Nonviolent Communication Skills and Divorce

“When we understand the needs that motivate our own and others behavior, we have no enemies.”

Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD.

What is the connection between Nonviolent Communication skills and divorce? How do I use NVC if I’m considering — or in — a divorce?

Using Nonviolent Communication skills (NVC) during times of distress, like a divorce, can help all parties stave off the long-lasting damage of intensifying interpersonal conflicts.

Cultivating Nonviolent Communication skills can help you work toward a resolution without violence or coercion, but through a quality of dialog most likely to generate mutual understanding. This, in turn, is most likely to lead to a mutually agreeable solution for all parties.

When divorce has a high degree of conflict, it can also have devastating financial and emotional consequences.

One of the most difficult things about divorce is when children are caught in the middle of a fight between the very adults who are supposed to care for them and provide a sense of stability. Sometimes divorcing parents speak negatively about the other person, in their presence or behind their back, undermining the child’s relationship with the other parent. Blaming, name-calling and criticizing contribute to the erosion of connection, trust, and personal self-esteem.

Even when people disagree, as is considered “normal” in cases of divorce…. if they can begin to understand where each other is coming from — clearly discerning each others’ deeper feelings and motivations — they can move toward mutually agreeable solutions.

In this context, cultivating Nonviolent Communication skills to deal with a divorce situation can help all parties understand, heal, grow, and move forward with their lives in a healthy way.

Nonviolent Communication in Relationships

Using Nonviolent Communication in relationships means, in part, understanding that relationships are vehicles for contributing to needs. In NVC, we understand that both marriage and divorce are strategies intended for meeting needs.

People choose to get married to meet any number of needs. The intention behind the choice varies from individual to individual, couple to couple, and family to family. These needs can include conforming to social norms passed down through generations, love, connection, stability, shared purpose, support, intimacy, and many more!

Similarly, people choose to get divorced for any number of reasons. In some cases, trust has been lost. Or misunderstandings and conflicts have led to a situation in which one or both people experience pain being around each other. But in the end one or both parties have concluded that the marriage is no longer working for them.

Some divorces may not involve a great deal of conflict, but rather a recognition that each person wants something different in life and has a different trajectory moving forward. In these cases, the relationship can be allowed to transition amicably.

One of the keys to getting through difficult conversations — and conversations around divorce are some of the toughest — is to differentiate between needs and strategies.

Taking Universal Human Needs Into Account

In this section we address how to take Universal Human Needs and strategies into account in times of divorce.

In NVC when we talk about needs, we’re referring to Universal Human Needs, also playfully referred to as “thrival” needs (as opposed to survival needs).

Universal Human Needs are the conditions under which any human being can thrive, regardless of culture or geographic location. For example, love, trust, creative expression, belonging, choice, safety, etc. When our Universal Human Needs are fulfilled — and these include survival needs —, we are able to thrive!

The word “need” is tricky because it has connotations of lack, or missing something, that take us away from what Dr. Rosenberg meant when he used the word.

“Needs,” he said, “are how life is seeking to show up in this moment.”

  • Needs are how the life impulse is showing up in each of us, moment to moment.
  • Needs are also understood as Core Human Motivators. They impel us to speak or act.
  • Needs are best understood as energy wanting to flow, rather than a hole to be filled.

That covers needs.

Strategies, on the other hand, are the ways we go about fulfilling needs — and are, by definition, NOT universal. For example, five people who experience the need for connection could desire meeting that need in five or more different ways: one by going to a concert, the other by staying home with their family, another by researching volunteer programs for people with shared values, another by calling their mother, and the last by looking into the possibility of adopting a child.

For any set of needs there can be many strategies for meeting those needs. For example, if three people feel the need for greater safety and security:

  • One person may buy a gun
  • One person may put up a big fence with large, barking dogs
  • One person may get to know all their neighbors to create a sense of community

Each of these strategies is VERY different! Yet, someone could conceivably employ any of these to try to meet their need for safety and security.

Conflicts do not occur at the level of needs because we all have the same universal needs. Needs are not and cannot be in conflict, because they never refer to a specific person, location, action, time, or object. It is the strategies we personally identify with that can be in constant conflict with the strategies of others.

When we separate our needs from our strategies, and then consciously put our strategies aside for the greater good, we can connect with another person on the level of feelings and needs. This works best when there is a shared heartfelt willingness on both sides to understand (not agree) and be vulnerable in the sense of real or honest.

Once we understand each other on this level, it is time to explore strategies that can meet everyone’s needs, including our own.

One important way to accomplish satisfying needs in a relationship — whether divorcing or not — is by building a healthy support system.

Building a Healthy Support System

Going through a divorce — or even considering it — provides us with the perfect opportunity to work on building a healthy support system.

Divorce has long been stigmatized as a private, family-level matter in our society. This comes from buying into a very dangerous cultural myth that says, “I need to go it alone.” We extend this myth to our most intimate personal relationships, which fosters a “we should be able to resolve all our own problems” and “we don’t air our dirty laundry in public” mentality. Some of us choose to “circle the wagons” and isolate, trying to resolve everything on our own — seldom with positive results. Why?

  1. When we are very close to a situation it is difficult to have a neutral perspective. This happens at work and in creative projects too. Authors use editors for this reason. When we’re very close to something we can develop a sort of myopia and lose perspective. We all have blind spots, and it helps to have someone with a broader point of view than we have at that moment.
  2. We can rarely dissipate an empathy deficit in an echo chamber. What does this mean? When we’re in pain we need empathy. Empathy helps us experience understanding but also functions as a pressure relief valve. When we get heard, truly gotten, we can return to the conversation more connected to what we’re needing and wanting, and also with a lower emotional charge. An empathy deficit refers to a situation in which everyone needs empathy and nobody can give it.

Divorce situations can be like this because everyone is desperate for the relief of being gotten, understood, heard — and nobody’s receiving the empathy they crave. It is like a room which lacks oxygen and everybody is trying to breathe.

The still often overlooked issue is that couples and families exist in the larger context of their communities.

Building a healthy support system within your geographic and/or online community during times of rocky transition offers tremendous benefits to everyone.

A support system can be made up of friends, family members, clinicians, and even the legal counsel all parties rely on to finalize divorce proceedings amicably while meeting everyone’s needs, as happens in the field of Collaborative Divorce.

It is never too late to start building a healthy empathic support system, and the earlier the better.

A healthy support system is crucial to have in place when we need it, but it is incredibly hard to assemble last minute or when we are actively in a crisis.

This is probably the origin of the proverb, “dig your well before you’re thirsty.” The best time to build a healthy support system was years ago! The second-best time is now!

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC for Divorce

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg believed that one of the keys to using NVC for divorce is developing a community of support. People in everyday life need one. Activists, change agents, and leaders need one …and people contemplating divorce — or going through it — also need one.

There is even a field incorporating the benefits of NVC for divorce, called “Collaborative Law.” In Collaborative Law, each person has their own lawyer, but the lawyers are working as a team in order to reach the best outcome for everybody. They will also use other neutral and trained professionals such as financial specialists, child specialists, psychologists, and Nonviolent Communication trainers, as needed, to support the couple in achieving a successful transition.

When Dr. Rosenberg spoke about NVC for divorce he also encouraged us to distinguish between needs and strategies, and to stay connected at the level of feelings and needs as long as necessary before going to a strategy.

Puddledancer Press Books on Relationship Communication

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on relationship communication. Cultivating NVC can help you facilitate healthier internal dialogues, as well as more effective, empathic communication with others.

Imagine completing a divorce transition in a way that preserves amicability and kindness in the relationship!

It’s possible, in fact we personally know people who have used NVC to do this!

Whether in your relationship with yourself, your spouse, your ex, your children — as well as in all your other personal and professional relationships, PuddleDancer Press books on relationship communication give you the tools that, when used skillfully, provide extraordinary life results.


Topic written by Alan Seid, a Certified Trainer, on behalf of PuddleDancer Press for use on

More information on Books related to Divorce

NVC Divorce Web Resources

Click here for Marshall Rosenberg Divorce Articles
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Click here for Nonviolent Communication Divorce Videos

There is a wealth of information on Nonviolent Communication – in articles and videos. Of course we endorse all of Marshall’s sharing’s, however, there are many transcripts and videos created by others. Due to limited resources we do not verify the full accuracy of any particular video or articles created by others, even though there is plenty of wonderful and educational information on the web.