Interview with Gabrielle Hartley, Author of “Better Apart – The Radically Positive Way to Separate”

Positive and Separation are two words rarely used in the same sentence.  But hopefully, in time that will change – with the help of game changing books like “Better Apart – The Radically Positive way to Separate” by Gabrielle Hartley. 

Gabrielle Hartley is a US based attorney, mediator, coach, speaker and author. She draws on over 20 years experience as a family lawyer to share tools and strategies to transform your experience of your separation in Better Apart.  The book is a collaboration with Elena Brower, a teacher, author, and speaker who has taught yoga and meditation since 1999.

I had the honour of receiving an advanced copy of the book and the pleasure of talking to Gabrielle about a topic we are both passionate about.  I wholeheartedly believe in the work she is doing and the message her book shares, so it was a thrill to speak with her about the book and hear her advice for anyone navigating a separation.

What motivated you to write the book?

I grew up with parents who were divorced.  I was 9 and my brother was 6.  We lived between their two homes and had a true shared custody arrangement at a time when that wasn’t even really a thing in the US.  Everybody would always say things to me like “oh, you are so wonderful and well-adjusted given your situation” as if I lived in this terrible situation and at the same time my parents were almost bragging about how great their divorce was.  I don’t know that I saw it as so great, until I went and worked for the Judge who is now more or less the lead Judge of all of New York State for divorce cases– Jeff Sunshine.  I helped to resolve nearly 1,000 trial ready divorces in the Court room and I saw up close and personally how horribly  people treat each other in that arena.  I started to realise that my parents weren’t crazy and the way they approached their separation was actually awesome. 

When my husband and I met, and I moved away, I opened my own practice.  My practice has always been informed by how I was raised and I always put myself in the head of the child.  Zealously representing my client while always considering the impact on the child and reconfigured family. When I worked for the Judge I had a really great settlement record because I was always doing my best to listen with the same intensity that each person wanted to be heard, so I could do a lot of validating. 

For the last 15 years since I left the Judge I have been engaged in a private practice of mediation, litigation. More recently I launched the Your Elegant Divorce platform for divorce coaching.

 I wanted to write the book because I realised one-to-one I could not possibly reach as large an audience.  I was hoping the book would get into the hands of attorneys all over the world and that maybe they could share it with their clients and one another. 

Better Apart illustrates, no matter how bad your situation is, how adversarial and cantankerous the discourse is between you and your ex, you yourself have the power to elevate your own self-respect and bring yourself to a place of peace and strength, so you can use your divorce as a gift to launch yourself forward.

In Australia the Courts are backlogged.  Lawyers and certainly the system is very much trying to encourage people to consider alternative forms of dispute resolution.  In the US is the situation similar and so are lawyers are more open to other options?

Right now in Hampshire County, Massachusetts we have a pilot study going on based on the program in Australia – which is a less adversarial process. It is going really well, but the town that I live in is extremely liberal and forward thinking. Nationally I am not sure that not say that the view of divorce is one of familial reformation. Unfortunately I think the process is still quite aggressive typically.   

There is the backlog and there is some pressure to mediate, just to move things along but overall litigation is still quite prevalent.

What my project is about is not so much how come out through and beyond your divorce regardless of the process.    It does offer questions to ask your lawyer, a robust look at finances and considerations for forming a parenting plan, but it is really to help you get through your day beyond your therapist’s couch and your lawyer’s office.  At the end of the day you are just you and what are we - we are the conglomerate of our inner narratives - which many times are quite negative. Especially when the actual divorce process often creates and inflames conflict.

Who is the book written for?  Who is the person you hope picks it up?

Better Apart if for anyone who has been divorced or separated, works with people who are splitting or has in some way been touched by a relative or friends divorce or separation.  Ideally it would be picked up by someone just at the start of the divorce so that they can take in as they navigate the process. I have been told that not only is the book helpful at the beginning and the middle and end of the divorce, but I have also been contacted by several readers who were 20-30 years post-divorce telling me it feels like they are sitting with compassionate friends or really hearing all their unsaid thoughts and that is really the biggest compliment.  I think it also gives people who have navigated elegantly a stamp of validation.  It is written it in such a way you could flip it open to any section as it serves you.  When going through a divorce people tend to be emotionally flooded and for many people it is very difficult to read a book cover to cover (although you can get it on Audible).  Just focusing can be hard in the moment. Also between the introduction and start of the book I have a section called Pause - Are You Sure You Need a Divorce? There is a lot of meat within the chapters that you could actually use to start to reframe how you interact with yourself and thereby how you interact with everyone around you.

I really liked the fact that section was in the book.  I think there is a perception about professionals who work in the space, lawyers in particular, that we very much encourage separation, when in fact I know in my own practice one of the first questions I ask is what steps has someone has gone through to resolve the issues and whether they are sure they want to end the relationship.  Can you speak to why you felt it was so important to have that section in the book?

I think that some people have the sense that being divorced is easy, and I don't mean that it to suggest it's not the right solution for many, many people however for many others with just a few simple steps we can really radically transform the way we relate to one another. For instance many of us blame our partners for negative interactions or our lives – feeling we are stuck, victims of our circumstance.  But often we are active participants in creating our dynamics.  So, maybe looking at the self-respect section you can start engaging in some hard internal enquiries to ask how can I make myself feel better and then as you start to feel better the relationship will shift. 

Let's say you never went to the gym I will just use that as an example.  Your husband works full-time and goes to the gym.  He takes that as his fundamental right and you were at home with the children and you are working and then you feel guilty leaving the kids.  You say to your husband “you're always going to the gym” and he says “well why don't you just go to the gym” and you say “well I can't I have to be with the kids” but why do you have to be with the kids?  Maybe there is an alternative.  What if you just started to exercise agency in your own life?  You may begin to feel better.

Another tip is responding rather than reacting - slowing down, taking space - there is a lot that many of us can do.  Again I don't mean to tell that anyone you are making a mistake to divorce but only to suggest that before you make this choice, that you unearth all the other possibilities.

Can you give us a bit of an overview of how the book is structured for someone interested in reading it?

It is set around the five pillars or essential elements of an Elegant Divorce which are patience, respect, clarity, peace and forgiveness.  Within each of these elements Elena Brower, who is a world renowned yoga and meditation expert infuses meditations and personal anecdotes as well as some yoga poses that can help you settle and go deeper within yourself. There are five essential elements that the book explores; patience, respect, clarity, peace and forgiveness.  Each section has a writing exercise, a thinking exercise and legal wisdom as opposed to legal advice - it's sort of a bird’s eye view of what you should think about beyond what your lawyer might tell you.  I also have a section where we talk about the different approaches to divorce - Collaborative divorce, mediation, collaborative divorce with a small c, which is just two lawyers who are collaborating, as opposed to a large C which is a very defined process.  We talk about questions to ask a lawyer and how to pick a lawyer.  There is a whole chapter on parenting plans - what to consider and what ideas you might just want to throw away. 

In the parenting section, I think there if there is one take away for your readers, it is that there is no one perfect parenting plan. We are all different. There is a tendency for people to think that the way they’re doing the parenting plan is the way, but actually there is no one way, there are many ways. I lay out considerations of what you really need to think about before you enter into a plan and I raise the possible pitfalls of each approach.  The most important thing from my perspective is that you create a plan which will create as a little conflict as possible, not worrying so much about transitions, but conflict.  If things are smooth your kids will be fine.   I also have a section on financial considerations and discuss assets, debts, liabilities, expenses and income flow and there is also a nice section of resources and books I love and Elena loves.  Better Apart is really a nice compliment to working with your attorney and your therapist.

The book is a beautiful blend of spiritual and legal wisdom why did you feel it was important to set up the book that way?

I came to yoga and meditation in my early twenties. I grew up in the 70s in New York City and I did a lot of hippie stuff with my parents, yoga in barns in upstate New York and that sort of thing. I returned to yoga in my twenties and just loved it.  The whole idea of being settled and grounded really spoke to me. When I saw how unsettled and ungrounded people who came into Chambers were before they were about to go before the Judge for a trial it just it seemed like a natural pairing.  I’d tell everyone at the table to take three deep breaths. The lawyers would be rolling their eyes and I would say “Just do it!”.   The secretary, who was a dear friend would laugh at my unconventional approach. But it really slowed down the emotion and got the cases moving.  

You don't have to be a yogi or a Buddhist or be or do anything you just really need to sit and breathe.  I talk a lot about journaling and reframing the way you think, and taking incremental steps in reframing how you think. We can't change how we see ourselves in the world in one day, but in small bits we can get our energy to shift.  Especially during tough times, we feed ourselves so many negative messages.  We put ourselves down. We are so filled with self-doubt, so filled with shame.

We are only alive, as far as we know this one time, we should feel good and we should enjoy our lives and we should spread that around so others feel good too.  And when we look back on our lives, wouldn't it be nice to be able to look back on a demised relationship and say “you know there were good parts, beyond just the children”.

How did the collaboration with Elena Brower come about?

I knew that I wanted to have a book that incorporated yoga and meditation and Elena and I had gone to college together.  I basically reached out to her and she was very interested.  Elena and her former husband had, what I would call an elegant divorce, and at the time she was talking to so many people because she had a young child and she had navigated it really well.  It was actually a very, easy natural pairing. 

For someone who totally new to practices like meditation, mindfulness and personal reflection and is a little sceptical about them, what would you like them to know?

I would like them to know that sitting and breathing can cool your mind and body and can make you feel better and clear mental space for you to make better decisions. It is really just about clearing your emotions so you can access your thinking brain.  If it doesn't feel comfortable to feel your hand at your heart space and your other hand at your belly or lying down and spreading your legs on the wall just sit and breathe.

I'm really into making lists. I live my life by lists and a list can really elevate how you feel.  Let's say your dynamic is really negative - make a list of how you want the dynamic to be and make the list every day and slowly, slowly you will start responding a little differently.  By changing response your ex is going to start acting a little different. I'm not saying they're going to become a different person, but they are just going to respond ever so slightly differently because you are changing the steps of the dance.  That’s not about yoga that's just human dynamics.

I am a major list maker as well, so we have that in common. I certainly also feel that journalling can be incredibly powerful.  Getting something down in writing, getting out what is your head out, I feel can help you process things.  Based on your personal experience or clients who have done exercises in writing how powerful that can be?

I have so many I've done it so many times personally.  When what I wanted to get married (I was a bridesmaid 15 times when I was younger and living a New York City) I would come home from dates and I would make a list of the qualities my husband would have.  My husband materialised with exactly the qualities I’d written down.  It is important to write the feeling you want from the qualities of whatever you're envisioning. 

Not everyone is so word-based, some people have more visual.  You can just get a bunch of magazines and glue and scissors and a nice poster or a nice big journal and put pictures of places that make you feel how you want to feel.  What you are doing is just remapping your thinking. I have seen real impact from writing down what you want with specificity as though it is happening.  Every time I say that I think I sound like a crazy lady, but it is really true.

I've never made a list with intention that didn't actualise. So even if you don't want to write or draw just getting your thoughts clear can work as well.

I think having a vision of your life beyond the divorce is really important to giving you a sense of hope.  Do you agree that that is something that with clients you work find helpful?

Absolutely. I always tell my clients your present circumstance is not reflective of the rest of your life. This is just a moment in time.  How we going to get through this moment in time, then how can we more get through it and to feeling that life is not just humdrum - because who wants to feel that life is humdrum - that is almost depressing.  Allow yourself to fantasize. Allow yourself to picture the seemingly impossible. You might not reach that ultimate goal but if you don't see it, you are not going to get any way, you are just going to be like a hamster on a wheel and that is just boring.

Another tool you share in the book is mantras.  For someone who doesn't know what a mantra is can you briefly explain and maybe share a couple of the ones you think are the most powerful that clients have used or that are shared in the book?

A mantra is basically an affirmation.  So if you feel really upset, or really on edge - that's the way our clients feel a lot they can use an affirmation like  “I am calm” or “I am radiantly calm” – which is a personal favourite.   Another is “money flows abundantly”.  That doesn't mean you should go out and spend more money, you just tell yourself that money flows abundantly.  With your thoughts, you can remap your energy.

With any of these affirmations or any of the list making what really matters is that you do it regularly throughout the day.  You can't necessarily write a list all day but you can certainly say “I am radiantly calm” when you are going for a walk, when you were sipping your tea.  Signalling this message to yourself over time, it becomes automatic.  Now, when you're on the phone with your crazy ex – and you have the habit of saying you are radiantly calm instead of throwing the phone down and screaming now you say in your head “I am radiantly calm”.  In the heat of the moment you can activate your best self with ease.   You are just going to be that much calmer for having gone through that process.

For somebody who is dealing with a crazy ex and maybe is already in the middle of the process how can the book help them?

Better Apart can help really anybody going through a difficult transition, anyone who wants to feel better. If you’re open to feeling better it’s for you.  Whether you are in mediation or if you are working someone who is impossible, it gives you the internal tools.  This is all about re-configuring, reframing, recalibrating you're inner world, because beyond all of the trappings of our life our days are just the messages we give ourselves - are so we can actually change our lives, our own lives, by changing our messages - isn't that crazy and powerful.

I think it is so empowering for someone to realise there is so much they can control in the process.  Of course you can't control the other person, but you can control your thoughts and your actions. Obviously you are still going to have to deal with the other person but if you have that inner strength, you are composed and calm, you have your thoughts together, and because you have done the work on yourself - it has a huge impact on the way things play out.

I'm laughing a little to myself because obviously you can't control the other person but you can a little – but  there are some things that you can control and even change.  By listening with the same passion that you want to be heard magic happens.  For instance, you may find you can give the other person things that they don't think you are going to give –that creates a positive feedback loop and they start giving you things.  Often times the parties actually don't care so much about the exact same thing it's just we get so hooked in our positions and the lawyers get in fight stance,  but really one person may not really care that much about the house and the other doesn't really care what week they take the kids for summer vacation the kids.  Listening with the same intensity that you want to be heard is the best advice. That is hard to do, but if you focus, you breathe, you tell yourself you are calm and you make your list it is going to get you there incrementally quicker.

If someone feels they have already made some mistakes following their separation and during their divorce, can your book still help them to try and turn it around?

Absolutely.  This is the first moment of the rest of your life! My very first Instagram post of all time was a circle on a soccer field – and is says “you are here”. You are at the perfect spot to begin. You can dive into this book at any point. Obviously the book dives very deeply into the whole divorce process but there are just a lot of cool tips and skills which can help you navigate any separation process, even just a mental separation having nothing to do with divorce.. You might have a difficult parent for example, who you are very, very close to but yet the relationship is very toxic in a lot of ways so the same practices that you would use on a narcissistic ex you could use to help you move forward through your other intimate relationships. 

The Five Pillars again which are patience, respect, clarity peace and forgiveness - pick the one that speaks to you and just work on that one right now, you cannot do everything at once.  I'm the most impatient person that is why I love the chapter on patience. I've been working on patience. I've been told to slow down my entire life and so I find it incredibly gratifying to come out the other side. The whole idea of slow as being fastest is counter-intuitive by any stretch of my imagination, but it is actually true.   

You can be anywhere in the process and just jump right in - take it in small bits or try to tackle the whole thing.  It is really designed to do one thing at a time, because you can't change who you are in a flash, we are created over a period of screw ups [laugh] over many years, so it takes long time to start rewiring our brains but just start the couple of deep breaths and a mantra and then maybe get a journal and start making lists. Whatever thing you do, do it regularly so your new thinking patter becomes part of you.

Finally, what is one idea or key message that you'd like people to take away?

I think that almost more than anything I want the readers to know they are not alone. This such a solitary grieving process.  Even if you are one who wanted the divorce often times it is just so hard not having your kids full time or having that demised family.  I can't tell you how many times in my office I’ve wish I could get together a group of my clients and be like “see you are all feel similarly and it is going to be ok” or “send me an email when you're getting married again”.  But, of course, I can't really do that or say that.  I'm hoping the book let's people know that they have agency and power in their life and that they are not alone.   While we are all individuals and we all have our own lives there are some really universal truths. When we are going through most hardships we must  remember, we are going to be okay.  Your present circumstances does not reflect your entire life. You have the power inside of you to create the whole rest of your future. I like to compare it to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and her ruby slippers, and you’ve had the power all along.

You can purchase Gabrielle’s book “Better Apart – The Radically Positive Way to Separate” on Amazon. You can connect with Gabrielle at gabriellehartley.com