Saturday, August 18 , 2018, 6:10 am | Mostly Cloudy 67º


Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 107) — Oblique Divorce Strategy #5

Oblique Strategy #5 — “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bath (water/wash)” is an aphorism I can’t recall ever not knowing, nor have I ever thought about what it means.

It’s a visual description of an event, but how or why would such an event take place — whether realistically, fictionally or fantastically?

The only baby bath I specifically recall was under the top of my brother’s changing table. It was a white rubber pouch that could be filled with clean, warm water. There must have been a valve to drain cool, dirty water. This was probably what I thought of when I first heard about throwing out a baby with his bath.

“Where’s Bruce?” “I forgot to tell you, he got thrown out with his bath water … sorry, Mom.”

It doesn’t work. You couldn’t get a baby through the effluent valve. I would have had to throw out the baby, the dirty water and the whole changing table, which was a substantial piece of furniture. And where would I throw it?

Oblique Divorce Strategies consist of a number of statements and suggestions for People of Divorce to consider when they feel stuck, which means their existing collection of fundamental beliefs and ideas is either creating an intractable problem or it lacks the qualities necessary to solve it.

The more basic your own idea or belief, the more difficult it is to change. Getting another to change his mind is many times more difficult, and a direct recommendation — whether oral, written or a multi-media presentation — is rarely effective.

An Oblique Strategy is a nudge to help someone start the process of rethinking old ideas. If she’s already taken the leap and begun self-examination, the appeal and potential usefulness of a given Strategy will be self-evident. A person in the incipient stages of change may be best served if the Strategy is expressed indirectly and in a form that sticks in the mind. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” meets these criteria.

I’ve made a casual survey and found no one who hasn’t heard the expression and no one who can think of a useful application.

One person said, “Look at those bananas. Two of the six look disgustingly overripe and should go into the compost. If someone threw out the whole bunch because two were bad, it would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

I asked, “Would you ever think of a baby and bath water when deciding what to do with a bunch of bananas or when giving directions to someone else?”

The immediate answer was, “No, of course not. I was just trying to help you answer your question, and I think the expression can mean different things.”

Socratic discourse can be tiresome, especially when none of the participants is Socrates, so I wanted to get a couple of things out of the way. I asked, “Do you agree that the expression doesn’t make sense, that it’s not something that could happen by accident, and that you can’t imagine it being done by anyone you’ve ever known?”

He said, “I can see how a mother might run into a store to buy diapers and leave her baby in the car for ‘just a minute.’ Then the car slips into gear or someone else slips it into gear and drives away. That’s an example of a bad decision or poor judgment or really bad luck, but, yeah, it’s a different state of mind than you’d have to have to throw out a baby with its bath water, which is more like flushing a baby down a toilet.”

I said, “And a warning about babies and bath water doesn’t serve as a warning about leaving a child or a dog in a car unattended.”

My friend agreed, “No, it doesn’t.” Then he asked me the same rhetorical questions I was asking him. “So why has the saying persisted? What function does it serve?”

We could conclude that to have the power to persist and to penetrate it is not necessary for an aphorism (1) to rhyme (compare, “Early to bed, early to rise …”), and (2) to make sense, (compare, “… makes a [person] healthy, wealthy and wise.”)

Maybe an aphorism that doesn’t make apparent sense can be more powerful if it has the potential for generating insight when you try to figure it out.

Another person I asked had recently seen the expression in print. He thought it was used in connection with the Affordable Health Care Act. The article described unintended and unexpected adverse consequences of the act and proposed that the debate about solutions couldn’t start until a basic question was answered: “Do you want to throw out the baby [an attempt to establish universal health care] with the bath water [the problems associated with the attempt to create universal health care]?” If you want to get rid of the baby, there is no point in discussing the pros and cons of various solutions to the problems resulting from the legislation.

This is a demand for clear thinking and focuses attention on three levels of abstraction. At the middle level are the problems. The lowest, most concrete level of abstraction involves the formulation of solutions to these problems. At the highest level of abstraction is the “project” and “enterprise” without which the problems wouldn’t exist.

A Person of Divorce may hold the belief that divorce in general, or no-fault divorce, is fundamentally wrong. (See, for example, the current film Gett or the episode with the same title in the first season of The Sopranos.) If engaged in a discussion involving the division of property or the creation of a parenting plan, this person’s objections may be made in terms of specific proposals about property and children — but their intended effect is in opposition to the entire undertaking and continuation of the discourse on concrete terms will be in vain.

This is precisely what happens when you attempt to work on any aspect of a divorce with a person who is in the first stage of grief — Shock and Denial. Denial is disbelief in the fact that the divorce is actually going to take place. It’s like trying to have a detailed discussion about the management of a chronic health problem with someone who doesn’t think he’s sick. The insight here comes from turning the aphorism upside-down and seeing that one party wants to toss this baby into oblivion.

This is a Big Picture application of the adage, which can also generate insight about attention to details. A powerful and familiar admonition, especially during difficult times, is: “To chop wood, carry water.” It’s the notion of “mindfulness,” which has been in vogue for the last decade. We are advised to pay attention to the “here and now,” to “be in the moment,” because the “past is mere memory and the future is mere fantasy.”

There are a lot of reasons for the popularity of “mindfulness”; one is that it can produce immediate positive effects. Several people have told me that during an especially difficult, overwhelming time in life, they have found stillness or peace or comfort or at least some temporary relief when giving full attention to doing the dishes.

I’ve been told this because I ask, and I ask to follow up on a recommendation I’ve made on the basis of my own experience. Dishwashing is a chore. With a little spin it can become a thankless, unrelenting, interminable job. A spin in the opposite direction can make it an opportunity to “be of service” and to “get out of yourself.”

For me, doing dishes allows for an equation of attention and success. I know that if I pay attention to how I handle each item — without thinking about what I’ve done in the past or am going to do next — I will take pleasure from the near certain fact that I’ll be doing the task well.

But, and here’s the insight, I could be so attentive to the “here and now” that I throw a “baby” out with the dish water. I could be selfless, clueless and in the moment while washing dishes used by welcomed guests before they leave or after they’ve arrived?

To be warned about babies and bath water might remind me that we wash dishes because it’s essential to the sanitation valued by me and the others using them. I could be very mindful while doing my work and in one way or another work against the collective interest of all the people who use the dishes I wash.

In divorce, a person could be well-intended and highly focused on one aspect of the process in order to get the positive effect of “doing it right” or of “having the full experience,” while oblivious to a concomitant cost that exceeded the value of the benefit.

For example, a spouse determined to avoid “being dictated to as I was during the marriage” could be hyper-vigilant with respect to proposals originating with the Other spouse even when they would accomplish higher objectives, such as equal division of assets and economic security.

Next column: Oblique Strategy #6 — In every case there is a point at which it is ripe for settlement.

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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