Your Divorce Doesn’t Have To Be A Zero Sum Game

Nathan Cliber - divorce is not a zero sum game

Nathan Cliber

By Nathan Cliber – Attorney at Seattle Divorce Services

Divorce doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

It’s common wisdom that nobody “wins” in a divorce. While this is often true, it doesn’t mean that everyone has to lose. The greatest losses in any divorce come from fighting.

The damage done by fighting may be financial or emotional, but inevitably, the lesson of King Solomon holds true: the very act of fighting damages and lessens the things we fight about, which are also almost always the things we care about.

When we step away from positional thinking, when we focus on ways to create value in a situation, when we think outside the box and ask ourselves what we really want, it is almost always possible to find some way for everyone to get what they need.

The term “Zero Sum Game” is used in game theory and economic theory to describe a situation where the gains of one person unavoidably result in losses to another, or in less overall to go around.

One common example used to describe a Zero Sum Game involves cake. Given a single cake that must be shared between more than one person, the example goes, any amount of cake taken by one of those people results in less cake overall, and therefore less cake for each other person. This way of thinking results in every person being reasonably motivated, in furtherance of their own interests, to prevent others from having more cake.

The flaw in that way of thinking is that it assumes everyone’s interest in the cake is the same: to eat as much cake as they can. If that is the case, and everyone’s wants and needs are identical, then the solution may well be to split the cake in half (or smaller if there are more than two people), and share it out evenly. Everyone probably walks away from this with less cake than they want. It doesn’t have to be this way.

In many cases, we can distribute the cake in a way that meets everyone’s needs. We call this creating value. It is possible because, in reality, different people’s interests in the cake are often very different.

Imagine four people, all fighting over the same cake. One person may want the cake because she is hungry. Another might want the cake just because he likes the taste of cake. Others might want the cake without having any urge to eat it. One might like the way the cake looks, another might value the cake because he worked hard on that cake, and wants recognition and accolades. Each is fighting to keep the others from having the cake, because they believe that, if the others’ cake needs are met, there won’t be enough cake left for themselves!

If we take the varying interests of the parties into consideration, it is often possible to meet everyone’s needs fully, or close to it. The person who is hungry may not need more than half a cake, and the person who loves the taste of cake may be satisfied with only a third. The person who likes the look of the cake may need only a photograph to be happy. The person who made the cake might be happy with something as small as a word of thanks and praise, or might need a commemorative plaque.

If we look at things from this perspective, it is suddenly possible for all four people to have their needs met… with cake to spare! This is what we mean when we use the term “creating value.”

Your marriage is not a cake, and this is just an example, but creating value in this way lies at the center of creative, cooperative, and collaborative legal practices, and can be applied to almost any situation. By considering what, why, and how a person’s needs relate to the available resources, we can almost always find a way to use those resources to meet everyone’s needs more fully than if we just divide things into equal shares.

When we stop believing that we lose when others win, and focus on finding ways to meet everyone’s needs, we can avoid the trap of zero sum thinking and preserve the value of the things that are important to us. Even in a divorce, nobody has to lose.