What Do We Fight About Next

According to Herb Guggenheim (who advanced the idea in a Mensa newsletter), there are only two social strategies that people use to negotiate: reciprocal altruism, which is an application of the Golden Rule to dispute negotiations, and what he terms “I’m Only in It for Myself,” which explains itself.

The reciprocal altruists abide the French saying, “You send the elevator up to me and I’ll send it back down to you.” The “I’m Only in It for Myself” are social Darwinists who “believe that while the inferior, weak people are busy being nice to each other, they will swoop down and take what they want, when they want, no matter what the consequences may be.”

In the strum und drung of divorce negotiations, the altruist and the Darwinist war within a party even as he or she negotiates with his or her partner.

In a divorce, a couple (and their lawyers) must at some point negotiate the terms and conditions of the settlement – the division and distribution of property and liabilities, alimony and child support, custody and visitation. Couples who can negotiate with each other save a great deal of time and money because negotiations conducted by lawyers become very expensive very quickly. Courts normally approve any settlement that is fair and reasonable.

That said, divorce negotiations often have a very low ignition point. Ideally, a couple negotiates when each spouse’s emotional temperature is equal; that is, both have accepted the divorce. Negotiations are not the time for assigning blame for the marital failure.

During negotiations, the spouses do well to remember the wisdom of a Pennsylvania family court judge who said that a fair settlement is one where neither party comes out happy. Another version of this is a fair settlement is not where neither party is happy but both can live with the result.

Sometimes, despite a person’s best effort, he or she becomes locked into foolish positions. For example, it makes very little sense to argue about a set of dishes that have been locked up in self-storage bin for years.

“If both parties use Reciprocal Altruism, the divorce can be settled rather handily,” writes James G. Gross, a Maryland lawyer. “If both are using I’m Only in It for Myself, then it seems they are destined to have a long and costly litigation. What happens if they are each using a different strategy? It seems to me, the I’m Only in It for Myself strategist will walk all over the Reciprocal Altruism strategist and end up with the better part of the marital assets.”

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