking life template that was being continually played out before me? If I could answer these questions, their lives might be affected positively. After years of experience, the answers to these questions have come into sharp focus, and the results are more profound than I could have ever expected.

What did I want for this couple? I wanted them—a husband and wife who had damaged each other, who had even devastated each other—to realize their anger would destroy them and infect every aspect of their future. I wanted them both to realize that this was what was happening. It finally struck me: they did not yet realize this. They had no idea of the extent to which their anger and resentment would injure those around them, as it damaged their own hearts, souls, and destinies. They had relinquished their strength by relying only on their attorneys and the court system to determine their future, oblivious to their own power over this potentially treacherous divorce process. There, in that forty-foot-square courtroom, this couple would either fuse with their anger, resentment, and bitterness or follow a path leading to peace through wisdom, understanding, and eventually forgiveness. They were facing a fork in the road that would change their lives forever.

'The Good Karma Divorce'

The couples I see in my courtroom are desperately searching for emotional release; they smuggle their pain into their testimony, even when it is not relevant to the topic. They do so at every opportunity, hoping that somehow the court will know how to lessen their agony. In the end their desperate emotions remain unattended and unsatisfied. The sight of couples who participate exuberantly in a demolition derby always disturbs me. In an attempt to alleviate pain, even though the pain is transitory, they lash out, and irreparable damage is done. The court system was not built to house these emotions, and attorneys are not trained to reduce this kind of suffering. Divorcing people expect relief far beyond what the legal realm can provide from their attorneys and the courts, and they often end up feeling like members of a powerless, unprotected class. They are disappointed in their attorneys, and their attorneys are disappointed that they are not appreciated.

In my personal life, when divorced people discover I am a member of the judicial system, they are exploding to tell me how the system has failed them. People want to believe that life should be fair and bad things should not happen to good people. They expect emotional injustice to be righted by legal justice. The feeling that the rules of fairness have been violated leaves them limited choices on the emotional menu. Either they believe they did something wrong and blame themselves, or they think they were in the right and the administration of justice failed them. The unfortunate fallacy in believing that emotional injustice can be righted by the legal justice system creates anger and feelings of being cheated. This sense of being treated unfairly happens not just in those cases in which there was all-out warfare, but even in those in which disputes were eventually settled. Years after the divorce both groups of people understandably still have enduring bitterness and quiet, brooding grudges.

It began to dawn on me that divorcing people were often missing two things: a game plan and a Sherpa guide to direct them from the beginning to the end, while keeping them from falling into the crevasse on the treacherous journey. After all, how could anyone be expected to know the best way to unravel a marriage? In many ways my job is not just to decide futures or manage chaotic emotions, but to construct a master plan for broken families. What is the best approach to this process that is ultimately life-changing? How could it be shifted from a life-destroying ordeal to a more positive, transformational process? My professional and personal experience with divorce, combined with my studies in Eastern philosophy, led me to consider the law of karma and how to effectively apply it to the breakup and divorce process.

In Buddhism, good karma, or good action, comes back to you in countless ways. If you act graciously with compassion, you may receive compassion sooner or later, although you may or may not perceive it. But as you will see, your act of compassion changes who you are for the better immediately and is not dependent upon someone else's reciprocal behavior. The positive or negative outcomes of karma may not be immediate—they may take months, even years, to materialize—but if every action, good or bad, creates a reaction, why not allow good karma, or good action, to be your guiding principle?

If you are going through a divorce, I know you are terrifed. If you are reading this book, I know you are already experiencing its destructive effects and are looking for answers. I want you to forget everything you think you know about divorce; your conventional wisdom will not serve you. I am going to suggest an approach that I have developed over fifteen years in my courtroom. The latest version, upon which this book is based, has had positive outcomes, case after case, for the last four years. You may think your divorce is unique. You may think that your problems are not solvable or that I can't possibly know your spouse. Here is what you need to know: nothing you can tell me will convince me that your divorce will not benefit from this approach, regardless of the circumstances.

'The Good Karma Divorce'

You may not see another way through this ordeal. You may be too terrified to be open to something different. If you think there is no such thing as a Good Karma Divorce, then you have surrendered to the notion that you will be a victim at the hands of fate and you have no control when choosing your attitude about difficulty. That is tantamount to saying that there is no such thing as benefiting from diffcult experiences, because destruction is inevitable.

As you contemplate how this book might work for you, you may be undergoing debilitating divorce stressors: the feelings of being misunderstood or unheard, the betrayal of friends and relatives, and depression so overpowering you can't even work. Perhaps there is a court order you can't pay or anxiety over the mounting legal bills, and you could be forgiven for thinking that your situation defies improvement. Most of the difficult cases that come into my courtroom start with the lawyers telling me, "Sorry, Judge, but this one will never settle." They then proceed to lay out their cases, which may center on money, children, betrayal, revenge, or any array of other seemingly unsolvable issues. Hopelessness, however, has no place in my courtroom. I simply don't allow it, and here's why.

In the most difficult scenarios, where the stakes are highest, the principles of the Good Karma Divorce are at their most profound. In fact, I respectfully reject the notion that there are any cases for which the Good Karma Divorce techniques are ineffective. I've been involved with numerous divorces in which one of the parties suffers from a mental disorder. Even then, with only one of the parties attempting the Good Karma Divorce principles, the collective suffering and conflict were substantially reduced. These principles, even if applied by only one of the parties, will exert a profound impact on the process, changing perspectives, attitudes, and ultimately the behavior of all involved.

I also want to state categorically that there is no expiration date on the Good Karma Divorce protocol. You might be in the middle of your divorce right now, or you might still be locked in mortal combat over a divorce that happened a decade ago. You can't completely eliminate the negative emotions or rewrite history, but you can discover a way to transform them into powerful thoughts and actions. At the very least, you do not want to compound your misfortune by sentencing yourself to further injury. Divorce does not need to be the defining moment for the rest of your life. I have seen this pain transformed, and considering the law of karma is a good start.

The process of choosing a Good Karma Divorce can lead you to a place of composure, wisdom, and bravery. I know that ideas like heroism, courage, and nobility are rarely associated with divorce or the breakdown of a relationship at any stage. However, I am proposing an alternative to the rigid view that divorce is the failure of an important life experience or that it is a life-destroying force that taints or ruins everything in its path. I know how agonizing the divorce process can be—it is like emotional surgery without anesthesia—but I have found that, because of the pain, people will go to any lengths to get out of it, even to the point of being open to a transformative opportunity. In court I have seen it in their eyes. People really want to have another way to feel or view their situation, but fear has locked them exclusively into survival mode. Survival mode will never deliver anything more than mere survival. You can help yourself, your children, and, if you desire, even your former partner with the principles of the Good Karma Divorce. It isn't just an anesthetic; it is a cure.

'The Good Karma Divorce'

My early experiences have dominated my personal and career choices. Though I was not even three, I vividly remember hearing my parents speaking from the next room in a Miami hotel. They were getting a divorce and had just confessed to each other that neither had any interest in raising a child. "I don't want her," was followed by, "I don't want her either." I burst into their room and with angry tears said, "I don't want you either!" My mother and father were very young when I was born, and of course I didn't understand the stresses of being young parents— I just thought I wasn't worth sticking around for.

I don't need Freud to crawl out of his grave to explain why, when I sense trouble or abandonment in a relationship, whether real or perceived, I pull out the old familiar menu. The appetizer consists of creating emotional distance. By the entrée, I'm gone. My defenses, minted at an early age, are alive and well, and even though I understand this, I have overcome my history only with considerable effort and experience. Often a couple in my courtroom is fighting over who gets the children— unlike my parents, who were fighting over who wouldn't. In the end, the result is the same: neither couple is in the right mood to raise a child.

Divorce leaves its imprint in some way, but must it define and determine your future? Must you step into the old story line and be smothered by a gray quilt of annihilating perceptions?

There is inner pain: "I am a failure." "I wasn't able to keep my marriage together." "It's my fault; I should have tried harder." "I can't protect my children from the pain they are suffering, because I feel too depressed." "My marriage was how I defined myself in relation to the world—so who am I now?"

There is anger directed outward: "I can't believe how badly you're behaving." "You ruined our lives." "You aren't the person I married." "I should have known you'd do something like this." "How low of you to drag the kids into this." Attachment to these story lines promotes a claustrophobic inability to imagine a positive exit from your union. This leaves little room for any ending other than one tinged with resentment, bitterness, and even hatred.

In some Asian philosophies, a destructive event or experience is often considered the prerequisite to the attainment of enlightenment. The crisis presents the opportunity to remove a blockage impeding your life's purpose. A Japanese proverb says, "My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon." Believe it or not, sadness and even despair can have a positive effect, if those feelings ultimately loosen your attachment to a relationship that cannot bring you lasting peace and happiness. There's more than one story in every divorce, and there's room for more than one ending, if you make the effort with—or even without—your partner.

Too often, people think that being nasty, losing trust, acting angry, and feeling disappointed are as necessary to the process of divorce and separation as getting wet is to swimming. That view is reinforced by society throughout popular culture—in newspapers, on television, and in movies—everywhere divorce is depicted. But I believe we can create a culture in which divorce and separation, although absolutely not desirable, may be looked upon as an opportunity for transformation.

'The Good Karma Divorce'

Just because you're divorcing, your spouse isn't going to evaporate and cease to be. Particularly if you have children, this person will likely remain in your orbit and continue to walk the same earth you inhabit. You may think you are permanently leaving your spouse behind as you move forward into the next phase of your life, but the truth is that nothing—and no one—really gets left behind in an absolute way.

All of your shared experiences with your spouse—from tears of joy to tears of sorrow—make an indelible mark on your soul like a handprint in wet cement, whether you want them to or not. There are billions of people on earth, but you will come into contact with only a handful of them and have deep relationships with just a few of those. If you see yourself as a planet, whoever comes into your life is part of your solar system. A spouse with whom you share your life, for however long, is a major part of that solar system. Pain and suffering result when you tell yourself that the memory of your former spouse has no significance in your current life. The soul and the heart both know better, and in this tug of war peace may be elusive. Even long after you separate and divorce, this person and you will share a certain gravitational pull, and any children you have together will be permanent fixtures in your shared solar system. You can't fight that, and you may not be able to quiet the negative feelings that come up whenever you orbit too closely to your former spouse (even if you live thousands of miles apart).

Can you say unequivocally how your life is going to turn out? Isn't it possible it may turn out differently than the lamentable predictions made during this difficult time? Can you say your story line of the breakdown of your marriage is absolutely accurate? You can navigate crisis in a way that is life-enhancing, productive, and optimistic. To emerge from your breakup with this result, you will have to choose the road less traveled, to be different from those who experience divorce as complete destruction. You will find within yourself qualities and strength you didn't know you had. In accessing the power of understanding, gaining insights and patience, you will find yourself stretched well beyond who you knew yourself to be. These qualities might seem antithetical to the divorce process, and you might feel inclined to save these for a more worthy mate. But fortunately, you do not have to wait for your divorce to be over to uncover this new power and confidence. You can begin relieving your pain while enhancing your strength right now.

You might be anywhere in the separation or divorce process—from the very beginning to the "It's final" point. You might have a former partner you never or rarely speak to or one who communicates regularly and even cordially with you. (Communicating with your spouse or former spouse is not necessary.) You may be the initiator of this separation or divorce, or you may not even want it. You may or may not be a parent. You may be a grandparent, teacher, co-worker, friend, or neighbor of someone going through a divorce. Whether you were married for four months or forty years, whether you are friends with your spouse or never want to lay eyes on him or her again—even if you have been divorced for years and still haven't found peace with your situation, the principles apply. If your emotions are being triggered in any way by the divorce of anyone, this book is for you. You may want to have a transformation or an epiphany, make minor adjustments, or just be relieved from immediate pain. No matter where you are on this path, you can benefit from The Good Karma Divorce. Take what you need when you need to use it and leave the rest for later on, or put it on your bucket list.

'The Good Karma Divorce'

Start with Part One: Creating Your Soul Search Party, in which you will learn how to prepare a Personal Manifesto. This Manifesto is the blueprint that will help carry you through the process. Your Manifesto, which you may also consider a fight plan, will keep you centered and on track as difficult and conflicting emotions and experiences arise that might draw you into a dark place. The Manifesto not only maintains your fuel reserves, but charts your destination. Only when you have a sense of your destination can you know when you are off course. There is an old fable about a frog placed in water that was slowly brought to a boil. Because he could not feel the temperature rising, he made no attempt to escape even as the water became hotter and hotter. Think of your Manifesto as a way of regulating your temperature, so that you don't wake up one day, cooked.

You will need a small journal or notebook (or use your computer, if you prefer) in which to create your Personal Manifesto as well as to answer the questions and do the exercises in Part One and throughout the book.

Part Two: Harnessing the Positive Power of Negative Emotions covers the range of negative feelings that most people going through divorce experience. No doubt you've heard of the seven stages of grief. Divorce brings its own set of stages, but we don't all seem to experience them in the same order. Because I believe that the act of criticism—whether we are on the giving or receiving end—is often the kickoff point for so many negative emotions, I begin with it. Criticism creates cracks in the strongest relationships.

Sometimes we learn to deal with criticism, and the cracks that form are only surface wear and tear; the relationship survives. Sometimes, however, criticism is the beginning of a much more damaging shift in the foundation of our marriage. The hairline cracks of criticism lead to other emotions, such as anger and resentment. Feelings such as depression, self-pity, loneliness, fear, and other aftershocks are covered in Chapter 6, "Mood Lighting: Emotions as a Source of Illumination." How can we turn these negative emotions into power and positive actions? Part Two strives to help you do just that.

Part Three: Preventing Collateral Damage is for divorcing partners with children, no matter what their ages may be. You can skip it if you are not a parent, but if you and your partner have children, they are as much a part of the divorce process as you are. People say things like, "Oh, kids are so resilient," which is code for, "They'll get over it." But an overreliance by anxious parents on this conventional wisdom contributes to a false sense of security that the children will be all right. Divorce is emotionally and psychologically devastating for all children, as decades of research bears out. Sometimes the impact of divorce on children is not seen until adulthood, but then it can manifest itself in many ways, from poor relationships to substance abuse and more. In this part I share my experiences in court and as a divorced mother and guide you on how to parent through these rough seas and protect your children, using the principles of the Good Karma Divorce.

Part Four: Transformative Confrontation deals with the nitty-gritty of courtroom confrontation (or face-to-face mediation) and how it can be handled with good karma. In it I draw on my experiences as lawyer and judge and share observations and survival strategies, including tips on what to say and how to say it (as well as when to stay silent).

Part Five: Embracing the Road Ahead helps you see past the divorce process and into the future. Chapter 15, "Karma and the Recycling of Human Relationships," offers hope, encouragement, and a philosophy for moving forward. The final chapter, "Building a Practice Circle," will enable you to widen your circle of support.

You can choose to remain angry, hurt, and resentful as you move through a breakup and divorce. Or you can do some digging and find within yourself qualities that may be forgotten, just waiting to be taken out and put to good use: your understanding, patience, compassion, and so many others. These traits may seem antithetical to those you would expect of a couple beginning the process of ending their marriage, but they are essential for turning your ending into your rebirth.

The Good Karma Divorce puts all your feelings and emotions to good use, no matter how negative or painful they may seem. Let its alchemy spin the ultimate marital crisis into golden healing for you, your former partner, and your children.

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